01 January 2011

You Know Who You Are by Ian Williams

You Know Who You Are
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Wolsak & Wynn
Paperback, 77 pages
ISBN: 978-1-894987-41-7
 
Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Naomi Benaron
The poems in You Know Who You Are, Ian William’s debut collection, crackle in the digital space between two cell phones where callers in different time zones talk past rather than to each other. These poems—electric, frenetic, vibrant with love, loss, and longing—confront the way we approach each other in this age of WiFi and satellite transmission. They are poems of communication, miscommunication, and missed communication written in a language that communicates loudly and boldly to the reader. They are also poems of transit: people in transit, feelings in transit, our hurried modern lives and loves in transit. This is made clear in the very first poem, ““Anybody Could Love You? Look at You. Look at Your Face,”” written about a message received in an airport which is, “all droopy, soaked through/with chromatics – blame the drizzle, the night,/the red-eye flight, the slow WiFi.”

From the first glance at the cover, a photograph of cubes that appear to float in black space (all an electric, translucent blue except for a single red one), we know these are poems for the electronic age. Ian Williams' face graces the back cover: bold, smiling, mischievous, and hopeful, rising from a sea of cubes and bubbles. Even the table of contents reads like a poem about life in the digital age: “Not Saying/ Notwithstanding/Not answering/Misunderstandings/Mistakes/West of Boston/Give up/Open/Except you/ Triolet for you/Special/You say it/V/You know who you are.”

It is clear from the epigraphs that these poems explore identity on a scale as minute as the choice of pronoun. From Samuel Becket: “When suddenly she realized. . . words were - ...what?...who? ...no! ... she!” And from Judith Butler: “It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there . . . Who “am” I, without you?” Indeed, in Williams’ poems, the pronouns, he, you and I morph into each other, transmuting, as if our own attachment to them is ephemeral and indeterminate.

A prominent theme in Williams’ poetry is the absence of communication, particularly with those we love. In the poem “Not Saying,” he laments the words not said between two lovers:
Fists in our sleeves, we reach our limit. No way
past Lake Ontario, nothing else to do
until you say the thing you need to say.
Through the metaphors of stasis and limits, we see it is silence that keeps the lovers from exploring, from leaving their side of the lake. Conversely, it is talk—true expression—that would set them free and let them fly:
It’s only talk, and we’ve talked our heads to
foam before, testing the limit in a way.

Like the last time our four feet inched partway
over the city’s ledge. Lightheaded you
started to say something you needed to say

then started again, we could – we can fly one way.
Right over the lake
. How you said it, as if we were two
wild geese, no credit limit in the way. Ain’t no way
I love the image of the four feet inching forward, as if they are part of a single animal toying with the idea of flight, of soaring away. I love the wordplay – the repetition and changing meanings of “way.” And yet, beneath the lightheartedness is a tender nostalgia, a lament for what is lost when we are afraid to speak—truly speak—to those we love. The regret carries through to the end; alas, this poem does not conclude on a note of hope. Instead, we remain prisoner to our fears:
. . .                             Say what you’re dying to say.
Of course, don’t. We’re getting carried away.
We’ll stay this side of Lake Ontario, clenched.
Nous
sommes à la limite de l’amitié
– find a way
to translate. If you won’t say, I won’t say.
Here Williams returns to the images of clenched fists and being at the limit, nowhere to go from here. And so, despite the repetitive rhyming of “way” and “say” throughout the poem, in the end, there is no way; in the end, we don’t say.

In the poem “Except You,” the staccato rhythm and the bold and risky form—right justified lines, dashes, a peppering of quoted phrases—give the impression of communication in bursts:
                                    don’t say– we don’t
say things like _______________ round here.
In the second stanza, people talk around each other and over each other, spitting out bits of small talk. They do not talk to each other:
. . .                                       We tip
the phone from our ear, fill our mouths
with sponge: Have a good night or
That’s it
for me
and hang up quickly, just in case
one of us doesn’t say it or does.
Of course what is not said are the words that end the first stanza, I love you:
                                           Once my grandmother
came close. I saw her throat, her hands, warble.
My grandfather had just come home from the hills
But just as in “Not Saying,” the opportunity is lost: “She never called him anything/except you.” In this poem, however, I see an inkling of hope. By giving “except you” its own line, an echo of the title, Williams gives “you” an identity. Without saying it, he makes his grandfather important.

