Pathos of the Once Organic

I met Rob Packer some time ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and though soon after he moved all the way to Brazil (lucky man!), we have kept in touch and I’m always delighted to hear about his writing and experiences in his beautiful new homeland.  I was particularly touched recently to receive a link to this review… thank you so much, Rob, for being such a sensitive and responsive reader.  It means so much!

Read Rob’s blog here, and the full review below.

Pathos of the Once Organic: JL Williams’ “Locust and Marlin”

"Locust and Marlin" by JL Williams

Myths are our most basic stories. They attract us in, reach far back in time. For JL Williams, New-Jersey-born, but living in Edinburgh for over a decade, they are a key part of her work. Indeed, many of the poems in her first collection, Condition of Fire (2011) are drawn from that great history-of-the-world-through-myth that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her second collection, Locust and Marlin (2014) is similar and different from her first book: it feels like a deepening, a development and a moving forward from that book.

Like Ovid, like Condition of FireLocust and Marlin is full of animals. Most obviously, this is in the title, and indeed on the cover. The marlin recurs in a poem about the poet’s father; the locust—and it’s worth remembering that the grasshopper metamorphoses into the locust, echoing her first book—in an epigraph from the Book of Revelation, in that same father-poem and in the strange apocalyptic sonnet, “Locust King”, which may, or may not, also be a love song. There are others, like the mysterious and striking heron that opens and closes the book. The first poem, “Heron”, in particular, is a seven-line tour-de-force that begins:

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

The word “imagine” opens the book as a liminal space and from the start, it tries to do the impossible, to describe something beyond the powers of description. After all, silence is not physical, it cannot literally have wings; and space cannot be practicably demarcated by the absence of sound. But the metaphor works so well: this paradoxical description creates a ghost-like figure of the heron that is present, unobserved, undetectable, an object of meditation, in its liminal habitat between water, earth and sky. And like so much in the book, it hints at, does not directly describe, implies.

This in-between space, these things in flux is similar territory to Condition of Fire. There are poems of transformation, like “Flutter”, that begins “They broke upon her ribcage / to let out the birds.” But this isn’t a retreading of Ovid: there is a “they” behind the evident violence that occurs in a number of the poems—this calls to mind fables, stories of witches. And the same poem contains multiple, cyclical transformations.

Cycles are important throughout the collection. They are also geological in the recurring and overwhelming presence of stones and shells. Much of this is down to the influence of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. According to Williams herself in an interview for the Scottish Poetry Library podcast (where she is also one of the presenters), these stones and shells are forms of protection about the self; and the stone is memory, the shell is a metaphor for home and origin.

In “Body of Stone” the speaker describes “a stone liver, a stone stomach, a stone eye” that the lover transforms, but cannot change memory: “But sometimes when I wake in the night, / your back to my back, / I am stone”. Here and elsewhere, Williams finds an incredible pathos in inanimate objects like these:

The movement of the winds and the tide
affected me as emotions do
small children but I never cried.

Another poem, “Stone Song”, is a list that describes stones— “My embarrassed stone” or “My believing stone” or “My tender stone”—and that comes around halfway through the collection. By this point, the references to stone already carry an emotional charge and with its elegiac tone, makes for a very moving poem, as it enumerates all of the emotions or objects of a life, but presents them as immutable objects.

In “Spirals”, the speaker appears to be looking at the fossils of ammonites, imagining them alive, protected by their shells then turned to stone over time:

Life in each stone,
as bright as ours,
that much is known.

We laypeople know next to nothing about them, but we do know they were just as much alive as we are. As the poem is a villanelle, that rhyme scheme repeats the lines ending in “stone” and “known” throughout. This form can sometimes feel forced, but not here. Here it reinforces the words: the same thing will happen to us, there is no escape.

In a similar vein, “Water Phoenix” seems to be about sand and its origins in shells:

I’ve ground the bodies of the dead
and dropped them in the wavelets, watched
them live again.

This touch of seeing sand as the dead bodies that it is feels characteristic for a poet as sensitive to time as Williams is. In Condition of Fire especially, but here too, she often seems to inhabit a world before time, as if she is barely there—or at least not in human form. I have a strong suspicion it is the water speaking in the extract above. Unlike many poets who “limit” themselves to the present moment or the span of their lives, Williams seems very interested in deep time and its unimaginable length compared with the shortness of our lives. In “The Veil”, the speaker says “We have a small space of time in which to touch” and in the next stanza:

The gears spin and no matter how often
these planets align it is you who must accommodate
to love the sensation of sunrise
because it will not last forever, even in California
with the oranges dripping off the trees.

The talk of planets, the end of sunrise and the geologic time of other poems means that I can’t see that “small space of time” as anything other than the scale of our lives against more cosmic events.

But with this mention of California, this transatlantic poet is also very much in the room. Earlier in the poem, she writes “I never knew how beautiful my own country was”, as if this appreciation of place is new. This theme of home is made more intense by the images of shells in a poem like “Creation”, which opens like a fable by Calvino:

One dreamer thought a shell was made
by a creature turning somersaults, each turn
a room for the home.

The staircase spiralling upward
by the force of a leg.

I push against this wall.
An oyster spits and makes a shine.
I turn. What do I make?

If only happy somersaults and the force of a leg could build a home. The strangeness and the beauty of the first two stanzas then become sadness and dejection, when the speaker pushes against the wall and turns, while nothing happens, no home is built.

I want to close by mentioning form. Williams is not a particularly formal poet. She uses it sparingly, but knows when to. I’ve already mentioned how the villanelle form in “Spirals” reinforces the repetition of life across time. And in “Heron”, she uses a repeated rhythm on both lines of this couplet:

It flies very low to the water.
It stands very still when it lands.

Technically speaking, this is an iamb-anapaest-anapaest, but it goes beyond prosody. It’s not completely regular, so it feels more like an organic or natural rhythm. There’s something very quiet or whispered about the sounds as well. Perhaps these are the heron’s wings against the water or the breath of the observer. Either way, it is a striking, pitch-perfect beginning to a fascinating collection.

JL WilliamsLocust and Marlin, Shearsman Books (Bristol), 2014 (Buy it from Shearsman)

I also highly recommend the Scottish Poetry Library podcast, where JL Williams is one of the presenters.

By jlwpoetry

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire (Shearsman, 2011), Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014), House of the Tragic Poet (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016), After Economy (Shearsman, 2017) and Origin (Shearsman, 2022). Published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into numerous languages. She has read at international literature festivals and venues in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and the US. She wrote the libretto for the opera Snow which debuted in London in 2017, was awarded a bursary to develop a new opera with composer Samantha Fernando at the Royal Opera House and was a librettist for the award-winning 2020 covid-response Episodes project by The Opera Story. Williams curates writing events and creates workshops and professional development activities for poets. She is hopeful about the simple and mysterious power of poetry that allows us to know ourselves, each other and the world more deeply.

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