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Reviews

On Spec by Tyrone Williams

Omnidawn 2008

Reviewed by Hansa Bergwall

My mother once gave me a Hallmark card that was both sappy and vaguely offensive. It said, “I am a pearl, in an oyster, under the sand, at the bottom of the Ocean. If you loved me, you would find me.” What gleams in Tyrone Williams’s poems in On Spec proves just as difficult to find. I will grudgingly admit that I found a couple of pearls. Be warned though, this book is cryptic and often seems deliberately designed to confuse and obfuscate. If Williams were in the business of making crossword puzzles, I suspect he would incorrectly number the clues out of spite.

If punctuation were salt for words, Williams has unscrewed the shaker. His periods, dashes and ellipsis heap up on the words that would have anyone brave enough to recite these poems stuttering. I suspect much of his extraneous marks are mere visual adornment. He is also fond of cerebral punning he will use parentheses to fit two words in the space of one: “lo(f)ts,” for example. It’s all very distracting. It either hides what is good in the poems, or hides that there is nothing good in the poem. Here is an example of the latter:

Deventure

                                                       (R-Steve Portman, Ohio)

The throne behind the throne—

                pseud/ascepter—

his mommy (some mammy) [ H.

                R.40] railroad(s) Freedom—

center(s) liberte

               fixe—

                               credit deferred

(Portman-/portwoman-/{portar}-/

portress-/carriage-house-/{slave}-

quarters/cabin-(et te) Bush...

I sense this poem vaguely criticizes Republicans. The nature of the complaint is about as clear as someone mumbling, lips barely parted, clearly angry but not yet with enough courage to speak. Much of the book reads like this poem.

Several times in the book, Williams writes something as clear, bright and fresh as anything being written today. With subtle brilliance he delivers on his themes of the African American experience, gang violence, political suppression, a broken incarceration system. These moments, though rare, are exceptional. In “Descant,” a ghost runs from his newly slain body:

Descant

I left my heart in the teeth of jumper-cables—

black tongue, superfluous nipples…

 

By the time I hit the yellow tape—

it was already turning red…

 

Of my fair and alabaster love?

My redundant chains drawn in chalk?

 

Halfway to the stars I stopped—

turned, spat—it’s too late baby…

The poem inhabits its space of a crime scene although the voice rings from beyond life. The heart gripped in jumper cables is as arresting an image as they come. The regret in the voice, of a life wasted hits upon the tragic and expansive. At the same time, the body is fenced off in yellow tape and white chalk. The punctuation clearly aids the rhythm of the voice. If a majority of the poems in On Spec, read like this one I would give it rave reviews.

But more often, Williams banishes his readers into labyrinths of abstraction and theory. The style of these abstract musings varies wildly but it isn’t pleasant in any form:

 

qua tertium

quid—qua

“natural equivalence”

 

qua “the unity

of analogy”—qua

The Great Chain

 

Of Being—qua

It is tedium I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It is particularly disappointing for a poet who shows such raw talent in the rare poems like “Descant.” Line after line of academic theory references will go by without one rhythm or image to bring the reader back to something bodily, sensual, or engaging.

The themes Williams espouses about identity, imprisonment, slavery and prejudice come through on occasion with brilliance. I wish he more consistently brought his language down to earthly sounds and images so that the brilliant ideas ran throughout. But Williams chose the cryptic and cerebral route most often and it proves tedious. I do not recommend this book.

--April 14, 2008

Books: Complex History

Dr. Tyrone Williams discusses his latest collection of poetry

By Steven Lansky

. . . . . . .

 

Raven Bull


Dr. Tyrone Williams, author of On Spec

Dr. Tyrone Williams is a poet and literary theorist born in Detroit. He's been in the English Department at Xavier University since 1983.

On Spec is his second book of poetry. Published this February by Omnidawn, this collection reads like a hybrid text, full of brief epigraphs which generate an intertextuality that seems to be in motion, pulling narrative elements, experimental elements, a vastly complex table of contents and juxtaposed details chock-full of micro-punctuation, interspersed with black vernacular.

