Sunday, October 23, 2011

All The Rooms of Uncle's Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches Press £6)

It's very satisfying to read a pamphlet with such thorough-going production values as this. Osetnsibly written by an inmate of a Mittel-European asylum in the first decades of the 20th century, these sonnets are presented visually as they might have appeared on the tiles they were purportedly printed on, so there are cracks, missing peices shown as black cut-outs, borders and the overall design of the book.

This impersonation of a writer who is supposed to be mad could very easily have been patronising and exploitative. Outsider artists have been appropriated before by "professional" artists who either use their work as a stimulus for releasing themselves from the bonds of artistic "standards" set by the establishment, or as a way of saying "look how wild I am! I investigate madness!" I don't think Tony Williams is doing this; partly because the poet here is imaginary, and partly because the poems themselves are a commentary on the process. References to the Professor, as in "Survivals of hope,/ HONESTY, Professor, your soul's fly's loop the loop/ Towards the chasms of daring I suggest" (Roundel Pit Iris) seem to be as much references to the how the poet's imagination is being released by his character as part of the impersonation.

There are other characters, like the menacing Azazello, a woman called Mary; some of them seem to be outside the character's head, others seem to be inside. There is an apocalyptic feel to these poems, warnings of forthcoming doom; and always the Professor/Poet seeking to analyse, make a sensible diagnosis, preparing 'to cut the flightless fowl/ That sulks upon the meat-plate's salty lake..."

The story of this anonymous poet only comes out in fragments, if at all. Williams has resisted the temptation to narrative closure, so we don't know much more about this man at the end of the poem than we did before; only the disordered visions of the mind he chooses to reveal. Sometimes, we catch glimpses of other inmates, such as the anonymous woman in Hut Love:

Her portrait's hung above the central stairs
All blue and white as Mary under years
Of dirt and lacquer that obscure her light
As if she looks upon a hall of BRUTES...

(Hut Love)

Because it is so thoroughly imagined and so well-written, my caveats about the sequence are small. There is only one 'tile poem' in which a word in the poem (as opposed to the border) is obscured, and I think that fragmentary idea could have been taken a little further: so that there a few more gaps. There is the question of how good these poems are, and whether that detracts from the impersonation; mad people don't tend to write this well. However, the examples of both Ivor Gurney and John Clare militate against this. Mentally ill people are not constantly ill; they can have long stretches of lucidity, and are not less intelligent that anyone else. So I argue against my self on that score.

This is a fascinating pamphlet, one of the best things I've read all year. It probably won't win any awards; but it probably ought to.

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