Badlands, Hugo Williams
Mariscat Press, 2021 £7.50
It’s all in the title
In the title poem ‘Badlands’ two things are happening: a man is sitting on a train reading a book, Rendez-vous in El Paso, A Tale of the Old West. Meanwhile, that same man is also imagining the woman he’s going to meet as if she were a character in the story:
For a second I glimpse her animal self
rounding up wild horses
I’m hot on her trail,
refusing to look up from my book
till I enter the Badlands myself.
The poems in the first part are full of such references, conjuring up the wild sexual exploits of a man in the ‘badlands’ of a city. ‘Bite-marks’ begins:
Are women naked, do you think,
or is it impossible to say
Looking doesn’t help.
Looks leave only bite-marks
down the backs of knees
Is this ‘the male gaze’ galloping unrestricted to some sort of violent conclusion at a rendezvous — his own equivalent of El Paso in the book title?
No. It didn’t take long for me to realise that these are fantasies which somehow never quite materialise — not even in the mind of their protagonist. In ‘Sunset Hour’ a ‘carousel of hallucinations’ has been ‘left on by accident’:
perched on a late bar stool,
her hips and hair and shoulder blades
dawdling for a moment
till the projector jams
and the apparition goes up in smoke,
a silent burn-hole blossoming
where her mouth used to be.
We move through that ‘silent burn-hole’ into the poems on the other side. ‘Badlands’ in Wikipedia is said to be ‘a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded’. The later poems take on a more intimate and gently poignant tone: they’re dealing with a man’s struggle to come to terms with aging.
In ‘Night Starvation’ the ‘I’ makes a cup of Horlicks which remains as a dry powder floating on the surface. And the poem ‘Peace and Love’ ends with a night time prayer:
keep me busy counting chimney pots
while I seek an end to love.