Williams has taken African-American narrative lyric poetics and cross-pollinated them with experimental language poetry. On Spec is comparable to the work of Junot Diaz and also hearkens to Jean Toomer's Cane, while capturing the playful qualities of Richard Brautigan. Where rhythm, punctuation, page placement, repetitive headings and wordplay take over, the work is less narrative, less lyric and more cryptic, driven by elusive links that a close reader struggles against, occasionally getting stuck.

My strategy when I started reading was to open up to my own ignorance, so wherever I came across an epigraph I couldn't identify I used Google. Lo and behold, I discovered a world of literature, music and minutia that Williams intersperses among his energetic lines. For example, Sam "Boonie" Walton is mentioned in a poem entitled: "Is He Still Black Qua Charged" which goes in part:

The inevitable as other

than mediation, what

nonetheless holds out as it is taken in, what

wags the heads, face down in pools of belly

buttons.

My parenthetic explication: (Walton was on the New York Jets Super Bowl team led by Joe "Willie" Namath. Walton played every regular season game with the Jets that year, but did not play in the playoffs or Superbowl. He was a very large lineman. He was the second member of the team to die, at age 57, a homeless vagrant. He had slipped into oblivion.)

The poem concludes:

How far away were "Sam" and "Boonie"

[one, a star, one, "a homeless vagrant"]

when they started shooting at one another

over a continent shaped like a navel?

Other epigraphs, dedications and quotations mention Kathy Aker, Yvonne Vera, Steve McCaffery, Steve Chabot, Robert Rauschenberg, Michael Oxley, Stephen Sondheim, Dmitri Tiomkin, Jagger/Richards, Michelle Wallace, Siri Hustvedt, Katherine Durham, Thomas Green Bethune, Sherrie Levine and Lauryn Hill.

It's great fun to read the music of Dr. Williams' poetry and browse the Internet learning about his complex world of interconnected poetics. This is a collection that needs more time to be read and re-read, to be discussed among poets and theorists, and to be heard read aloud by its author.

CityBeat had the opportunity to ask Williams a few questions.

CityBeat: When I first heard you read aloud in the '90s, you had some works which seemed in keeping with the rhythms of the black lyric tradition: Blues poems, Jazz poems, narrative musical pieces that seemed familiar. You also read some experimental pieces. It seems here in On Spec you have bound the two approaches together. How did this happen?
Tyrone Williams: It's largely a matter of reading a wide range of poetry and fiction, a great deal of it experimental, avant-garde, what have you. For me the growing complexity of the work is simply a reflection of my sense of the growing complexity of the world, especially as it concerns people of the African diaspora.

CB: The varying structures in this collection, starting with the table of contents, suggest a larger order. There's a playfulness, a rejection of uniformity and a sense of experiment, yet the experiments have common elements, poems that appear in couplets, triplets or otherwise in patterned line structures and use of parenthesis around individual letters within words to generate ambiguity. All this is carefully crafted. Can you talk about this without getting too theoretical?
TW: Absolutely. It has nothing to do with theory per se. I was going to call the book AAB but I wound up using that title for a small chapbook of poems in 2004. Nonetheless, I think the format of the book and the use of interrelated and cross-stitched titles, lines and themes is a reflection of the AAB motif -- which is, of course, the foundational structure of Blues and Jazz in particular and all of popular music in general.

CB: Could you explain the section heading: Eshuneutics?
TW: That was actually going to be the title of the book. It's a play on, revision of, hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, which I read as etymologically derived from the Greek god Hermes (Mercury, in the Roman lexicon). Eshu is Eshu-Legba, the African god akin to Hermes. Both are trickster figures and gods of messages, communication.

CB: What would you want a reader to take away from this collection?
TW: A sense of the complexity of the history of African-American lives, a complexity resilient and resistant to our ongoing challenges, both internal and external.


TYRONE WILLIAMS' On Spec is available at www.omnidawn.com.

 

 

 


Top of Form

 

Bottom of Form

On Spec by Tyrone Williams.  Omnidawn Publishing, 2007.

Refracted voice?   Polyvocal?  Yes, and in several dimensions, besides.  You’ll recognize the language Williams pulls and pools but be surprised page after page to see it combined in ways at once cutting edge and historically grounded.  Hear both Gene Kelly and Wallace Stevens in “can’t go singin’ in/ the there.”  Williams directly quotes rapper Lauryn Hill, directly quotes linguistic philosopher Jacques Derrida, quotes American Culture quoting the Stockmarket quoting Politicians quoting Musicians quoting Poets quoting American Culture.  Get lost in Tyrone William’s On Spec, its brazenly smart poetic language and its it.

