Poet's Sampler: Phillip B. Williams
November 3, 2015
Nov 3, 2015
Williams observes, with courage and fragility, his own mortality and promise.
The poetic line intersects and vivisects syllables, dust, and bones in the poetry of Phillip B. Williams. He invites his audience into an intimacy that is brutal and yet inestimably generous in its confession and compassion: “I have not been long in the meaning of shadow, the one shared bruise of all things.” To experience his poetry is to encounter a lucid, unmitigated humanity, a voice for whom language is inadequate, yet necessarily grasped, shaped, and consumed. His devout and excruciating attention to the line and its indispensible music fuses his implacable understanding of words with their own shadows.
Williams, whose debut solo collection, Thief in the Interior, will be published early next year, examines a notion of self-inflicted trespass: “it is the mind that imagines the shadow having its own language, its own dark idiom translating the body onto whatever surface will hold it. The shadow is the mind, the mind’s work, seen.” Bared as flower and fang, revealed as both prey and predator, the poet’s voice circles and interrogates what is nameless and unspeakable. Williams pulls his readers through profane fires, urging us to turn back to see what we have sacrificed, what has been taken, what has been denied, lost, given away, and what lies beyond comprehension. It is that comprehension and its risk, startling and tactile, that makes Williams’s voice original and revelatory. He observes, with courage and fragility, his own mortality and perilous promise: “The boy too stubborn to reveal his face. / Or too afraid of what his face reveals. / Was beauty thrown there, a field shocked / with black irises and the canvas, / the canvas not yet ready?”
—Rachel Eliza Griffiths
for Rekia Boyd
In the Book of Grief, a woman wrapped in black
scarves walks from the river bottom and says her own
name to the dusk. Horseflies comb
her hair this late afternoon to the tune of beauty
cricketing through the chamomile, distending
a frog’s yellow throat. A ring of rust
draws a mouth on the woman’s neck.
When she leans back the red crease loosens
as if to crack open and say:
Who summoned me? Who thinks my gaze
is a wheel of thread to sew wings onto backs
that never had wings? Who traced the maze
sunset makes on the water to lead me back?
The air is caustic here and rotten milk
spills from the flowerbeds. The earth is iron-
stenched. There is blood like unwound silk
ribboning from a body. Whose child has learned
their history? Who’s found the door but can’t get out?
Whose words do I perform from my sealed mouth?
And the frogs fall quiet in the riverbed.
And the crickets detune their shins
in the chamomile disintegrating quickly
as it came. It was too easy a song
and so must begin again, the lyric unwinding
toward a destination not already-fulfilled,
the one to fulfill it touching the dead
with unwashed hands, the unwashed mind
scouring again the moment for merchandise.
Horseflies and their diligent limbs have failed,
the desk lamp—not made into sun or
moon—just the light, this time,
and its heat refuting elegy. And the river woman
asks what in this now, and asks
whose to say, and the sage of her voice
leaves my mouth, the inquiry the lyric,
the impetus, that working organ
running down as rivers do.
Inside, a thousand fish like specter-arrows
swim hectored by waves, their patterns
make turning back a moving forward
in the current. Inside me I carry the image of Boyd
and ask permission to begin again,
to say the words death in context,
violence with the angel of vengeance
at the corner of my lips but
what now with this anger? What now
with these thousand fish in this river and
the river woman waiting patiently
for instructions, her yellow dress just now
appearing, the black scarves not for her
but for me and I don’t need that lace,
or those seams sealed to keep
their secret massacres. Let them fade
like frogs, like an intention. I hand over
the image to the river. I watch it fold
into its own fish, unable to distinguish it
from the other, glistening arguments that turn,
go nowhere; turn away. Am gone.
Neither Conquest Nor Surrender
I have not been long in the meaning of shadow, the one shared bruise of
all things. Light in its truest mood. I had come to know this masklessness
in my own restless mornings. I found my shadow in the pit of myself,
merely a knot of what it could become, until light pulled my form from me
and gave it to my shadow. It keeps quiet, working harder than the mind to
make real what is not, though it is the mind that imagines the shadow
having its own language, its own dark idiom translating the body onto
whatever surface will hold it. The shadow is the mind, the mind’s work,
seen. I roll over
and see him sleeping next to me, having forgotten he was there, the
wrinkled cave of him now locked, almost. I sit upright on the bed and face
the wall that holds my shadow like an opened door.
Through which the impossible multitudes of the hidden self swiftly pass.
