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.
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:
(R-Steve Portman, Ohio)
The throne behind the throne—
his mommy (some mammy) [ H.
R.40] railroad(s) Freedom—
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.
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:
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 “the unity
The Great Chain
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
Tyrone Williams discusses his latest collection of poetry
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
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
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.
On Spec by Tyrone Williams. Omnidawn Publishing, 2007.
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’sOn Spec, its brazenly smart poetic language and its it.
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)
On Spec Tyrone Williams Omnidawn Publishing, 2008 $14.95
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
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).
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."
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.