Gilbert Wesley Purdy
A Short History of the Perverse
One Unblinking Eye by Norman Williams.
Ohio: Swallow Press, 2003.
48 pp + end papers
Vermont has its exemplary poet, however
little it knows him. Like too many exemplary poets, his worse poetry (and
there was a great deal of it) is the work that generally influences the
poets who look to him. His single great volume of poetry North of
Boston was published in 1914, long before he was popular, and wasn't
much to the taste of later readers. With each successive volume that
followed, Robert Frost became more and more a parody of himself.
Norman Williams the author of One
Unblinking Eye -- is also a Vermont poet, and, however much he may not
seem to, he resembles few poets as much as he does his fellow Vermonter,
Robert Frost the Frost, that is, of North of Boston. Much has
changed since that time, of course. Williams makes no attempt at a
New England idiom. With our mobility there may not
be any such thing as a regional idiom anymore.
Williams is a highly respected lawyer,
as well as a poet, and, like so many upper-middle-class professionals, he
has purchased an old farmhouse in the
Vermont countryside. Or so the poetry
would seem to indicate. Despite living in a farmhouse, Frost had little
claim to be called a farmer and Williams has none. One Unblinking Eye
manages to be both cosmopolitan and securely anchored to everyday life.
Its poems are located in
Vermont and the greater
U. S.; they are peopled
throughout by common men and women.
The reader attracted to the
parody-Frost is shocked to open North of Boston for the first
time. Quite probably, he or she closes it and does not open it again. It
is replete with chaos and perversity. In 1914 long before Freud's
work was read outside of psychoanalytical circles it is filled with exact,
highly nuanced descriptions of depression, obsession and a wide range of
disfunctional behaviors, such as this description of clinical depression
from the dramatic monologue Servant to Servants (ll. 7-15):
I can't express my feelings, anymore
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did you ever feel so? I hope you never.
It's got so I don't even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There's nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn't all gone wrong.
New England countryside is not picturesque but dark
While the word Dostoievskian may come
to mind concerning the characters, and Frost read Dostoievsky even before
entering Harvard, there has been an evolution of sorts. These are not
transplanted Russians. Nor are they landowners, in the Russian sense of
the word, steeped in a greater cultural decadence. Instead the palpable
influence is Knut Hamsun, the novelist of peasant life about whom John
Updike has written:
Only the Russians can match Hamsun's feel for the
inconsistencies of the human soul, its quantum jumps through the rather
irrelevant circumstances of life. As in all his fiction, small inanimate
things registered letters, a sack of eiderdown animate the human
landscape, and pantheistic bliss surges through the remissions of coping.
The quote could just as well begin: Only Hamsun can
match Frost's feel. This review could almost begin: Only the Frost of
North of Boston can match Norman Williams's feel for the
inconsistencies of the human soul.
Much has changed since 1914. Frost's
volume is largely made up of blank verse monologues (ala Browning). They
are generally well over a hundred lines in length. Williams's poems must
remain under fifty lines or risk not being read at all. As it is, he is
naturally a lyric poet. Occasionally he works in forms and it is clear in
every poem that he is well schooled -- but he is careful not to draw
attention to these aspects of his work. Since Frost's time, the
U. S. has become unimaginably
wealthy and powerful and impatient of those who portray common Americans
as dark or perverse.
This can only affect the tone of
Williams's work. Happily, he is a remarkable poet. Regardless of the
greater restrictions he must work within he has written poems that are
somehow light, spare and attractive. The word fineness has already been
applied to these poems and it is this fineness that prevents the
perversity that peeps out of the poems from seeming in the least morbid.
In this regard he reminds the reader more of the early James Merrill or a
less angst ridden early Geoffrey Hill. There is no attempt at the
folksiness of Frost.
His words are so carefully chosen so
fine in fact, that the reader could easily be left with the impression
that our perversities are objets d'art. An Irish father pushing
his daughter on a swing above panoramic sea-cliffs as though to loose her
on/That long descent perhaps forms too poetic and too convenient a scene
for the observations that follow:
Return, the young girl cries out her delight,
Then girds once more against the peril there:
As though she knows no child is desired wholly;
That there is not a mother, dreading birth,
Who does not sometimes curse her recklessness,
Nor father, yoked to press or forklift truck,
Who has not brooded on the chance of some
Yet who could deny that, under more mundane
circumstances, the intrusion of such thoughts is more common than we
choose to admit under circumstances, that is, that our present strictures
do not allow?
