HappenStance Press – 2013 £4.00
Reviewed by Maria Taylor, Helen Evans and Christie Williamson
Chrissy Williams is a poet haunted by bears. She also has a lot to thank them for: their presence has contributed to an exuberant and captivating pamphlet.
In the opening poem, Williams writes that artists exist “to put bears in your head” and bears are serviceable unless they’re “in your face.” The violence and tension that would inevitably ensue if you came face to face with a bear is apparent in Williams’ vision of London during the time of the riots:
People are getting hurt. Television isn’t going
to save us.
Williams’ poetry is often as harrowing as it is playful. It shows what it’s like to be alive in the time of social unrest and Twitter: “it’s okay now, some of my friends / are linking to videos of kittens” while London “is burning”; a crazed mixture of the virtual and the real. This is evident in poems like ‘Robot Unicorn Attack,’ described as a “love poem for a computer game.” Here the computer game itself could read as a metaphor for messed-up relationships:
<x> to make your dreams
crash into stone.
Elsewhere in the pamphlet, events of a mundane nature contribute to sorrow. The loss of a favourite scarf, for instance, leads to wistfulness in a poem (not entirely surprisingly) titled ‘I Lose Scarves.’ The scarves go astray in bizarre situations, such as climbing the mast at Anglesey, or during a long ago “custard eating competition.”
Williams doesn’t allow for sorrow in the conventional sense; she explores life through surreal and unexpected circumstances, using a mixture of familiar imagery and quirky syntax. For example, in ‘The Lost’, an assemblage of lines from translations of Dante’s Inferno:
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
I found I was in a dark forest
I found myself within a forest dark
I found myself within a shadowed forest
Inevitably surrounded by such darkness the poet must conclude, “I knew I had lost the way.”
Despite being lost and crashing into bears, I think Williams is going somewhere deliberately different on her poetic journey. This is not oblique verse by any stretch: her writing shows ingenuity and displays a delightfully irregular take on what can be achieved. It would be interesting to see how this approach might be sustained in a full-length collection. If you are tired of conventional approaches, then read this for bear-rich refreshment.
The cover of Chrissy Williams’ second pamphlet, Flying into the Bear, says: “she can’t be satisfactorily described in a back cover blurb”. The same holds true for a review: this is a pamphlet you’ve got to read for yourself.
Speaking for myself, then, I like her bear-themed poems very much. They go deep, they’re engaging and they reward re-reading. ‘The Invisible Bear’ and ‘The Bear of the Artist’, in particular, stand out. Those poems where Chrissy Williams explores big realities – loss, distance, conflict – through small details also speak to me: ‘Four hours away’, ‘I lose scarves’, or ‘The burning of the houses’, where
People are getting hurt. Television isn’t going
to save us. But it’s okay now, some of my friends
are linking to videos of kittens which must mean
everyone is fine. This is London. It is on fire.
I go to bed while it is burning. I wake up
and parts of it are still burning.
On the other hand, I’m irritated by ‘Green lake’, with its three intentional gaps. The endnotes give “optional” instructions: one web link to watch first, then a second to watch on mute while listening to a third, before re-reading the poem. The first link explained how, when a diamond heats up, all its electrons change their energy levels along with every other electron in the universe, because no two electrons can share the same energy level. And the second link didn’t work for me (ed: O can look like a letter or a number) . . . I’m left wondering whether this poem belongs on a website and not in print.
Flying into the Bear is a witty and inventive collection. I love the willingness to experiment, the extraordinarily impressive range of form and the often-playful style, which includes conversational language, a bundle of contemporary cultural allusions alongside some from the literary canon, and a surreal imagination. But I still missed the point of at least half of these poems – perhaps that is the point? – and I didn’t feel drawn, though I dutifully tried, to revisit them. I suspect I’m just on a very different energy level, and you might well be closer to them than I am. Why not read the pamphlet and see?
I’ve probably followed many poets on Twitter after reading or hearing their work. Following a Twitter feed after reading a poem dedicated is on the other hand rather surprising. But then, as the measured text on the back indicates, almost everything about Chrissy Williams is unexpected.
I first encountered her work at StAnza - somewhere I go as regularly as I can to make discoveries and deepen and broaden my knowledge of the poetry of this planet. Unusually enough, it wasn’t in the form of a reading, a workshop or even a film, but in the form of a cupcake, on which the icing was poetry.
Her name is also so similair to mine that I simply cannot ignore the fact, and am equally incapable of feeling some kind of identification over. So it was with glee that I found Flying into the Bear in the always welcome padded envelope from Fife.
Immediately, we are confronted with poetry that concerns at once our most basic and our highest instincts - ‘I asked the artist to draw me a heart and instead he drew me a bear’. It is too easy to become seduced by the dodge and the duck in poetry - skirting around issues and alluding to them without allowing them the fundamental challenge that they represent. Poem number two, ‘The Burning if the Houses’ does the exact opposite of this - giving a real, meaningful and important account of the rioting which beset England in the summer of 2011 after events in Tottenham.
Williams wears her heart on her sleeve - we are left in no doubt as to the warmth of her relationship with the City of London; the fact that computer games are things she naturally plays on the internet, or that when she describes herself as “half italian” this extends to the poetic as well as the genetic, as evidenced here by ‘The Lost’, a meditation on the opening of Danté’s epic adventure into the human soul.
Flying into the Bear is true to itself and its intentions; gentle, uncompromising and joyously accomplished poetry for the twenty-first century. Fasten your seatbelts. Something powerful is taking off here.