Excerpt from review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, Robert Dessaix (ed.), The Sunday Age 7 November 1993

… If his intention is to uncover the gay presence in all of Australian writing then obviously we’re not going to get a whole book of stories about dance parties. It might have been a better tack on his part to include straight (as it were) non-fiction writing: AIDS hardly makes an appearance in this book on the grounds that it hasn’t been written about well enough in fiction. But then why not include John Foster’s extraordinary memoir ‘Take Me to Paris, Johnny’ or Stephen J. Williams’ ‘Uncle Stranger’ which simply as writing—never mind the category—are as accomplished as anything in this book and a good deal classier than the sample from Simon Payne, say.

Owen Richardson

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 here 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

Excerpt from review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, Robert Dessaix (ed.), Sydney Star Observer, Friday 1 October 1993, p. 19

Dessaix claims gay writers dealing with AIDS can only come up with story-lines of despair and “at times quite clichéd sentimentality”. Leaving aside my own recent fiction, I don’t see how this applies to Eric Michaels’ autobiographical Unbecoming, William Yang’s slide night monologue Sadness or any of Peter Blazey’s ‘Out & Out’ columns on the subject in Outrage; all writing of the highest standard that should have been included. Stephen J. Williams, Kerry Bashford, Alex Harding, Denis Gallagher, Tony Ayers and, indeed, a number of Dessaix’s contributors have all written about AIDS. Dessaix has chosen to virtually ignore the topic.

Gary Dunne

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