It makes acute demands on the reader, both cerebral and emotional. The mix of poetry and prose is extraordinarily effective and deliciously unpredictable… Williams’ poems are lucid, complex and uncompromising. And often urbanely or terrifyingly black. His prose pieces on AIDS are confronting, illuminating and totally unsentimental. His writing … describes the inner lives of both sufferers and carers. The ninth satire is an original and important book.
The Darkwood Aquarium is Anthony Lawrence’s third and best book to date. There was promise, and things to enjoy in his first two volumes, but in this substantial collection there is a maturity, an evenness and breadth of achievement that marks a considerable advance upon his earlier work. The book is divided into four sections, the first and last being more thematically varied than the middle two. The opening section has poems that explore the poet’s past, his childhood and adolescence, broadens to include several very fine love poems, and then travels further to encompass, amongst other matters, political situations in Belfast and the Middle-East. The middle sections are more unified, one dealing with poems about the sea and fishing, the other devoted to poets and artists that Lawrence admires. The final section is perhaps the darkest, Lawrence dealing here with death, and neurotic illness. These subjects are not only broached from the point of view of the individual, but more subtly investigated to suggest connections between the personal and the social. There are poems about genocide, about the death of animals, about individual and political violence, about disease and madness.
Across this very wide range of material Lawrence deploys a narrative style which combines an easily accessible prosaic syntax with the surprise of metaphor and diction which never strikes one as strained or self-consciously clever. Much in these poems depends on their rhythms, which although “free” in the sense that they are not overtly patterned, nevertheless have a precision and control which gives the poems a movement that always seems appropriate. Lawrence, then, can be passionate and cool by turns, but in many of the poems the strains of a haunting, understated romanticism which is never puerile can be heard. One experiences in the poems a religious sensibility in search of a belief, but most of all I took away from this volume an impression of the richness of life and—experience contained in the poems, even when they are at their bleakest. It is a most impressive achievement.
Stephen J. Williams’s The ninth satire is a challenging collection of poetry, fiction and biography, very little of which is satirical —but maybe that’s the “post-modern” joke. And with it is introduced the central puzzle of this collection. Williams wants to assert a plurality of voices in the book, and there is no question that he achieves this. But the problem resides in the relationship of the various voices and manners to each other. This is particularly true of the prose. The book opens with a determinedly playful, modern or post-modern air (my uncertainty here stems from my feeling the influence of Beckett on the prose—was he a proto post-modernist or merely a modernist?) with a number of pieces that are frightfully, self-consciously “clever,” and seem to be about the fragility of identity, the limitations of language, the gaps between perception and articulation. Towards the end of the book, however, we find two documentary-style narratives, one the “journal” of a man dying from AIDS, the other an account of a care-giving team helping a young family in which the father is dying of AIDS. These stories are both scarifying. They are prefaced by Williams’s assertions that questions of “Art” and “Literature” should not intrude upon the publication of such material, and further he contends that the journal of the dying “James” “shows how unnecessary and wasteful ‘good writing’ is.” Quite so. But why then are we subjected to all the arty, good/bad writing at the beginning of the book? It is either redundant, or its purpose is counter-productive, since by introducing the difficulties inherent within the idea of “authenticity” it allows the reader to question the authority of the “documentary” narratives. This is surely a dilution which works against Williams’s ostensible purpose.
My irritation with the non-documentary prose is only rendered greater by Williams’s manifest abilities as a poet. The poems in this volume are superb, and again the less overtly rhetorical they are, the better they are. “Flowers for the Dead” is a fine example: “So, when someone has died, do not take flowers with you. / When it is your turn to write about the dead do not write / About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God. / Tell it as it was. Get out your I hammer and drive the nail in.” Although I don’t think it works as a whole, there is plenty in this book to recommend it.