 

 

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Featured Title – On Spec by Tyrone Williams

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Tyrone Williams | On Spec | Omnidawn | 2008 | Goodreads | LibraryThing | 3 mentions in Attention Span 2008

Massively riveting. A linguistic ultrasound into the innards of language. (Marcella Durand)

Cornucopia of hybrid texts. Jimmy Webb and Jacques Derrida tango on one page: “Pop ain’t s’posed to drawl and corn in the bright can’s just plain wrong.” “Derrida clarifies and develops this difference between the Platonic and Christian concepts of the soul in Chapter Three.” (Keith Tuma)

Also mentioned by Michael Kelleher.

Written by Steve Evans

June 12, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Attention Span 2008, Featured Title

Tagged with Keith Tuma, Marcella Durand, Michael Kelleher

 

 

 

 

Arch Literary Journal

on On Spec by Tyrone Williams

J. Peter Moore


On Spec

Tyrone Williams
Omnidawn Publishing, 2008
$14.95

::

Fuse People


In the introduction to Blues People, Amiri Baraka identifies the acquisition of English as "one beginning of the Negro's conscious appearance on the American scene" (xii).  Linguistic based formations of identity, such as Baraka's, provide one linage for the excess of speculation Tyrone Williams embodies in his most recent book, On Spec.  It is no surprise that Williams' latest effort - a recovery of historical African American outsiders like Thomas Green Bethune, Thomas Fuller and Sam "Boonie" Walton - occasions Baraka's mapping of blues ontology.  However, if a serviceable comparison is to made it lies less in the racially relevant findings that both men bring to the table and more in the pressurized negotiation they stamp upon their respective expressions.  Baraka - caught between two conflicting histories: white intellectualism and the origins of American Black culture - envisions the moment when the slave decided America was "important enough" to be passed on in some kind of hyphenated language.  In so doing, he becomes the dialogic "man [from his own introduction] who looked up in some anonymous field and shouted, 'Oh, Ahm tired a dis mess, / Oh, yes, Ahm so tired a dis mess'" (xii).  Likewise, Williams enacts - by way of indefinite embeddings, non-recoverable deletions and ellipses - the incongruity of post-structural literary theory and the vernacular history of black speaking subjects.  

The object, then, for the reader of a Williams' poem is to face this incongruity, without underestimating the importance of its departure.  These are not strict observations on racial and ethnic identity; rather, their observations on racial and ethnic identity are not confined to their content.  From poems that engage the doublespeak of mathematics, eugenics and professional sports, Williams concentrates on prosodic possibilities, abolishing the knee-jerk pedagogy of What is this poem about?  His title forecasts as much, privileging inclusive speculation over foregone conclusion and pure aesthetism.  In the poem "Other Wards at the Hospice," Williams references his penchant for redirecting grammatical assumptions of the definite: "standards at an angle" (113).  And, through ludic embellishments, he renews the disquieting state of our union, felling the court system in "Is He Still Black Qua Charged;" the school system in "No Child: The Blockbuster Success of Left Behind;" and capital hill in "Chabotcropping." 

His is a poetics of approach - as in setting out on an approach but also as in an approaching storm.  In "Outsourced Corrections Facility" the poet affirms as much.  Rooting his utterance in a history as it unfolds, Williams recites "the alphabet in media, in res" (36).  Subsequently, the entire collection wavers between well-wrought approach and the approach of an outlying, unconscious system of signification.

The book's opening poem, "Written by H'self," speaks to this crossroads between lapidary control and flagrant open association.  His "catch-as-catch-can" approach to Eliot, "Individual talent / divides tradition," and Dubois, "into tithes, tenths" (17),  destabilizes what he will later call "the old cliché of American history: the individual a part of, and apart from, a community" (63).  Rather than become representative of insularity, Williams' experiment questions his own affiliation with the coterie of conceptual poetry.


