Tyrone Williams: Heretofore
Adventures of Pi reviews
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I felt like Jacob
wrestling the angel of mixed
blessings.
--Tyrone Williams


Lately I've been reading Tyrone Williams. Well, to be accurate, I've been reading him ever since I first saw some of his poems in Callaloo, but lately I've been reading these two most recent books. Adventures of Pi, from which the above lines are drawn, collects poems from the decade of the 80s.

Yesterday, the poet and critic Tyrone Williams traveled from Cincinnati to Cleveland in order to read and discuss his poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt from my introduction, along with a video clip from the event:

In late-2002, I began actively exploring the world of contemporary poetry. As a way to discover the names of poets, presses, and different aesthetics that interested me, I started reading pretty much any literary journal I could get my hands on. After a few months of scouring the small press and magazine section at Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, I found myself gravitating toward journals such as The Canary, Denver Quarterly, Fence, jubilat, Open City, and Verse.

In one of these magazines, the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of Fence, an article by Rodeny Phillips appeared that was titled “Exotic flowers, decayed gods, and the fall of paganism: The 2003 Poets House Poetry Showcase, an exhibit of poetry books published in 2002.” In addition to providing a comprehensive overview of the showcase, several sidebars located in the article’s margins offered “Best Of” lists: “Best Books of Experimental Poetry” and “Best Debut Collections,” for example. While each list contained a series of names and titles with which I was unfamiliar—but, subsequently, over the years would become intimately familiar—one name caught my attention due to the fact that it found its way onto no less than three of these lists (if my memory serves me correctly): Tyrone Williams and his first book c.c., published by Krupskaya Press.

Given that the Phillips article championed this poet and collection to such a high degree, I went online and ordered a copy. When the book finally arrived and I read through it, I was confronted with a style of poetry that was theretofore unknown to me. The writing in Williams’ first book employed radical notions of form, citation, appropriation, and marginalia, all the while remaining socially, politically, and culturally engaged. This, indeed, was not the type of poetry I had previously encountered (even with exposure to the High Modernists); no, this was something more daring, complex, and exciting. The poems of c.c., such as “Cold Calls,” “I am not Proud to be Black,” and “TAG” were avant-tour de forces that acted as catalysts for my own interest, involvement, and dedication to poetry over the course of the next twelve years.

In 2008, Omnidawn Publishing released Williams’ second book of poetry On Spec, which I would later use for my comprehensive exams as I pursued my doctorate. In a citation of his book that I wrote in 2010, I argued that the collection “explores the confluence of post-Language poetry and African-American poetic tradition” by entwining “diverse aesthetic and ideological lineages” through the use of “different idioms and whose contents are often thought to be at odds with one another.” Moreover, I noted the book’s “conflation of genres,” wherein the poems sought to “question the relationship between theory and poetry,” as well as drama; in doing so, Williams created a “transitional and often nebulous zone.” These “boundary-defying techniques” were further highlighted in his “use of check-boxes, errata and footnotes…mathematical equations, cross-outs, quotation, and liberal use of white space.”

Most recently, his 2011 collection Howell (Atelos Press), which is a reference to Howell, Michigan and conceived in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is an epic “writing through” of history that extends to nearly 400 pages in length.

For our course this semester, though, we read Williams’ Adventures of Pi: Poems 1980-1990. The collection takes a backward glance at the poet’s work, thus functioning as an interesting prequel in the development of a contemporary, poetic innovator. And although it does serve to flesh out his career trajectory, Adventures of Pi also offers readers engaging moments wherein the poet confronts the racial fissures in then-contemporary America in a straightforward but aesthetically compelling manner. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from his poem “White Noise (Fighting to Wake Up)”:

of a body dreaming two dreams,
only one of which is called
a black man in America,

the other, America
itself (18)

The notion that two dreams and two Americas exist within the speaker echoes, at least to me, the concept of double-consciousness as proposed by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, in which he famously wrote:

One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Furthermore, the form of Williams’ poem suggests an intensification of this “two-ness” through a strategic use of a stanza break between the two instances of “America” within the single, syntactical unit. In this sense, the poem fuses form and content in order to heighten its underlying conceptual framework.

Similarly, racial and cultural issues are addressed and challenged throughout the collection in poems such as “A Black Man Who Wants to be a White Woman” and “How Do I Cross Out the X Malcom.” Within these poems, Williams creates linguistic spaces wherein he’s “Scribabbling” his words into an “estranged language” (34) of neologism and wordplay in order to write a:

       story we make up about the other stories
[Which] Itself is made up of other stories:
Thus the three dimensions of history—plus history,
Remarkable violence (34)

Yes, stories made up of stories compound by other stories, all constructing an American narrative that resonates with the “Remarkable violence” inherent to the history of a country fraught with civil rights’ tensions and complex racial relations. But far from simply being a collection of didactic poems, Williams employs his heightened intellect, aesthetic sensibilities, and ear for the musical phrase in order to compose poems that address the political and social worlds while simultaneously providing aesthetic pleasures. In doing so, the poems challenge both our understanding of contemporary poetry and our concept of race in America today.

