Review of A crowd of voices, in ‘Mordant and threatening behind the bright detail’, Sydney Morning Herald, September 1986

Stephen J. Williams is a very good poet, whose promise is attested by his Mary Gilmore Prize, awarded for a first book of poetry by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

The cover of A Crowd of Voices features a Peter Booth painting. Williams’s most effective poems are similarly mordant, even threatening, behind the pantomime of occasions and bright detail. Even his jokes, like Booth’s beasts and fancy dress, are disturbingly serious.

Williams is tantalised by what lives behind blank spaces in a text, behind cult images and trendy behaviour, behind ideas and obsessions. ‘Epic Red’ and ‘Burning Poem’ are the most obvious examples.

You can burn an argument by falling silent,
though a word is logically uninflammable.
You can burn the midnight oil, have a burning
ambition or burning desire, burn money or
burn time. . . You can burn Dresden,
or burn Hiroshima, or burn the world.
Anything that burns or should not burn, that
you can burn, other people can burn, too.

Williams’s parody-ripostes to John Tranter and Rae Desmond Jones are some of the best contributions to current poetic writings of this type. In many of his poems you feel a large power of poetic analysis—this weight is behind even the lightly-touched-in allusion to a photograph, Mario Giacomelli’s ‘Scanno’.

Judith Rodriguez