Williams’ collection is a journey into the land of poor reception, dropped calls, and voicemail left on message machines. His language is sparse, filled with interrupted communication, bits of conversation, like random packets, dropped into the middle of a line. In the poem “Not Answering,” the lines resemble the verbiage of cell phone conversation when half of it is lost:
                               Poor reception, so you say
you have to lean out a window to
Hello? Hello?call, mouth jammed with static, with scorched grass
Hello? That you? and just before you cut out, I call you back,
Quaker-like, my friend.
Williams is in our faces, destroying the boundary between reader and speaker. He pulls us right into the conversation with its constant interruptions and disconnections, its push and pull between the speaker and the person on the other end of the line who keeps fading—literally and figuratively—into the background noise of verse. The tension he creates with his interrupted language and his back-and-forth between dialogue and inner thought left me straining to listen, to hear, to put this parsed conversation into its proper form. Like an eavesdropper on a crowded train, I found myself inventing the story between overheard fragments.

The poem ends with a parody of a recorded message as if the speaker has been disconnected and a machine has come on with that annoying, if you’d like to make a call, please hang up now:
Hello? Hello? Main menu. Press 1 if you want
me to go somewhere. Hell- Press 2 if you want me
to listen hello? to thee, my friend, to thee. Press 3
for more options. 0 if you want me to speak.
While Williams devastates us with his frank examination of our lives, he manages to lift us up with his play on hell and hello and his quirkiness of language. The phrase “listen to thee” echoes a Joni Mitchell song, the next line of which (interestingly) is, “just to see who in the world you might be.”

With the repetition of “hello,” Williams is asking not only the person on the other end of the call but also the reader, Is anybody there? And in the last two lines, he answers:
                             When you call you
will get what you want. Not me. The machine.
The theme of depersonalization is also evident in the poem “Notwithstanding.” Here, the machine is a bicycle:
NOTWITHSTANDING
                                            the sky’s disapproval
you rode 20 km along the Don Valley Parkway to tell me
in person I’ve decided to make myself into a machine.
Again, Williams conflates line and dialogue, creating an interrupted, choppy rhythm:
A machine I say, about to straddle my bike. Hurrah.
Let me know how Then I notice how that works for you our two bikes
nestle antlers. Their turned-in wheels, two lowered heads,
nuzzle.
The woman wants to become a bicycle, but the two bicycles become deer. The humans cannot show affection, but their bicycles do. They nestle and nuzzle – such beautiful and tender words.

The woman rode in the rain to extract a promise: “I’ll be back.” But once more, Williams denies the reader a last shot at hope by returning to the image of the machine:
 . . .                  I will leave now and months from now
I will become undetectable, suspicious, an alarming blip
in your eye’s sweeping circular radar.
Towards the end of the collection is my favorite poem, “Étude in E, OP. 10, NO. 3,” which has bits of sheet music splashed across the page.  Bar 46 of Chopin’s étude, “the hell-with-it bar where Tristesse jangles,” as Williams describes it, serves as the epigraph. This is a break-your-heart regret poem, trembling with tristesse:
The phone interrupts a dark scale, a late
  night glissando down the black keys
    because I happened to be passing
On the other end of the line is someone who has called to tell him of the death of “this woman/no one really knew after 5:00.” The surprise and originality of Williams’ language is wounding:
No one knew how long she was dead
    walking around the terminal
         of some disease waiting for her plane.
He would like to think that had he been paying attention, he would have known, “from her mismatched purse and shoes,/that death was strapped to her chest.” Regret spills from his lines in this intensely personal poem:
    Had I been around, were my hands not full
of tristesse, not practicing the same wrecked bar
   of Chopin, the bar where the whole étude crashes
      into accidentals, the reckless intervals
But the contemplation of the lost opportunity for human contact, the chance to heal or at least help is futile. Williams concludes:
I would have what? known what?
   enough to what? to what? to watch?
The question what? is left to echo like some unanswered plea while on the right margin of the page, bars of sheet music crash into each other and fade into the lines of the poem.

After reading the poem, I listened to the étude, and from Williams description, I knew exactly where bar 46, that reckless, dark glissando, began. I can feel every note of the piece in Williams words. The sadness that plays in the lines reached out and grabbed me. It has not yet let me go.

What I love about You Know Who You Are is everything. I love the bold, slippery slide between the pronouns, the in-your-face I know, and I am not telling who I he you we are. I love the off-kilter beat, the chop of word, stanza, and space that keeps the reader both uneasy and surprised. I love that in the middle of the collection is a section called “Emergency Codes” that tells the story in persona poems of Dre, who grows up poor, black, and without hope in an unnamed ghetto and who somehow in the end gives us hope. I love the inventive style, the sparse, electric language, the risky aesthetic complete with the “buffering” symbol, floated cubes, and phrases in Korean. Williams’ hand reaches out from these pages and pulls, pulls, pulls the heart by its truest beat. He drags us to the mirror and makes us look unflinchingly at who we are. And in the end, he allows us to love ourselves.

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