Thief In The Interior
Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books
“I love my brother who wasn’t a brother of mine./Walking in an alley alone at night I bury my hands/in my pockets to appear brotherless, bordered/by the decay blowing from the stench.” Thief In The Interior, p 41
In separate articles, critics Natalia Cecire and Paul Stephens recently addressed the difficulty of defining “experimental” or “avant garde” writing. Quoting Cecire, “’Experimental,’ when applied to US writing, means many things, but tends to aggregate a relatively (but only relatively!) stable set of critical expectations, including, formal disjuncture, a sense of political or ethical commitment, and an association, but not strict, identification, with the experimental sciences.” To the extent that there might be consensus about this statement, it seems clear that, because of its inherent qualifications, experimental writing, in our case, poetry, may exist along broad continua of formal, motivational, and (loosely) empirical deconstructions. One of a reviewer’s charges, then, is to highlight the aesthetic and pragmatic landscape(s) of a given text, in particular, the extent to which the text conforms to and deviates from, Formalism’s (and, Modernism’s) conventional standards and guidelines.
Philip B. Williams is a young, gay, African-American poet whose star has risen rapidly. The reader is referred to his divedapper.com interview for an intimate and comprehensive account of his accomplishments and opinions—about poetry, politics, and himself as an artist. As the poet says to Kaveh Akbar, his interviewer, all of the codes embedded in Thief In The Interior have not been broken yet, and, speaking as one sympathetic and admiring reviewer, I completed the book with a feeling that the writer might have been playing games with me or, perhaps, that he had taken on too much. For sure, I do not intend, with presumption, to be in Williams’ head or to have figured the book out. Instead, I intend to provide a subjective view of the text, hoping that my schema is not unrelated to what I consider its common and recurring themes. Thief In The Interior made me think of Jungian Psychology’s references to archetypes (sexually and physically vulnerable individuals, Mother, Father, Pain), to a “collective unconscious” of empathy over confrontation, and to the heterogeneity and complexity of the human psyche (“Because when I write ‘tree’ I mean fire/of autumn.”—p 7).
This poet’s fundamental humanity is demonstrated by his commitment to a respectful re-framing of conventional structures and forms, particularly, the sonnet (see, for example, “Sonnet With A Cut Wrist And Flies” on p 20: “a man found in the wrist who wanted out but who/put him in?”), as well as, his reverence, even, spiritual, treatment of subject matter that verges, seemingly, on awe (“Turn your face that way where light no more/transfigures you than darkness makes a need for/transfiguration. Yes, the scar above your eye.”—p 52). I first encountered Williams upon reading his outstanding poem, “Canticle To The Tune Of A Waistband’s Snap,” featured in Boston Review in 2015, a complex and probing treatment of identity and culture. After this experience, I was eager to know more about the poet and his work.
Williams is not an angry poet in the tradition of writers associated with the Black Arts Movement (e.g., Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka). Indeed, some of his poems are heartbreaking (see, for example, the long-form poem, “Witness,” comprising part II of the book: “When Rashawn Brazell went missing,/the first trash bag of his body parts/hadn’t seen his head, didn’t know where/it could be.”). The title, Thief In The Interior, may, itself, represent a conscious or unconscious crie de coeur, telling us that outside events have torn out the author’s guts or his soul and that these forces have, also, disrupted the lives of innocent or victimized black bodies and minds. Throughout the book, Williams employs innovative forms and word structure to communicate emotion indirectly, rather than, literally. The 14-line sonnet form, itself, is, apparently, repeated (many times, many ways) for it’s reference to the (14) Stations of the Cross. Without overtly religious components, Thief In The Interior is a reflective homage to struggle and survival (“When he lifts his hands/lightning scythes below./From his weary blues/blues spill out but nothing around can/define how.”—“God As A Failed Figuration,” p 13).
Williams’ responses to crimes and human failures are always tempered by a respect for life forces capable of almost-detached analysis and of basic respect for the capacity to confront reality head-on (“I was told I could turn my back to them,/the sickle-mouthed angels who rummage/through the church dumpsters looking/for wings or food.”—p 48). In my opinion, none of Williams’ poems is sentimental, and very few phrases or lines, including, only one whole poem, fail (“A Survey Of Masculinity,” p 60, though the poem, “Apotheosis,” following it, on the same topic, is stunning: “The bats have come down, wooden/and sterile, to greet the joints, to rearrange/teeth and thoughts.”). Another sign of this poet’s skill, imagination, and reverence is found in his repeated use of mandala-like (Jungian) drawings depicting a symbol of the universe or the whole. Indeed, one sign of the book’s cogency and depth is it’s elevation of individual cases and, often, personal themes (gay, black, mother, male, father), to universal status by presenting them as particular events, as well as, general templates (see, for example. “Of Shadows And Mirrors” on p 76).
An aspect of Post-modern experimental writing is contradiction, as well as, rejection of binary categories. These characteristics are expressed in Thief In The Mirror by way of juxtaposition of Romance and Conflict, Strength and Vulnerability, Whole and Part, Many and Few, among others (“He has/a bag that holds found edges/jagged as a stag’s/horns or smooth as/a single pane smashed into/smaller panes…”—p 5). Though Williams deals with often grotesque material, one can quibble with his assertion in the above-noted interview that this collection exists in the realm of grotesque literature, if what we mean by that is literature that is comically or repulsively distorted (google.com). The book under review cannot be compared to the work of, say, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Franz Kafka, or Bobbie Ann Mason. Thief In The Mirror, also, cannot be classified as satire or (the) absurd.
Nonetheless, as the cover image by James Jean suggests, Williams’ themes are both Ordinary and Extreme (e.g., “Door To A War I Never Knew”—p 47), ones that cause approach-avoid responses, as well as, some degree of depressing curiosity. Indeed, Williams told Akbar that he was depressed for quite some time after completing this text. Beyond the possible relevance of my own interpretation(s) of Thief In The Mirror, there is much more to assess and to unravel therein, such as, references to rappers and rap songs, use of iambs and soft rhyming, the significance of role models to young black men, resilience of human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, copious use of literary devices, etc. This book deserves a large audience and conforms to at least one of Formalism’s rules—“interpretive power” (Helen Vendler). The collection is at once a group of fine poems and a stimulating puzzle. One can only look forward to Williams’ future work.
Bio: Clara B. Jones practices poetry in Silver Spring, MD (USA). As a woman of color, she writes about the Arts, Sciences, Technology, and the Environment and conducts research on experimental poetry, as well as, radical publishing. Clara is author of three chapbooks, and her poetry, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various venues.