Many of the poems in this book are finespun lyrical tributes to normal, everyday things. In ‘The King of Stationery’, Williams transforms spare pens and pencils in his loft into beautiful ‘rainbow boxed’ items that are ‘ready to be sent’. He also invests the concrete and the physical with emotional meaning, so that, for instance, the mundane details of ‘McDonald’s wrappers, a half-drunk Coke/a grease stain that won’t rub out’ acquire a melancholy dimension as metaphors for loss, regret and confusion.
Williams’ other strength is his inventive juxtaposing of personal recollections that make the reader think anew about the important themes of life. In ‘Memory is a Train that Only Stops at Certain Stations’, ‘Platforms filled with refracted light’ lead Williams to reflections on ‘The birth of each of your children’. Such intimate experiences are frequently integrated with Williams’ thoughts about wider current affairs. Posing questions about the role of technology in the world, the poem ‘Landings’ warns of the banality of the endless repetition of disturbing images streamed on our digital devices: ‘So it repeats, with a truck in Berlin/Burnt out coaches in Aleppo’.
If Williams sets much of his verse in the city, he also has an almost Romantic yearning for nature. The newest TVs can show us ancient forests and, in the urban environment, there is competition between man-made and natural phenomena because ‘streetlamps glow over moon-kissed cars’. The poem ‘Photo-shopping’ explains that these merged motifs are a result of the subjective preferences of the poet or observer: ‘We crop the world to make it fit/or make it fit the world we wish’.
The milieu of most interest to Williams is Portsmouth and its surrounds. Nostalgia of an erudite and eloquent – rather than cheap or sentimental – kind animates ‘Lighting Up the Chiminea’, in which the lost landscapes of his youth, ‘the Hampshire chalk/these rolling fields’, are ‘soft memories of gold’. The reader comes away from this poem feeling that the Hampshire cliffs have as much personal significance to Williams as their famous white Dover counterparts do to the national psyche.
There is an ironic component to the beauty conjured in ‘Spice Island Looking Back’ and other poems, as tacky, peeling piers are re-imagined as mournful artefacts of a lost age of pirates and smugglers. Long before Portsmouth’s neon lights and supermarket signs – ‘a wasteland of superstores’ – there were ‘Viking raids’ and ‘a trail of footprints/in tidal sand’. In Williams’ psychogeography, though, these modern features are as real and as valid as the ones now long gone.
Williams is at his best when he combines the old and the new, the sublime and the ridiculous, the epic and the everyday, the internal and the external, as in this description of the atmosphere when Portsmouth FC are winning a match: ‘Fratton Park rising up over a lowering crowd/football floodlight masts a four rigged man-o-war’.
In Landings, Williams has created a new poetic map of Portsmouth based on a fascinating inner life lived in a city by the sea.
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Note: This review was originally published in The Eldon Review, the University of Portsmouth’s Creative Writing course website.
Photograph by Richard Williams.