Phillip B. Williams — Love and sadness in free verse

Bound, it begins.

Wasn’t night what lingered where sweat left
salt, where breath touch-expired?

Bound is the title of the first poem, and the poem touches two of its meanings:

I was shut tight. I was going somewhere
and quickly …

The book opens with confinement and insistent motion, and it closes with a movement outward into a changed life.

Phillip B. Williams has won the Whiting Award this spring for his first collection of poems, Thief of the Interior — a national award given annually to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. He is a visiting Professor at Bennington College this year, teaching creative writing and English literature. He is also the co-editor-in-chief of the online journal Vinyl, and he lives in Portland, Ore.

In Thief of the Interior, he said, Bound, the word and the poem, gave him a shape for the book. He begins with a sense of imprisonment and a vision of open space — was a vastness over me. He begins with an assumption, tied to an identity and a breakable body, and then takes control. He begins held captive, and ends slipping out of that body into a new life, into freedom.

Phillip B. Williams' Thief in the Interior has won the Whiting Award this spring.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Phillip B. Williams' Thief in the Interior has won the Whiting Award this spring.

‘Myth to its core’

He writes often in visceral images, telling the stories of people who deal with blood, with extremes, because they have to.They stand where human, natural and divine come together — a man who scythes lightening, or

leaves like a man the hue of bark chased
into that height, into godhood…

He wants to create his own mythology, he said.

He refers often to elements of faith — the Black Witch Moth, a Latin American myth; Osiris, the Egyptian god of regeneration; Eshu, a god of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and Eleggua, Legba, owner of all roads, a god of Santéria, a faith born among Yoruba people in the Caribbean, influenced by Catholicism and by the people living here, Taino or Arawak.

He turns to the supernatural, he said, when the natural world cannot explain the experiences he is facing.

“Also myths do fail,” he said. “They only go so far.”

In another sense, people can make a myth out of an idea of who someone is. Being black or a woman or queer can become a myth.

“It’s like a summoning spell,” he said.

It’s imprecise. It can be violent. And he wants to confront that kind of myth, to reveal its bindings and unbind them.

He shows them literally, visually, in Inheritance: Anthem, a series of poems enclosed in words that blur into a spinning rim, as though the letters are moving too fast to see. People have said these poems look like handcuffs, he said, like a false halo, an eye closing, a bullet wound. As people read, they see the shape of each poem against the words in and around it.

And as the cycle goes on, the words in the circle clarify, growing larger and clearer in each poem and covering more of the center, as though the spinning circle is slowing down, until with a jolt they come clear — You have the right to remain silent … and the poem at the center, the man at the center, looks out from a smaller and smaller space.

That kind of myth can erase a man or woman, Williams said. He shows the act of erasing and the burn of it. And he shows the man who will not be erased.


In the second part of the book, a cycle of poems turns around Rashawn Brazell. In Williams’ hands, Brazell is a warmly intelligent man who refuses to give up on anyone. He is a storyteller and web designer, honest with himself, close to his mother. He is laughing with his friends, dressed formally for a party.

But Williams shows him in glimpses, and he is aware always, with deep pain, that they are all he has left. Brazell is not a man he knew, and he is gone.

Before these moments of Brazell alive, Williams invokes Brazell as he first learned his name. Brazell was killed in New York City in February 2005. He was murdered, and his body was broken.

“I’m not speaking for him,” Williams said. “… I’m not recounting or re-creating, because that’s impossible.”

He is speaking out of a sense of responsibility, he said, to render the unspeakable, speakable. At Bennington he talks with his students about the responsibilities of a writer, a poet, and how they render violence on the page. He calls them to pay attention to the moment, to look fully and see clearly, and not to set themselves at a distance.

His poems here are not biographical, not forensic. He does not want to go through bloody details like a crime scene. But when he struggles with the brutality Rashawn Brazell suffered, it matters that his body was cut up and his head has still never been found.

In this cycle, Williams uses primary sources as a way to show all of those things absent in the accounts of Brazell’s death, all that a newspaper would not tell him. He writes witness poems from the point of view of a duffle bag, a shovel, because there were no witnesses when Brazell died.

The bloody details do not matter, he said. what matters is the way he translates them.

“This is how it affected me,” he said “… and how his death makes me feel as a young black queer man, when I have had friends attacked in the city.”

I called his name but heard my own
come back. In the fog of my breath …

Living with this grief, Williams moves through the empty city, into underground spaces, following Osiris in the land of the dead, where Isis searched for the 14 pieces of Osiris’ torn body. And then he takes that verse and turns it upside down. The second half of the poem is the inversion, the echo, of the first.

