On a raw day on a city street, young people are playing a percusion of ropes and soles.
‘… six children jump Double Dutch in autumn
rain, and the ropes’ helix is a seventh seeing.’
It becomes a place where myth and story and lived experience seem to deepen and charge the air, and people meet across time.
It can be a place of danger and persistence, anger and loss, and beauty — as the young women dance in the shifting space between the ropes, stretching and finding clear spaces, sweating and quick on the wet pavement.
Phillip B. Williams, nationally awardwinning poet and professor of Literature at Bennington College, walks through this place in his newest book, Mutiny: a rebellion, a subversion, an onslaught — an intimate, infinite space where he can re-form poetry at a quantum level, knead the raw material and make it new, like the first moment of a planet or a particle or a god.
In this poem, listening to teenagers chant as they skip, he thinks of biloko bells, mythic sounds in a tonal Bantu language. In a word he invokes people telling stories, facing danger and protecting the ones they love, along the curve the Congo river.
The ropes hold a space between them, and it changes …
‘… opens and closes like an eye-
lid and through its quick-fire lens the smallest
child jumps. Rain in their hair, their bare feet
slap concrete church-rhythmic
as tambourines. …’
Under this lens, he is taking apart worn out ideas to forge new ones. He wants to expand on the possibilities in his own work, he said, and to retire often-used tropes and symbols in his own writing, to revitalize his imagination and push for newer ideas.
He may move between gods and myths, historic events and private moments — the day 15 men and boys died, shot on their own land on the Texas border, and the intimacy and discomfort in caring for someone seriously ill.
He traces patterns of historical violence in the past as they repeat in the present, if they are not recognized and altered. Words can flatten or allow complexity, he said. They can hold power or take power away, and the stories people tell and teach can open possibilities or shut them down. They can heal — or burn.
He calls many of his poems here final — final poem for the field of poetry, for the moon, for the deer, for the ‘Black Body,’ for a king — “Final poem for my father misnamed in my mouth,” “Final poem for war during war.”
He holds them as final, he said, because he is looking clearly at words and ideas he wants to change. He will show what is broken in them, warped or malformed. Some have been used to enforce brutal acts, or to hide consequences. And some have begun as protest or affirmation and shifted until they mean something different, even opposite.
Strip away these worn out comparisons, and what new words and worlds can emerge? What are the poems after the final poems?
Poets use metaphor to reveal and deepen a complex experience, he said, and what happens when they are hiding behind the image and not seeing directly their own emotional need? He will look at an image he often sees, like a deer hunted or bleeding on the side of a road.
“We’re writing about our own vulnerability or our own fear, our own lack of a sense of control or power,” he said. “Someone’s driving a car and they see the dead deer and they’re thinking about their failed relationship. Just talk about the failed relationship. Just go straight there. … There’s been apprehension of going there directly, to the marrow.”
Strip away these worn out comparisons, he said, and what new words and worlds can emerge? What are the poems after the final poems?
From a moment in daily life, he broadens out to look at the larger forces that shape it, and from one image he moves to all the poems a student meets in class and the conversation a culture weaves together — from myths and histories, novels and news stories to Instagram and wikipedia.
He challenges ideas of “what is worthy of writing about,” he said, “who gets to populate the poems as illusion, and what is the correct way of navigating history” — and he opens to new skies, like the narator in The Flying African, moving freely across continents.
‘… I wedded Cuba
and departed in a hurricane’s revolving hunger,
Amadioha snatching palm leaves
from my swamp-whelmed hair.’
Amadioha is the Alusi, the god or spirit of thunder of the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria, and he holds the voice and force of the gathered will of his community of people. Williams draws in ideas he carries with him, he said, from his own reading and upbringing and experience.
“I just wanted to involve more of what I was currently interested in within the writing of the book,” he said, “and it wasn’t the Western tradition — it was more African diasporic traditions and memories of growing up as a Black child on the West side of Chicago. And to bring all of those interests, and my life, into the poems — there wasn’t really room for the canon with a single ’n.’ There wasn’t space for it, and there wasn’t need for it.”
In his writing life, a canon with one ’n’ has often felt like a cannon with two, he said.
“It began to feel like a trap — a cage is a better word.”
And so he ranges across countries and mythologies and times, and he brings them into his own. In his own words, he can cross the world or lift toward the moon …
‘… like any body of water compelled into risk,
pulled up the god-ladder of your gibbous
… in the galaxy that breathes your many names:
Tsukuyomi, Coyolxˉauhqui, Chang’e, Khonsu …’
A friend read the book, he said, and told him it’s a book about consent — about permission and power. He agrees — a mutiny means people taking charge of the ship.
“Tie up the captain, it’s not working any more,” he said. “This is for us — and how can we be mutinous in our own lives — how can we say, you can’t be the puppeteer anymore. I have to own myself and do what I will with myself, and I have to defend my right and need to have an individual perspective, to have a life, without there always being an outside force trying to tamp that down.”