Canticle to the Tune of a Waistband’s Slap
The big Black buck’s pants were pulled up but
the officer’s bullets still pelted. Theory 1: the penis
is impossible to imagine. No, the penis is always
possible. Theory 2: the penis’s profile is always
reason to profile even though the penis
is improbably seen through a jean’s denim veil?
No, not the penis, the pulse of a Black body
makes even the New Blacks gag. Who’ll placate
this panicky sect of a sable population
who think “the booty don’t lie” is propaganda
for the end of their lives, the officer with the gun
astounded into cruelty. Imagine empty suits gin-
fanned to a river bottom, hollow button-up shirts
Tuskegee’d into silence, the shape of a Khoisan woman
renamed for a planet and propped up for exhibition.
Negro me this. Negro me that. Whose shame
is this anyway? Why am I afraid to hug
my mother outside with police nearby? A person
can only manhandle so many lies told about them.
Lovely leather belt, keep my pants high
and the Devil low. Make white fear
disappear. Let the assumed bric-a-brac
of my attitude not make them brick a Black
man and shout “Justice!” In my poppa bag
of tricks I stay winning, Blue Magic
hair grease to stiffen the tragic curls
of my scalp. Every part of me whirls
in retribution. “Vengeance is mine” said
the lord and lady with the most ducats.
Can you dig it? An older white man saw me
in my vest and tie, my blazer and good leather
shoes with the loud soles and asked me to
park his car. The Angel of Valet was cruel
that evening. Had me coddling respectability,
thinking “damn this useless good hair, damn these
loud-ass shoes that echo like a blackface plea:
Raise ya pants, you foo’! Here come
de’ massa eye beholdin’! You’se wicked,
you’se anyhow wicked an’ cain’t help it none.”
Though My Wings are Broken, They Still Make Me Animal
after Paul Celan
I sleep reeking musk of leopards in love. My home is an amazement of leaves. Their
paint weapons against me. If they stir, I am impaled by green laughter.
For what reason other than to be his,
to signal the need in me to house
his shiver-light. Lit. His kiss
led to the dead boy of me. Embedded:
the slaughter, preserved as a swamp
preserves, revealed as an aftershock
reveals what can fail its height
and must. I saw. Was shook by
the rot in me that lifted like a skirt.
To be his. He arrowed
a fear in me. And did slay. I took
that drink, throat bullseyed
into obey, and—deserving, un . . .—was revised.
at night they pulled me into the dark they yelled
I spoke clearly through wool over my head the night
was clear moonlight against the wool their shadows
lengthened by flashlight their pipes shown through
moonlight bloodied edgeless
they removed the wool bag
to see my face to see my face they tilted it beneath
flashlight and counted what teeth remained what
white one of them had a son his face tilted at night
to my lips his teeth were white his face
like night would he recognize this wound this me
I smelled rain with what was left of my nose
with what was left of my nose I bled into my mouth
with what was left of my mouth I spoke my name
hear my voice breaking blood to speak could they
hear me over truck engine over asphalt hissing beneath
my skin pulled my mouth my nose my blood without its body
dragged down a road where my blood made a road within
a road my mouth a mile back my tongueless name my foot
in a ditch my hands one waits for the other to lift like dust
Failure of Tombs
Boy in the taut chamber of declivities.
The boy too stubborn to reveal his face.
Or too afraid of what his face reveals.
Was beauty thrown there, a field shocked
with black irises and the canvas,
the canvas not yet ready? Or the wind
had ridden away countenance? Or was light
the culprit of the boy’s near-fetal curl
in the staircase where to rise and to lower occur?
Light creeping through the glassed door behind.
Light through the vestibule belligerent and vacant.
Light the desire to search and see and find.
Light itself a man through the door.
Light the taking and the boy, white linen
shrouding his sex, not for modesty, not
for shame but near it, nearer the advent
of the hard of him being located by the man
in the shapelessness of light. Sometimes,
men come that way, wide as history
through the door and just as violent,
their violence hidden until someone stays
too long. Boy hidden in the slim dark,
his body learning how small
it can become like a house he remembers
after a flood took it, perpetual rain
bloating itself into a sea that takes
what stands. Or the boy is about to
stand, make of his mind a tortured capital,
Corinthian. The onslaught already-occurred.
The man slips back into the wild,
into the unseen, which is the world
blurred until the blur is what is—is all
that can ever be—true:
there is a wilderness
and in it light is said to lift from rot
as though a shirt, tattered, tearing further
from a body mud preserves, heart stunned
between beats where fear had most set the pace.
Following the light is said to be like following
a self you’ve long forgotten until, pot-
the fiction inhales, the self
all bone, fanged,
its holey wings flexed to take off,
to take you with it. So
the wind after all.
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November 03, 2015