… Come back. In the fog of my breath
I called his name but heard my own.

Natasha Trethewey uses that kind of inversion, he said, in a poem of hers called “Myth.” In his own, he feels the echo returning to the beginning, a sadness there is no getting past, and a nurturing energy holding the need for a voice answering his.

Sound out of silence

Answering voices matter in these pages. Conversations run through the poems themselves, or conversations that will never happen, and the rhythm of conversation runs through all the lines.

As he writes, Williams said, he is listening closely to cadence, to the flow and pattern of sound. He wants the words percussive, syncopated. He wants to develop a pattern and break it, to turn things on their heads. And he wants the tempo of a voice talking.

“It has been argued that we speak in iambic pentameter,” he said. “It’s the rhythm of conversation.”

Real conversation has a shifting beat, he said. When he is with friends they will speak quickly, with words under their breath and unstressed syllables. He wants to bring that kind of informal sound into his writing here.

In the course of the book, he plays with meter in many forms — sestina and satire, palindrome, a shape poem like a noose and the acrostic inside, the first letters of the lines spelling out H E A D, contrapuntal poems that interweave — and sonnets.

The sonnet form moves through the book like a theme in a fugue, returning each time in a new shape, and the third section is a cycle of connected sonnets, the last words of one echoed in the title of the next. They not formal sonnets, he said. They do not always rhyme precisely. But he calls to the form and dances with it in 14 lines on lithe iambic feet, with the volta, the turn at the end.

The titles are often gentle, sunlit, graceful lines holding a way into places of pain: addiction, exhaustion, hunger, sickness.

“The titles are in medias res,” he said. “They throw you into something as you read.”

And the condensed places they open have power for him. In some ways, he said, he feels the whole book takes the form of a sonnet. A sonnet gives a confined space to hold something as vast as a relationship or argument. It may be an argument in itself, he said, that nothing is enough, that there is no container for these things. He works within that condensed space and moves through it or from it.

“It’s a door into love,” he said. “We hold tight to one another in order to sustain that.”

Of the body

Holding, in these pages, comes with taking apart. Love comes with loss, the human body alive and in fragments.

Williams looks closely at “the minutia of the body we ignore.”

“The body is so frequently not looked at as a spiritual container,” he said, “and that’s not a religious argument. … A person containing limbs — every part must sing — fingers, eyes, mouth, nose — otherwise no one would pay attention to them.”

He draws on that idea and that music in Prayer —

… Give me feet
that can sing, that can sing all over this floor
like a drum battalion …
stomp out winter crawling from beneath the floorboard, stomp out
the fever pouring from his never dry back.
I want to heal like You do. God, let me walk on water.

Prayer ends the first part of the book, along with Misericorde, one poem leading into the other, one longing to heal someone beloved and sick, and the next a love poem for the dead. The word Misericorde has many meanings, Williams said: Mercy. A knife used to give the death stroke to a wounded knight. A room in a monastery for monks allowed to relax the rule — a respite from being holy.

Looking across the arc of the book, he traces how often that image repeats, layered as Toledo steel — in cutting edges, the sharpness of branches, broken glass.

“Lightening is a culprit of dismemberment,” he said.

But a knife may be a mercy. It may be a release from pain.

“In the last poem, the blade is a kiss,” he said.

He heard an echo between the last line of Misericorde

I shut your eyes with my hand, your mouth
with my mouth.

and the last lines of the book

… room for nothing but this body’s
first words. See my mouth move, like this —

And that last line, ending on a dash, is a re-set button, he said. He wants the book to be read and read again and to transform with each re-reading.

He has been talking about patience with his students, he said. In his class on the poetry of trauma and violence, when they read something and felt something strongly, they would write down what they felt, talk about what the words were doing and how they achieved it, and become aware of how and why they reacted as they did.

It takes time to write a poem that can move someone to shaking. Phillips haas worked on this book across seven years. And it takes courage.

“You have to take the risk,” he said. “There is a lot of fear in doing these things, and fear is a good sign. I frequently have fear toward what I’m writing, and it is often the only clue I have that I’m doing something right.”

It may take more than one reading to understand a poem, he said. It may mean taking time to sit quietly with the words, to feel the pain in them and come back to them.

People can still say it’s too much, he said, but they have to deal with it. This book is about being able to look at the grotesque, at the heart, at what is difficult, and not turn away.

“People have got to look,” he said. “We have got to start looking.”

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