Seeing the soft cover of Locust and Marlin, it was difficult not to grab the thin book from the proffered selection. There’s something magical about the marlin disappearing in the waves while the heron stands quietly on the back in an image which stretches across both covers. Certainly, it’s a scene familiar to me, my Californian coastal background being full of fierce waves dotted with birds,but perhaps that image, and the poems it introduces, has a wider resonance too.
That poet JL Williams is New Jersey born and now Edinburgh-based immediately struck a chord with me. She has been published in the Edinburgh Review and also featured in Best Scottish Poems 2011. However, Locust and Marlin left me both frustrated and intrigued by her literary style. Often, cutting short a word or ending on an obscure note, many of the poems in Locust and Marlin leave us with well-whetted expectations. Many of the lines read as trains of thoughts which often end abruptly. At other times, they make use of repetition; still others seem hesitant and unwilling to continue.
Locust and Marlin speaks of idyllic dreamscapes and animals not as a what or a where, but as a descriptive vehicle for the poet’s own life. The opening poem, “Heron”, sets the aesthetic:
Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.
Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.
It flies very low to the water.
It stands very still when it lands.
Its strange beak opens.
Williams reviews what many in today’s society seem to have forgotten. Frequently, we are so preoccupied by our obsessions of contributing to the world, to have “worth”, influence and to be said to make something of ourselves that we have perhaps forgotten to simply live life and reflect —to take in, and to be influenced. That ability to be passive, to understand and appreciate, and to reject societal expectations is well- expressed in “Blinding”:
[…]light clings to froth
on the river’s tongue
women knead the bread
water unveils its secret
hungry mouths are fed
one to shine
one to see the shining[…]
Williams recounts those fleeting moments which, in our modern perception, can be dismissed as minuscule; thoughts and feelings are recorded in these poems, allowing us the opportunity to pause and value that opportunity.Though the poems in this velvety-bound book are taken from Williams’own life, the sounds of nature and the visions of the past have the capacity to echo moments in any reader’s stories. We are called to consider the times we might have sat in the garden and watched the animals skitter by or the nostalgia of a faded memory. The titular poem does this particularly well:
[…]In my father’s old bait and tackle shop
giant ﬁsh dangle from hooks near the men
grinning from ear to ear in the grainy,
soiled photographs clipped from newspapers.[…]
The slings and arrows of life are challenge enough and Williams celebrates all of our strengths in her poetry. Just as her words are rich with life and love, they’re also critical, and address the harsher blows of living. The poet refuses to shy away from the realities of life and instead accentuates their role in shaping us, and gives time and focus to the processes of recovery. Williams channels a sense of everything having a purpose in her poems, and she closes her collection with the haunting, thought-provoking return of the Heron.
The heron has a dream of blindness.
He starves, but it is beautiful;
the feeling of the fishes brushing his legs.
Locust and Marlin has many fine, lingering images, and the review could finish on any one of them. What a beautiful book…