The signature public

the only avant-garde

behind invention (17)


Williams resists aligning himself strictly inside or outside the avant-garde.  He occupies both, qualifying aestheticism with an indictment of the discriminatory history of the avant-garde, while paradoxically putting avant-garde's practicum to use. In the above poem, one might read "behind," not as in the cause of but as in outmoded, i.e. behind the times.  Likewise, the word "signature" initiates Williams' book-spanning collaboration with Jaques Derrida.  "Signature public," an allusion to the essay "Signature, Event, Context," intimates Derridean considerations of speech as not subordinate to writing.  Intellectual currency such as this enriches Williams' heckling of socially constructed notions of illiteracy, endowing it with a sharply honed attack on the sometimes-illiterate advancers of the avant-garde.

Poems like "Incant ®x," "Little x Little," and "Planet X," reinforce signature's pertinence to the dialectic of literate/illiterate.  Each attends to those who initial their name with the x's anonymous mark.  In "Incant ®x," we see the symbiosis between abject poverty and illiteracy, "there are many crosses in the lean-to" (19).  And, in "Planet X," Williams crates the Platonic notion that written speech seems to speak, but only succeeds in repeating itself:

You do -

or can -

or will -

not repeat my selves (111)

"Little x Little" alludes to the autodidactic inmate turned black leader, Malcolm Little, and his eventual substitution of x for a surname.  In this, Williams renders one of the text most cogent appellations for illiteracy


...Gated ghettoes:

know from know-how?

Went west (boys to BoyZ)

Mature :: castrati - as reading is to (25)


Surprisingly, On Spec only briefly gestures to Jean Toomer.  Perhaps one possible reason may be that Cane constitutes a secret Williams secrets in the open.  From dynamic forces that evolve into errata notices, short theatrical scripts and prose block essays, On Spec repossesses Toomer's fusion of poetry, narrative and chant.  Intertextuality of this sort is nothing new for Williams.  His earlier sonnet sequence, published in c.c., entitled "I Am Not Proud To Be Black," is so admittedly shaped by quotations from the likes of Charles Bernstein, Ralph Dickey and Anne Spencer, that Williams attaches a Works Cited page.  Likewise, On Spec becomes the "city of recommended summer reading," which Williams makes mention of in his poem "P.P.S (am)" (118).  "Everything," as he states in "Other Wards of the Hospice," "hinges.../ on the necessity of quotation marks" (113).  Reminiscent of Susan Howe, Williams' trace invites the reader to discover their own interconnectedness with the library.  In facing these other texts, the true difficulty of On Spec begins.  Wise to the bibliographic subject/object dilemma, Williams ends his poem "No Contessas" with the lines from Siri Hustvedt's novel The Blindfold, "Every day, I sat in the library, staring at a great work of literature that I could not read.  My head was in the way..." (34).

Comprised of page-length prose blocks, the section entitled "Four Dialogues," centralizes this issue of where one's head belongs in relation to both literature and cultural phenomenon.  These essays tackle, among other things, the absence of a lead article in Ellison's titling of Invisible Man and Richard Pryor's defamed usage of racial epithets.  Beneath each of these paragraphs, Williams strings along a detailed synopsis of Derrida's The Gift of Death.  What immediately resonates about this section, besides the passing off of eloquent academic prose as poetry, is the clear applicability of the theoretical considerations to the passages they postscript.  And, yet, Williams evades sublimating them, reinforcing On Spec's unconcealed relationship with difficulty.  The white space between the two paragraphs compels the reader to view their content as distinct, even as we read William's examination of deconstruction in "Preface 2", "Not-x is incorporated within x.  Indeed x could not function as x without not-x" (65).  Another effect borrowed from the history of literary theory is the routine appearance of graphs, variables and charts, as exemplified in the works of Freud, Saussure and Lacan.  Of all of these, Williams seems most related to Lacan, whose repetitive, nonstandard usage of variables and mathematical figures function as rebus, rather than quantitative formula.