In both Lawrence’s and Williams’s work there is a sense of engagement with the stuff of contemporary life; there is a willingness in both to confront the less palatable aspects of passion as well as to seek a sense of praise. Both are writers with their hands dirty. Gary Catalano’s work is a different proposition. The opening poem of his Selected sets the tone, one, which, like the portrait on the front cover of the book, I find rather forbidding. The poem begins declaring that the poet will never “understand I that true poetic art / of writing from the heart”; it concludes, “The art, in poetry, / is not, like therapy, an existential rub: / A poem is not a pub.” Clever enough, I suppose, but I prefer pubs, and the warm, coarse fug of humanity that one breathes on entering. Catalano’s poems are glacial, cerebral and impersonal. They are spare, well crafted, and quiet. They seek “wisdom in stones,” and wish to transcend the hurly-burly. It is clear that they will appeal to some who are temperamentally sympathetic. I am not. There is for me in the book a backward looking preciosity about “art,” an Olympian allegiance despite the assertion that, “it’s still not / fully appreciated / that peasants always make / the best and most modern / artists …” This may be. Catalano, however, does not sound much like a “peasant” to me.
… In his just released brilliant collection of poetry, biography and fiction The ninth satire, Melbourne writer Stephen J. Williams covers wider territory. He includes ‘First and Last Words’, excerpts from a journal written and tape-recorded by James during the last four months of his life in 1987. The irony of us reading his description of his failing vision is both powerful and moving. Williams follows this piece with ‘Uncle Stranger’, another editing of someone else’s work, this time the diary of a member of a care team providing services to a PLWA.
The expected story isn’t told because no one behaves as they should. The PLWA is a bisexual husband with a wife and kids. The whole family is pissed off and angry. The wife doesn’t like having gay carers in the house. The kids have nits and are “a mess”. The carers are over-worked, underappreciated and stressed out. Nothing is neatly resolved, even when the husband dies.
With these two pieces, Williams demonstrates that AIDS biography can be constructed in ways other than as an almost classical tragedy with pre-determined roles.
As the nineties plod on, our need to hear the bereaved significant other’s story is likely to diminish. It’s now familiar territory for too many of us. The challenge for those inscribing AIDS will be to tell tales of the living …
Gary Dunne, reviewing the current literature on AIDS
The ninth satire is a mixture of “poetry, biographical fiction, non-fiction, dreams, fiction, portraiture, nonsense and comedy”. It’s a powerful collection, much more integrated than one would expect given the variety of styles and, indeed, variety of voices.
The title is taken from the Roman satirist Juvenal. His Satire Nine is the one quietly left out of collected translations and briefly described in otherwise lengthy descriptions of his work as “deals with vice”. In fact it deals with the problems a male prostitute has in conducting trade, the hypocrisy of his clients and city life in general.
Williams isn’t as vicious or obviously critical as Juvenal. I suspect the title has more to do with the way that aspects of contemporary living are just as quietly omitted or glossed over when what happened is eventually written up.
A number of the pieces deal with AIDS, often in ways that no other contemporary writer has tried. Williams continually challenges expectations. Carers are meant to be compassionate and motivated by selfless good, we don’t talk about their need to be needed. The unwell are meant to be brave and uncomplaining, we don’t talk about them being selfish or ungrateful. And death is talked about in the language of deepest sympathy cards, not with such lines as,
When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
hen it is your turn to write about the dead do not write
About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God.
Tell it as it was. Get out your hammer and drive the nail in.
There’s a similar raw honesty in the prose pieces, moving beyond the reassuring conventions and formulas we’ve come to expect. In ‘The Black King’ a man only gets to know his neighbour when he becomes a volunteer carer during the last months of his life. It’s an artificial relationship, not possible under any other circumstances. Neighbours in suburbia are meant to nod, smile and occasionally chat. The author and his neighbour play chess as the rules of their instant intimacy are established. When word gets out that he’s ill, the letterbox is filled with shit and his footpath is written on with red paint. It’s a chilling portrait of suburbia, lightened only by the ways in which various characters connect despite the circumstances.
Williams also confronts the question of who is speaking for whom. He includes the words and writings of others, pointing out the futility of claiming editorial independence. By placing and editing, he’s constructed a story as obviously as if he had written the words himself.
The ninth satire is a disturbing, challenging collection of work, one I can highly recommend. It’s published by Pariah Press, a Melbourne-based small publisher. If your local bookshop doesn’t have copies they can be obtained directly from the publisher, post free. It’s worth the effort.