Review of A crowd of voices in ‘Small, poignant details of hell’, The Weekend Australian, 1986

If the Auschwitz Poems [by Lily Brett] are minimalist, those of A crowd of voices often teem. It seems unreasonable to insist that a writer has only one voice, or that a collection should be unified, but too great a variety can make a book harder to talk about and such a collection can become a teasing thing when one discovers something one likes, only to then turn the pages vainly for something else like it.

There are many different forms in A crowd of voices—‘free’ verse, more structured rhymed poetry, ‘prose’ poems, stories—and many different tones and styles, from the wryly intellectual or cooly speculative to the lyrical or stridently engaged, and from the Tranteresque ‘The High Price of Travelling’ to a touch of Robbe-Grillet in ‘X Equals X’. The subjects, too, are just as various.

One’s attention is shifted constantly, rarely encouraged to settle. In this way the book does become a crowd of voices, but, as often in a crowd, it is hard to hear what anyone is saying.

The great risk of such writing is of mere cleverness, and Williams does not always avoid it. Too often—although there are lines, images, whole poems enough to prove that it can do more—the poetry engages the mind only, or seems more concerned to display a range of reading, talent and contacts than to explore a subject or emotion.

And, as when a sort of necessity leaves the writing, or the statement of feeling is not strong enough to shape itself, a touch of rhetoric enters the work (here mainly anaphora, the repeated use of the same opening word or phrase).

For all my reservations, however, the book is entertaining and alive with promise, and I shall await Williams’ next with interest. A crowd of voices was awarded the Anne Elder and Mary Gilmore prizes for a first book of Australian poetry. It is not hard to see why. There is abundant talent, and more than a touch of the poet here; all that he wants is direction.

David Brooks