More legitimate are poems such as
Our Station, in which we are reminded of the unaccountable joy we feel
at seeing a hawk take its prey, and Horror at Hoosick Falls, in
which the narrator wonders what were the thoughts of a young boy just
short/Of puberty who discovered a raped and murdered corpse near an old
millrace. But, still, they are not as successful -- a fact in some way
itself perverse -- as Prayer for an Irish Father.
Yet at times Williams manages to go
farther than his restrictions would seem to allow. In Taking Panfish,
a poem about fishing with his father, the circumstances are entirely
mundane. The narrator's bobber dips, dragged bottomward/By unseen fear.
He has caught a crappie. He thanks God/For not permitting [him] to fail
in his father's world. The fish is brought aboard:
And motionless, the crappie mouths
A final prayer which, if heard, is not
Allowed. My father whacks it, sheathes
The knife, then, squaring for a shot,
Flings it toward the Evinrude. All day,
As the fish grows slowly stiff and curled,
It fixes one unblinking eye
On me, as though I made this world.
The victim being piscine we have some distance from
it. The personification keeps the distance as little as possible. For a
moment here, our ability to be inured to the cruelty of life, and our part
in it, is shocking. The terrifying nature of the cruelties that may await
us whose desperate prayers may also someday be ineffective -- surely helps
to explain the defenses and the distance we interpose, the slow corruption
we cling to. This poem quietly succeeds on many levels. Every word does
precisely the work it is called upon to do.
Appropriately enough, there are poems
with other themes. An independent contractor attends to his work with a
dedication that leaves Williams thoughtful. The poet has written a series
of poems which are extracted in One Unblinking Eye about
climbing a mountain, which ends with a simple and affecting word of
celebration. Two young lovers are delicately drawn in the poem
Delicate Repose. Youth, nature, and dedication to one's work, that is
to say, seem tenuously to counterpoise our troubled minds.
There are the more admissible convolutions of our daily
life. Pegging Out about a cribbage game -- is particularly fine in this
vein. Irish sheepherders, farmers, rail-yard workers are glimpsed as they
go about their honest toil each living in the twilight of a dying way of
life. In the poem In Pavidus there is another kind of celebration,
as the first signs of spring arrive:
How lightly weve escaped. No scare
Of cancer staggered our routine;
No madness mocked our courtesies.
It is a sentiment that needs no explanation.
One Unblinking Eye took fifteen
years in the writing. That in itself is enough to suggest a mystery. But
the mystery of Williams goes far deeper. A successful lawyer, owner of a
fashionable old farmhouse in the
Vermont countryside, dressed (on his
book jacket cover, and, as it were, in his poems) from an L. L. Bean
catalogue, still something about who we are haunts him. Over the long
years between the affairs of what must surely be a busy life he has
painstakingly written these 32 poems to give us an unusually fine account
of what that something is.
What could have brought Williams to
linger over the perversity in our natures that we are so intent to
ignore? In the case of Frost, it was his brief acquaintance with Ezra
Pound who was suggesting the old psychologist, Robert Browning, at the
time, to anyone who would listen. Frost's own reading in Hamsun and a now
little known short story writer named Hamlin
Garland surely played no small part.
Pound had influenced more than one great book of poetry. Generally, the
quality of the poets in question diminished after their Pound-book. Three
exceptional poems appeared in each of Frost's next two volumes:
Mountain Interval (1916) and
New Hampshire (1923). They were
arguably his last.
In Williams's case, perhaps he picked
it up piecemeal from reading his fellow poets less guarded utterances or
perhaps even from Frost. Perhaps his experiences as a lawyer are the
major influence. Regardless, his book is a volume of excellence for it.
One Unblinking Eye is a
deceptively simple, a deceptively slight book. Where its poems may seem
slightly imperfect, or strangely discordant, from time to time, the reader
should be warned to reread. Where they seem perfect, they are. There is
an unusual mastery in them.