Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2004), Hugo Williams won the Eliot Prize in 1999 for West End Final, a collection that earned him an earlier Forward listing. I Knew the Bride appears a safe choice. A cursory glance shows poetry which might be considered quintessentially English – mainly page-length poems, divided into stanzas of equal length. The collection opens with a New Year poem, finishes with the poet’s bedtime plea to the Muse, and in between there’s a clutter of railway porters, slightly Gothic graveyard scenes and sit-up-and-beg bikes by sheds. All this is laced with some diverting pop cultural references, starting with that titular homage to Nick Lowe. Are these but the lines of a poet who used to rock’n’roll? Read it aloud to find out … and suddenly Williams’ slant rhymes and rhythms rag the neat verse, set up informal almost-refrains and a taste in crunchy sound bites –
You lay on the rack of yourself,
murdered by your skeleton.
Beyond the page, everything becomes more dangerous, which should not surprise us. Born into a theatrical family, Williams’ poetry remembers music halls in rundown seaside towns, sad clowns in knowingly bathetic performances; childhood recollection underscores adult experience. The series Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton lines
Our room was a summer birdcage
swinging from a hook
to the more worrying –
I thought of all my girlfriends
gathered together on a stage,
each of them holding up her year[.]
That’s all very well, but atmosphere and nostalgia don’t demolish poetic barricades. Fortunately that categorisation underestimates this poetry. There’s far more “blood, sweat and Bovril”, and a sharper searching through life, though death is never distant. The poet possesses a mordant wit, finely-tuned with irony. In “Patent Pending” a fresh corpse is likened to pinball machine, and life-saving hospital equipment riffs to the theme of classic westerns.
Mostly written in the first person, Williams’ wit flenses out any suggestion of indulgence; he is unflinching in his self-observation even in the grimmest moments. “That must be me over there”, “I nearly mentioned it once”, and “after a while I didn’t seem to mind” smack initially of a gentle parody of over-polite vague Englishness (and he is very capable of that), but then build to speak deeply of fears, dislocation and disassociation; a first person voice with a third person perspective. This is at its most finely honed in the beautiful titular poem, tracing his sister’s final illness and death, and in the truly extraordinary series From the Dialysis Ward. Rarely has an artist been able to detail his own harrowing illness in quite such a graphic way. John Bellamy’s drawings made immediately after his liver transplant seem a close creative relative. Williams delivers with sardonic wit, and his favoured blast of pop references. Postcards from the edge indeed.
Of his sister,
You fought a five-year war
with that foul thing
which deals in hope and fear,
two against one,
like the two brothers who tormented you.
Willliams continues, at his sorest, blackest –
‘What you don’t realise’, you said, […] ‘is that hair goes with everything.’
Williams manages to follow this long, remarkable poem with the short double-entendre of “My Sister’s Records” which segues into “The Fifties”, and beyond.
The series charting his battles with renal failure blisters with painful satire –
I’d have to recommend dialysis
to anyone looking for a break
in their daily routine.
A medical journey cut through with candour, popular culture, yet the series is bookended with Hardy, journeying with Shelley’s heart.
So, don’t be lulled by the surface of I Knew the Bride – it’s a rock of a read in more ways than one. Who knew that we’d meet the Jesus of Cool in the Dialysis ward?