Nine Arches Press, 2011 £6.00
Reviewed by Jon Stone, Rob A Mackenzie and Nikolai Duffy
I liked All the Rooms in Uncle’s Head before I even sat down to read it. In fact, its contents are so strikingly visual that it took me a while to move beyond simply looking at it, to regard it as text rather than a sequence of images. Williams’ pieces are reassembled tiles onto which poems are printed and then bullied in all sorts of ways: set running in four directions, grouped, labelled, ringed, semi-footnoted and made to end where they began.
It’s concrete poetry of a sort that’s genuinely pleasing to the eye rather than simply clever, recalling the intricacy of Victorian title pages while also creating an atmosphere peculiar to the collection’s themes: mental illness, imprisonment, the tension between creativity and the strict order of a methodology or regulated structure (social, spatial, psychological). A sense of symmetry works against the frolicsome pace and rich, folksy imagery of the sonnets at the centre of each tile, and the cracks and missing pieces (most numerous at the centre of the pamphlet) seem to hint at the strain on the mind that is governed by these opposing forces.
As such, All the Rooms is not an easy read, and the steady accumulation of wintry detail—coats, crows, gloom, wood and stone—only adds to the chill. The skeins of text around the sonnets act like voices in the head, questioning, criticizing, marking down their own preoccupations. There are some of the signs of a narrative thread throughout the collection (‘Uncle’ is a recurring character within whose mind the narrator resides, for instance), but if it’s anything firmer than a shadow, it’s buried beneath its own devices and sweetly sinister music, perhaps waiting to be uncovered after several more readings.
As an unsettling and highly original work, it’s an accomplishment for which Williams deserves serious praise, and I am, as ever, delighted to see the pamphlet form being used for projects like this. Nine Arches seem to refining their production quality with every release, which makes up for the relatively high price point.
Rob A Mackenzie:
These poems were written on ceramic tiles by an inmate of an asylum early in 20th century Europe. The tiles were smashed and recently pieced together. Their designs, including cracks, are recreated beautifully in this pamphlet. While this is all fiction, it feels authentic, and page design is only one reason for that: an intuitive and bizarre imagination evokes the spirit of European surrealism, and thematic concerns of inhumanity, flight and escape centre on a believable individual’s complex sensibility.
‘Empty Grotto’ pictures the dead who once occupied the building returning as ghosts to dance through the rooms, while the living inmates know only a “mean constraint”. “The classless mad/ Exist from room to room as they did, in a light,/ High-ceilinged prison of leisure.” Those high ceilings, symbolising how apparent freedoms can imprison, echo in ‘Hemipteron’, in which the inmate fantasises on flight:
......Whirring quietly under a high zeppelin
......Smoking and elongated in the hand of the fool
......Who asks why I stand all day in that deep hole.
The distance between reality and fantasy is painful, all the more so given the sensibility of the inmate-poet, intimately attuned to a moth fluttering away when he opens a window to “Untold/ Wanderings. I cannot wait any longer” (‘Enter Visitor’).
Tony Williams employs metre and rhyme, apt for such poems of constraint, but their expression is more experimental than might be expected. Some stanzas could be hard to make sense of, but sense did emerge, often when poems connected. ‘Scrape Sump’ invokes a flying, godlike swan (“White lung, illiterate bagpipe, king of the ponds”), which peruses where
........................the scratches of a claw
......Upon a bank’s wet clay among the reeds—
......Draw out the nightmare of a species whose
......Old inhumanity is come to pass.
Cruel inhumanity is a recurring theme and the biblical “come to pass” could as easily refer to transience as to current action. I was reminded of the earlier ‘Strata Lying’ which begins, “Man drags his nails across the land, and dies,/ And goes away.” Such cross-referencing adds subtle layers of meaning to repeated images. In the first poem, ‘Uncle Imagines’, there is “No hope of help or home or harvest here.” In the final poem, ‘King of the Wood’, the inmate breaks the rules to sleep outside in the grounds, which is “worth chastisement”, and surveys the bean fields at dawn. His oppositional creativity in the face of inhumanity suggests hope of harvest ahead.
These poems resist cliché, energise traditional form, and engage with depths of deprivation and hope. The result is intellectually stimulating and emotionally startling in equal measure.
Tony Williams’s exquisite and visually stunning All the Rooms in Uncle’s Head is one of those rare pamphlets that remind you what little books can do and be, and why publishing this sort of thing matters.
The pamphlet presents a series of reconstructed—and, I presume translated, although the pamphlet doesn’t specify this—hand-painted ceramic tiles made by patients of the German psychiatrist and art historian, Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933).
The tiles reproduced in All the Rooms were only discovered, apparently, when the building Prinzhorn lived in was being renovated in 1986. Most of the tiles, Williams comments in the helpful opening note, “were smashed, but a significant remnant were able to be pieced together with some hope of accuracy.” And what a piecing together Williams has done: each page reads like an act of reclamation, a re-gathering of broken things and lost lives, sad and beautiful and felt.
Recalling various visual poetries ranging from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés to Johanna Drucker’s recent work with letterforms, the typographical beauty of each page is perhaps one of the most immediately arresting qualities of this pamphlet. Each sonnet is surrounded by capitalised text in large font, which itself is hemmed in by a sequence of seemingly unconnected adjectives and phrases. Equally, each crack or join in the tile is marked on the page by a thin line; missing pieces are represented by blacked-out areas. Sometimes there are so many missing pieces that the page can seem more a record of loss than rearrangement.
Williams doesn’t specify how he came across the tiles, how he went about putting the pieces back together—the problems of reconstruction—or the heightened issues of translation that must arise from such source material. Perhaps this is a good thing because it allows the pamphlet to stand on its own terms. But, given the archaeological questions the publication implicitly seems to want to open, I couldn’t help but want a little more information about the processes Williams went through: how he came by the tiles in the first place, how he went about piecing them back together, and why.
But this is a small gripe with a wonderful pamphlet. Read it. Treasure it. I take my hat off both to Tony Williams and to Nine Arches. I wish I’d written this book; I wish I’d published it.