As alluded to in my title, Williams' On Spec - in its intermingling of extracts - might best be viewed as the poet's own personal attempt at canon-making.  But, Williams' cannon, a pool of vocal tics, draws more from the anxiety of affluence than influence.  Few, if any, contemporary poets rival Williams in his ability to address the enormous tragedy of a dream deferred without breaking the sanctimonious bow: "Moses, Mohammed and Jesus huddle in a smoke-filled room...Finally, after thousands of years, they come to an agreement: a synopsis with an interchangeable title (Bible, Torah, Ou'ran, Terry Schiavo, etc" (59).  Just as his poems fuse together MicK Jagger with Jesse Jackson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe with Stephen Sondheim; they also function as that strip of wire that melts and breaks an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safe level. With Williams, we are given an utterance that is not about (to) collapse, nor is it about (to) pick up the pieces; it is a line, a line of thinking, a line of sight, a line of duty.  And most of all, it is a time line exploding into "Doo wah doo wah." 

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TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2010

On Spec

Williams, Tyrone. On Spec. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2008.

Tyrone Williams' On Spec explores the confluence of post-Language poetry and African-American poetic tradition; the entwining of diverse aesthetic and ideological lineages is no more apparent than midway through the collection in “Four Dialogues, Five Fish, One Bowl (Interrogation Procedures).” Within this serial piece, the author juxtaposes critical examination of prominent twentieth-century black artists with a rigorous study of Derrida's The Gift of Death. For instance, in “Preface 1,” Williams informs readers that the “unnamed narrator” from Ralph Ellison'sInvisible Man “functions as an example of the absent indefinite article; he is just another black man poised at the edge of history, peering into the oblivion” (63). The poet couches his critique within language (i.e. the lack of an article in the book's title), but focuses on black identity in “American history: the individual as simultaneously a part of, and apart from, a community” (63). Immediately following the paragraph on Invisible Man, a second paragraph analyzes Derrida's theory of deconstruction and explains how the French philosopher argued that “foundational oppositions,” in fact, were not so much oppositions, but, when given “x and not-x, not-x is not only the polar opposite of x but, in fact, is contained within x” (63). To this extent, both paragraphs, while written in different idioms and whose contents are often thought to be at odds with one another (see Joyce-Gates-Baker debate), seek to understand and come to terms with a fundamental, philosophical paradox: in one case framed as a subject both “ a part of, and apart from” a collective, and in the other case “x and not-x” both outside of and “contained within x.” No doubt, Williams' investigation of the aforementioned subject-matter stems from his understanding as an experimental African-American poet that “The signature public/ the only avant-garde/ behind invention” (17) has often times dismissed the “Smoke to motion...rhythm of evading/ Low-down mast, new-hold plank, whip-/ Taut” music found in blues, jazz, and oral traditions (riffing, improvisation, and punning), as something other than the “advanced guard.” But, by shrewdly combining the two, such as when he writes “Auto-didact/-dialectics/ stage in rent-to-rent/ 'crowded houses,' asea to har-har-/ poon Terrible Tom's tom-tom/ stutter” (21), both poetic strains are “contained within” each other, via word-play. It is not so much that the poet resolves the tension between traditions, but that he allows them to exist concurrently within his aesthetic. Another aspect of On Spec that bears mention is the book's conflation of genres. With regard to the previously discussed “Four Dialogues..,” the poet encourages readers to question the relationship between theory and poetry: What are their similarities? What are their differences? And how are we, as readers and writers, affected by our placement within the transitional and often nebulous zone between them? Similar questions can be asked when approaching “Brer R(g).” The piece is a five-part play, initially performed for the Bay Area Poets Group in 2004. The text, whether dialogue or stage directions, contains language that is simultaneously spare and associative, fostering a distinctly Beckettian aura that necessitates the audience connect the elliptical moments, passages, movements, and vocalizations with their own words and experiences. Other boundary-defying techniques Williams employs are the use of check-boxes, errata and footnotes delimited both spatially and visually in non-traditional manners, mathematical equations, cross-outs, quotation, and liberal use of white space. An additional poetic technique the author uses rather frequently is the hard enjambment, regularly breaking on syllables mid-word; for example: “green-/ print/ for/ a/ shot-/ gun/ a-/ part-/ ment” (141). By slowing down the readers' cognition through accumulation of fragmented phonemes, both spatially and temporally, we find that “Enjambment disables” intellect in favor of “affective minimals” (114). Or stated differently, by radical use of “Enjambment” and the creation of phonetic “minimals,” the poems “disable” our immediate understanding of them, instead offering us confusion, play, mystery, anxiety and these psychological states' “affective” responses.

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