Review of The ninth satire in Australian Book Review, October 1993, No. 155

For years Decimus Junius Juvenalis’s Satire Nine, in which a male prostitute rails against the difficulties of conducting his profession, was tastefully omitted from the standard editions and translations of Juvenal’s poetry in English (e.g., Dryden, Swift and the well-known J.D. Duff version, 1897, 1970).

Stephen J. Williams invokes this absence in his new collection, The ninth satire. Juvenal’s gigolo, Naevolus, in the schizophrenic diary poem ‘18 December 1990’, is haunted by unfulfilled fables: “Desire is shapeless, painful, empty. Love is the feeling which fills emptiness.”

The volume, a mixture of poetry, prose, fiction and biography, follows Williams’s acclaimed first book, A crowd of voices, which in 1986 won the FAW’s Anne Elder prize and ASAL’s Mary Gilmore Award. The preface, ‘Last Word’, includes the earlier book in its apologia for this one in that both “pay no attention to the interesting notion that writers should have identifiable, stable voices”. The prose is largely disowned as “in varying degrees, not mine, though I either wrote it or am responsible for its representation here … Perhaps all stories are, in some way, only stories about stories.”

The ninth satire is framed by two diary extracts presented in an interlocutory form, foregrounding the interdependence of truth and lies. ‘Since Jerusalem’ starts:

The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m going to write down her is true. Obviously I’m going to lie a bit here and there because you can’t tell everything you know about someone unless you’re trying to hurt them …

It’s an impressive opening piece, weaving in and out of a kind of aunt’s story—a phantasmagorical slippage between dream and desire, sanity and madness, relating both to a loss of spiritual potency in general and post Second World War in particular. But it also mirrors a dilemma at the heart of the volume: some pieces want to teach, tell, ‘mean something’: “The purpose of a poem is to say what is—with the force/Of a hammer”. And yet other pieces want to play, prevaricate, delight in deferral:

Avoid truth and morality at almost all costs. These are the two most destructive forces in human relations. Besides which, they are a little like reigning monarchs: no one planning to have a really good time ever invites them to parties.

His concern with truth links Williams even more closely with Juvenal, although Williams is more textually inventive and various than Juvenal; less splenetic and derisive, more subtly crafted, moody and intellectually challenging as cultural and literary criticism. But I must admit I found the book on the whole less forceful and incisive than I thought I might, despite containing some very fine individual poems.

Certainly the first section’s epigraph, from Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 35’ strikes a note of cold comfort:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eslipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

And Williams is capable of both high and low notes: “Satire is proper and fair only among people capable of comprehending it, otherwise you might as well be wearing art-print boxers.” Again, in ‘Thingward Ho!’: “Dressing for sex is, by definition, attractive. Verbal bonking isn’t.”

Section 2 also uses ‘Sonnet 35’, articulating the sense that life is a kind of dream, fraught with unfulfillment. The key figure here is Ishmael—the dispossessed: “My life is the plain, the sun;/and for my heart, an arrow.” But there is also, intriguingly focussing on inspiration, ‘The Mystic Writing Pad’:

Between its lines
the mind’s silence, fires
light night’s empty dome,
and all my whisperers come
to warm their hands
and snigger.

Section 3, ‘Self-Criticism’, contains some fine brief poems such as the ‘The Breach’ and ‘A Prayer’, which are metaphysical in their linking of death and ordinary life.

Section 4 has both the most and least satisfying pieces in The ninth satire. ‘Flowers for the Dead’ has a poise linking Williams, through A.D. Hope, back to Shakespeare and Donne for the way vernacular English is fused to metaphoric resonance:

Ask me why I write so many poems about the dead
And I tell you it is because there are so many of them.
Ask me why these poems must be written and I tell you
It is because other poems are wrong and must be corrected.

When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
Make poems in the teeth of your grind jaw and bursting head.
The dead don’t need flowers or poems about flowers.
The dead leave pain behind them so we know we are still alive.

On the other hand, I must say I found a large part of this section prosy and flaccid. The AIDS diary (‘First and Last Words’) and the accompanying care team’s account (‘Uncle Stranger’) just did not grab me.

The darkly brooding figure of Charles Blackman’s ‘The Mask’, 1989, with its sombre crimsons and indigoes, is apt for the cover of this seductively dismal focus on a metaphorical embrace of mortality, suffering and unsentimental unfulfillment.

Dorothy Porter heralded these as powerful, transgressive and original poems. Death, defeat and deferral certainly haunt them. But The ninth satire’s title proposes a unity in which the whole might be greater than the parts. I don’t think Williams quite achieves this since some of the parts aren’t all that satisfying. Some, however, are very, very good.

David Gilbey