To write poetry is often to practice mythopoesis; to create the myths through which we can overcome adversity and within which we can become our true selves. To read Phillip B. Williams’ luminescent award-winning debut collection Thief of the Interior is to witness the transformation of the body at the edge of death. Whether through the wing of a black witch moth as it touches a dead boy’s naked torso in benediction, or by climbing through the jowls of a dying wolf, Williams’ uncovers the ecstatic beauty bound within the body. With the resolution of a coroner Williams’ fearlessly approaches the bodies of the dead, usually of young black men, only when he touches their skin with his lovingly rendered verse they leave their headlines and obituaries behind become transformed. To read Thief of the Interior is to learn the words for a new kind of prayer that exists deep within the “throat’s quaking acreage.”
Thief of the Interior moves restlessly across a poetic landscape searching for forms vulnerable enough to contain Williams’ vision. Sonia Sanchez once said, “good poets write all kinds of poems.” Williams is a good poet, or rather a great poet, who like a visual artist searches for the right perspective through which to embody his subject. His use of inventive forms/structures and his queering of classical forms does not come simply from a desire to experiment, but from a deep meditation on his subject. Sonia Sanchez went on to say when talking about the elements of a good poem, “the poem must have another leap to it and another bound to it so that style and content can walk together, can become fused,” it is this fusion that Williams not only searches for but finds.
In his haunting long poem “Witness,” Williams uses repetition, mirror-like reflections, epistolary forms, google searches, witness statements, headlines and other collage-like elements to piece together the story of Rashawn Brazell, a young black male who was brutally murdered and dismembered. The second section of the poem reflects itself to read:
I called his name but heard my own
come back. In the fog of my breath
a prayer like wool too worn out to warm.
How long does it take a city to discover
how to separate the dead from the soon-dead?
how to separate the dead from the soon-dead.
How long does it take for a city to discover
a prayer like wool too warn out to warm?
Come back. In the fog of my breath
I called his name but heard my own.
The repetition of the lines which transform through their descending arrangement deepens the impact of each line, the short plea, “Come back” is released across the poem, across the city, across America. Anger, grief, and fear, all become transformed by Williams’ lamentation, the poem unravelling into a long, graceful, and intimate elegy.
Williams marries the elegiac to new forms, in the third section of Thief in the Interior he writes a half-crown of modern sonnets which uses the last line of each poem and the first line to thread together a single line of thought, or rather as with all of Williams’ poems, of feeling. The poem teaches itself to survive amid a city where the death claims its territory like weeds. In “No, Tell Him” Williams climbs inside his coffin of grief and discovers the stirrings of spring, “The alluvial earth of grief / found its hoof’s bottom and went. Madly / pastoral, cornhusk-rigid and resolute, / morning stayed without pathos, stayed / the doom-frost heart till the hard of it splayed.” Moving on and through loss becomes a necessary spiritual pilgrimage.
I once wrote about Rilke’s Duino Elegies that their transcendence was constantly being thwarted, that they could not transform into something more than themselves even though in moments of rapture they brushed against that boundary. Williams’ poems achieve transcendence because they’ve already internalized that boundary; instead of searching for a moment of ascension, the poems long to stay within the body. They do the agonizing work of weaving together body and spirit, often coaxing the spirit back into the body instead of attempting to wrest one from the other.
The second time I had the pleasure to hear Phillip B. Williams read was at the ever sleek and beloved Poetry Foundation in Chicago, and I remember afterwards I briefly discussed his work with Ed Roberson whose eyes sparkled as he spoke of Phillip B. William’s poetry as being artful but beyond artistry, as he writes in his endorsement of the collection, “not just skill as possession, as a commodity, but skill to accomplish the expressive event, a deeply felt poetic argument.” With each poem or series of poems in Thief in the Interior Phillip B. Williams ties a weight to this “deeply felt poetic argument” until it is entirely submerged in one’s heart. This isn’t the kind of collection you read once, but one you continually return to knowing that with each read the poems will further part their bruised petals if you are willing to shed your own ego, as Williams does, and become a part of the poems as they vine, thorn and blossom all around you.
Thief in the Interior
Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books
Brunch: I felt inspired by Thief in the Interior's gorgeous cover art by artist James Jean. So, I set out to see what purple or deep red fruits and vegetables might be lurking in my fridge. I plated the ginger roasted beets alongside slices of raw red onion, and made a kale salad with red cabbage and various julienned root vegetables, topped with a simple dressing with oil, lemon, apple cider vinegar, and ginger kombucha. I completed this healthy and delicious feast with what better than a bowl full of cherries.