Tyrone Williams, Adventures of Pi Tyrone Williams is a philosophical poet, “down home” or even “homely” in a familiar sense. He is honest about everyday experience in itinerant America, “The houses into which we move, / The houses in which we move our bodies, / Remove the histories of our skins” (29). This discomfort is also mine. It pervades Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres 2011). Williams’s mind is a machine; his soul is generous. He recycles and repurposes what he has read, joining the postmodern with lessons from unexceptional daily experience. I find Deleuze and Disneyland, Benjamin in Hollywood, Adorno in a used car lot. Adventures of Pi is populated with automotive embodiments and disappointments: Escorts, Tempos, Mavericks, Cobras, Dodges, Benzes, BMWs; the loves and disappointments associated with driving, tired and weary, sad or drunk. The economics that force a man in particular to identify with his car is thematic to this particular version of America. I think of Ronald Johnson and his “Terraplane” where the singer returning home from prison just knows things in his world have gone terribly badly for him in his absence. “Death Drive” sums this theme: “There’s a car inside a man / and on his own he cannot work it out” (70). Melancholy and recognition of compromised manhood are central to the American psyche. There’s an effort not to bleed-out, a resolve. “Death Drive” ends “Accompanied by the strumming of the windshield wipers / he is singing a song to the sky // And his song is pouring from him / hemophiliac…” Maybe there’s a child in the back seat, humming. I also hear Williams’s deep reading of Russell Atkins. The largely underappreciated Cleveland poet, Atkin’s is a subject of Detroit-born Williams’s study in multiple senses. Reading Atkins enables Williams to muster and impart his own wise and melancholic perceptions. In Atkins, I hear that “strumming,” so hypnotic to Williams. In “While Waiting for a Friend to Come Visit a Friend” (courtesy of Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone), Atkins writes: the attendant keeps watch, watching that abrupt wild geranium grow a bat’s ears sardine flowers, moon’s eggs, stomach guitar (13) Multiple echoes of lessons learned from the scored speech and wisdom of Russell Atkins inform the pages of The Adventures of Pi, for instance “White Girl” (13) or “Hallucinogenic Toreador” (45) where I found these lines: of the painting nor a poem about the postcard or the painting or a postcard or a painting zebras leap over red blue white house stamp west south below dateline blue tribes from the north spread down and out as tributaries to the south- west territory of the moor (by way of S. Petersburg descendants). Beyond the riddle and humor of “what is red and white?” reading zebras, there are moors / Moors? And of course, St Petersburg is in Florida. The field of associations in open. An omnivorous reader, absorbing tonalities and thematics, during the summer of 2014, Williams graced the pages of Jacket 2 with multiple short reviews of the works of contemporary, post-language poets. Concerning recent work by Julian Brolaski, he wrote, “Usage begets and outpaces grammatical and syntactical rules.” This statement applies as well to Williams’s own poetry as it does to the metropolitan imagery of Brolaski. “Brolaski and the metropolitan imaginary,” Aug. 22, 2014. http://jacket2.org/commentary/brolaski-and-metropolitan-imaginary. The concluding poem of The Adventures of Pi gathers together many grammatical loose ends. Many poems end with a flourish: “no end to spectacle in the theater of cruelty // I’ll be waiting for you in the cardiology wing” (76). The failure of love to redeem echoes through multiple tender poems. “And I knew we’d never talk about the night / we tried to pretend we could fall sleep / in each other’s arms” (“Collage: Cross-Country Skier / Hannibal’s Son” 28). There’s a false note here. Hanno, a Carthaginian hero, perhaps Hannibal’s son, is mentioned by Ezra Pound in “Canto 40.”Is Williams following Pound in order to acknowledge the place of the African in the roster of heroic achievement? That’s hardly necessary. Perhaps for reasons similar to those that lead Kamau Brathwaite to mention Pound and Basil Bunting in “Letter Sycorax” (Middle Passages). In any case, Hanno by reason of his periplum along the West coast of Africa counts as one of Pound’s hero/mapmakers. Today the search for heroes of any sort only leads to fascism. That’s my private Brechtian morality. Boundaries, rather than resolving too often complicate human needs. In a snowstorm “white dotted lines are useless.” The image comes from “Border Clashes” (25-27). The poet his been to Canada. Returning to Detroit, he is challenged by the “flashing licenses and teeth” of the border agent. In a club, he experiences “the sweat of a hundred / worlds, the sweet and sour stench / of bargain-brand soap.” He is mindful of a couple that “had been found dead / in each other’s arms: / murder-suicide.” The poem concludes, self-medicated with booze, as the working classes have always done, “We weave our ways home, / as best we can, / in lanes of our own making” (25-27). It’s best to suspend our individual judgments and listen and reflect as Williams does on the commonalities of our human experience. Donald Wellman Posted Yesterday by donquixote7w Labels: Adventures of Pi African American Ezra Pound poetry Russell Atkins Tyrone Williams 0 Add a comment