Like Other Animals, Lois Williams
HappenStance Press, 2017 £5.00
The unexpected leap
I was interested in the way most of Lois Williams’ titles belie the content of her poems. Rather than advertising themselves, each seems to feature a relatively bland statement or observation.
Take the poem from which the pamphlet is named. As a title, ‘At the Town Centre Pond’ is low-key, and the first couplet continues in this vein. ‘A young father lifts his baby / from the circle of pushchairs’. This is a round pond; the reader is given an image. But it’s not until the second stanza that a couple of words tip me into the poem’s mystery. The father wears a sleeveless t-shirt, and what the poet notes is ‘the full composure of his arms’. ‘Composure’ is perfect; it does the trick. Unexpectedness continues. A pretended water-brush by the father is almost a christening (‘fake-dip’ is good); goldfish tails have ‘semaphore … encoded in their tails’; and encircling mothers warily notice what’s going on ‘like other animals’.
While this poem depicts an intense parental relationship, most pieces in the collection concern either loss or the provisional quality of life. The unexpected may be introduced by interplay with animals or by an unusual word.
In ’On Diagnosis & The Need to Cry’, for example, the word ‘mesovarium’ occurs in the first line. Similarly, in ‘Off-Season, First Snow of the Year’ the snow begins to ‘anatomise’, while ‘Traffic’ — which could hardly, as a title, be less rousing — makes the switch through information rather than vocabulary, ‘the children / I didn’t have’.
The exception that proves the rule occupies the pamphlet’s central spread, a poem titled ‘On The Occasion of Not Having Gone to the Same Physician as Angelina Jolie’. The poem is prominent for its strong, angered mood prompted by the word ‘castrated’ (once again, at the end of its first line). When used to refer to a human rather than an animal, this term is clearly applied insensitively, as anyone remotely aware of the power of words would understand. Black humour turns circumstance into a situation comedy piece that one would dearly like the arrogant young gynaecologist to read.
Elsewhere, the leap between the expected and the unexpected is in itself a part of these unusual and haunting poems.
When a pier becomes a horse . . .
The deep green end-papers of this debut pamphlet signal the ‘at one-ness’ with nature of the contents. The human condition, with all its inherent frailties, is explored via vivid natural world comparisons and fresh animalistic imagery. In ‘At Dodd’s Hill’ a docked lamb’s tail ‘delicate and unexpected as an aunt’s dropped hankie’ prompts both empathy from the poet for the lamb and the farmhand whose job it was to remove the tail, so much so that she feels ‘the wince / of his innocence leave my body’. Powerful assonance re-creates this pain in the reader.
Unusually, ‘The Longest Pier of the Wash’ views a fallen pier as ‘a shot horse / legs rigid as struts’, an image which remains strongly after the poem has been read. The natural / manmade world collision all around is brought sharply into focus (‘the pier’s thigh or the horse’s femur’) with just this image alone, as it is in many other poems.
This is a pamphlet which reflects in great detail on small moments which are rendered picture-perfect through close and careful detail, such as the one described in ‘At the Town Centre Pond’. A father plays with his daughter in an everyday vignette which becomes ‘radical pastoral’ where ‘…the mothers look up / like other animals’ and man, the animal kingdom and nature as immutably seen as one:
and for a moment she’s cradled
in a tattoo of stars.
Lois Williams deftly covers many more subjects than this in this pamphlet — childhood and childlessness, for example — it is her ability to view our connectedness with the natural world that most resonates with me.
Something that was missing
There are approximately six billion potential points of interest to be found in Lois Williams’ pamphlet, but I hesitate to call this a pamphlet, given how dense it feels and how heavy it weighs — not necessarily in the hand — and how it hangs around in and on the mind a long time after reading (and re-reading) each poem.
The density is particularly striking as the book has large amounts — if such a measurement is possible — of absence running through it, and it’s the absences I want to concentrate on.
From the ‘pink buds / … brinked to unwrap’ in ‘A Bidding’, to two F-15s that make their presence felt in ‘Some Varieties of Light’, things are conjured into place less by their presence than through their usual lack:
Each time it happens I remember when / it never did.
And then there’s the woman behind the counter in ‘Noticeboard in Johnson, Vermont’ — her partner away at war, or the free runners in ‘Buying Tights at Poundland’ who are seen to be ‘leaving no imprint’, or the pier that: ‘collapsed […] / into the tide’s high rollers’.
The list of absences is, ironically, quite full.
This is before we even get to the central absence running through this book: the poet’s uterus — removed after a cancer diagnosis, and how this in turn leads to the keenly felt absence of children underpinning some of the other poems. But there’s also the catastrophic absence of tact and respect from the young male gynaecologist in ‘On The Occasion of Not Having Gone to the Same Physician as Angela Jolie’. Although not the central poem, this piece sits at the centre with the staples running through it and they can barely hold back the boiling anger.
‘Interval’ tells us ‘There is a moment / water multiplies / by light, air, cirrus, salt / to make absence / lovely’, and in the absence of a better way to finish, I’ll say no more than this book has filled something that was missing in me.