Mutiny means a group of people on the ship taking the navigation into their hands.
“We’re changing the destination,” he said. “We’re changing the ways in which rations are distributed. The entire culture of the space in which the mutiny occurs changes, based on who’s in power, who’s taken power.”
In some poems here he explores shifts in power with stark clarity. January 28, 1918 is set on the day a troop of Texas Rangers, U.S. Cavalry, and four ranchers shot 15 men and boys who were living quietly, working on their own land — land they held deeds and titles to — land where the ranchers and authorities had no shadow of a claim.
Henry Warren, an Anglo-American schoolteacher, and his student, Juan Flores, found the dead people, Williams explains in the poem. Warren made the only written record of their names. Flores’ father was one of them, and the boy was one of 140 people who survived. They packed what they could and walked into Mexico to look for refuge. And the Rangers razed their homes to the ground, so that no trace of them was left.
“This was their land,” Williams said. “… That’s what’s so hugely unfair about that massacre. There was no preparation that could be had for it. They were not outnumbered, but they were outgunned, and there was no reason for them to assume a position of submissiveness, because they were where they were always been.”
“… Those who were exiled, they didn’t get a chance to see the very last moments of their home before it was erased,” he said.
He writes about the families crossing into Mexico and looking back to see the people they have lost all wedded to their shadows.
‘… darkening the future behind
their leaving. When asked if the fifteen were alive or dead,
the wind said, They are home. They are in your hands.’
And so here he sets their experiences at the center, and the young women playing Double Dutch in the rain, and his grandmother in her illness, and earlier generations of men and women and children living enslaved in this country, and his own.
He wants to look squarely at their lives, and to hold an honest space for anger and pain.
“That’s the plan,” he said, “to write something to continue to resonate, and to allow for anger to be the thread. And whoever who can read through it, thank you, because there are ways we’re taught to shy away from any kind of anger.
Anger is a valid emotion, he said. People often turn away without hearing the web of feelings and experiences that come with it or considering the causes for it.
“Anger can be toxic,” he said,” but when its righteous, when it’s an understanding of what needs to happen and no one’s listening, and it’s from frustration, it’s often dismissed in ways that are only to protect what needs to change.”
“No matter how its expressed, (it) is seen as overly abundant, as being too much, as being something that bursts from the seams in an unneccesary way, and that’s just not true. So how can we express it — how can we get it out, if we want to be heard — what are some healthy ways to get that to happen, to use anger as a catylist for some kind of evolution, or revolution?”
‘There’s a lot of love in the book, and sometimes just looking, just seeing.’
Anger runs together here with pain and grief and fear, and traces of humor, though it can be dark humor, and also love.
“There’s a lot of love in the book,” he said, “and sometimes just looking, just seeing, like in the poem The Field.”
In one way, it is a poem about about the land, the tough, dry grass and the depleted soil. And in another, in the sense of the growth the land has lost, there is a sense of fertility.
“… It’s about this gaping emptiness that could feel relatively lonely,” he said, “and there’s still an energy of being watched, of being pursued. And in some ways that can feel like an embrace. There’s still life there.”
Even in a poem like Black Joy, when words meant to affirm life and strength become a way to deny pain, even here the speaker is still looking for joy, he said. They have never given up on finding what they need.
He sparks life too in the words he chooses. They are detailed and rich in meaning. They can bring the associations of a legend or a language, a philosophy or an ecosystem — he has picked each one carefully, he said. He may choose a word like niveous because it makes him think of what snow is made of, the essence of the color, or the texture of cold, fresh powder.
“I’m looking for the tincture,” he said.
Sometimes he is looking for a color and a shade of feeling.
in the mesquite, pyrrhuloxia singing bloodsong bush
to bush, a red flock burning the bush.’
Pyrrhuloxia is a bird native to Mexico, he said, and they are red as blood. He thinks of words like this as a need — and an invitation He wants readers to meet him equally in the text, and he believes they can.
“It’s so often the case that people see a word that they don’t know, and it creates a visceral reaction,” he said. “You just don’t know the word? Just look it up. … It’s just a different, deeper way of reading. … I have faith in you — that’s why the word is there.”
“… and this might be the last thing I can say — the singing is important, and you have to have the right words to sing, otherwise everything can sound like a flat note. How do you make percussion where there needs to be percussion, and how do you soften it with a vowel sound and through all of those sounds reflect the emotion in the poem?”
They reflect the infinite shades of experience of people dealing with loss, holding each other and trying to shift the world they live in. The tone and the beat of the words carries that feeling, and the web of stories that move across generations, the way an African song can become a field holler, can become a work song, can become a skipping rhyme. And the pain a woman felt generations ago can give expression to the pain a man feels today.
Williams ends the book with a poem called ‘In the beginning,’ and with the children calling to each other in the twin circles of the skipping rope.
‘… where language breaks into molecule and memory,
skin as percussion …
Words drop like seeds to this hard, wet ground.’