Review of After Economy by Penny Boxall

So grateful for this beautiful review of After Economy by Penny Boxall in The Compass:

If Burns’s collection is like the soothing chatter of grownups, the voices in J. L. Williams’s After Economy are more akin to the half-heard voices of dreams – compelling, disorientating, moreish – leaving you, on waking, wondering what just happened. The endorsements inside the front cover contain, from Eleanor Wilner, a delicious paragraph of praise for Williams’s writing:

For some reason, slightly unfathomable, I am reminded of a forest we visited on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido where the annual winter ice festival is held. The forest is sprayed for days by the local fire department, but not before flowers and colored lights have been hung within the branches . . .

The resultant ‘crystal forest’ – ‘all so unexpected, and so extravagantly beautiful’ – is what is called to Wilner’s mind by Williams’s poems. It is pleasing to turn to the first page and read the title poem, which details this process, presumably drawn, in its turn, from Wilner’s description:

 

The first rinse takes some time, a glassy sheathing,

the second ices each branch quick and soon

the entire frozen forest glitters and shimmers

from within – each bulb encased in ice

a mouth through which the final word

of the world is shining out; light, light.

 

Wilner’s impression of the experience of reading these poems is recreated aptly by Williams’s poem and, in a further meta-move, this could be a description of the experience of reading the collection as a whole. The first reading ‘takes some time, a glassy sheathing’, but as the chill thaws there are chinks to let the light through, and a sense of the shared.

There is also a wry sense of fun at play throughout the collection. Take the cheekily-titled ‘New Aesthetic’, which runs, in its entirety:

 

the whale carcass on the beach with nearly all the flesh washed away

the taste of those salty bones defamiliarising words

 

We are cast into a strange ocean, for sure, where words have their own undercurrents. Incidentally, the cover design – an abstract whale skeleton in linocut by Anupa Gardner, blue vegetation twining the ribs, a glass ceiling above, so that it is not clear whether we are inside or out – could have inspired this poem just as much as it might illustrate it. Williams’s poetic walls are porous, and inspiration is a two-way process.

The prose-poems scattered throughout the collection, each tailed with a haiku like the moral to a Perrault fairytale, are of particular interest. ‘Watching Breaking Bad you realise both that your evil stepfather, similarly, sacrificed himself to his own personal disappointments and that Walter White is the character in the old story who forgets to ask the genie for the ship in which to bring the treasure home before he loses the magic lantern’, one opens. So the three characters – stepfather, Walter White, the character from the old story – are simultaneously distinct and one-and-the-same. The summary-haiku (which raises more questions than it answers) has it: ‘The red glittering / destruction of the self which / is also the heart.’ The heart slowly beats us into oblivion: a neat (if uncomfortable) thought, and one of many fecund ideas in this rich, strange collection.

 

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