A Vastness over Me: A Review of Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior
By LUKE HANKINS | MAY 21, 2016
I didn’t find the stars or the moon in my hair,” Phillip B. Williams writes in the first poem of his debut collection, Thief in the Interior:
or grass, or the first traces of dew that I am told
cannot compete with a woman pleasured,
that I could get her that way and should try to,
should want to try—
Was a vastness over me
like a great system of clouds pursuing each other,
colliding into one another like fists that bloomed
like devotions . . .
Williams sees our society’s traditional sexual expectations as the equivalent of a rigid religious system—a “vastness over [him]” that would seek to control and dictate his nature, violently if necessary, with “fists” that impersonate “devotions.” As a gay black man, Williams faces an ever-looming societal resistance and disapprobation. “Faggot was a thought // that snuck inside me,” he writes in “Apotheosis”:
was put inside me,
and all the fields inside me turned Greek,
meaning tragic, meaning its beasts
were hybrid and hard to slay:
a faggot in the nigger, a nigger and a faggot
and though both hollered I couldn’t let them go.
Despite the perpetual threatening presence of our society’s predominant anti-gay—and even more vehement anti-black gay—ideology, Williams actively seeks another kind of immense presence that, while awesome and sublime, and even dangerous, does not militate against his nature per se, but offers the possibility of absorption into a greater whole or of transcendence. For instance, in the poem “Black Witch Moth,” “A boy sees its black dress bob / above him, sees in its shadow an angel to call his own.” And in “First Words,” Williams writes about a boy who is unable to sense pain in his hands but longs to, using glass from his bedroom window shattered in a storm to cut himself:
. . . He has
a bag that holds found edges
jagged as a stag’s
horns or smooth as
a single pane smashed into
smaller panes that he sticks
his hand inside
to make blood web across
his acheless skin . . . .
. . . When his skin’s
don’t rake a whimper
from his mouth, he runs
outside, arms up
for the storm, aluminum
baseball bat held out
to the sky . . .
The boy desires to be inhabited by something greater than the self, to experience the pain and awe of the sublime. Implicit in Williams’s poems is the human need for transcendence, even when it comes at the cost of harming or obliterating the self. “Faith,” for Williams, is “a venom, adder- // fire if the adder were God”—and yet, in the same poem, he cries “Let / me feel You like Abraham poised to sever / Isaac”
But there is a distinction in Williams’s work between the types of forces that act on the self from the outside. The type of sublime experience these poems seek is a voluntary contact with the hidden wellspring of being, embodied in the shadow of a witch moth, or in the power of a storm, or in the idea of an almighty Abrahamic God. The other, more sinister type of experience imposed on the black gay self is embodied in the stunning short poem “Then as Proof the Land,” one of the finest and most concise in the collection:
. . . wind moves through the failing
leaves like a man the hue of bark, chased
into that height, into god-hood,
which is a silence. Every cypress
stakes its claim in
what could be called idyll, making a fetish
of the land.
I am the question. Branches answer,
It would be our pleasure, then, as proof, nod closer.
This poem deftly demonstrates a singular aspect of black trauma and white privilege that is indicative of a more general reality: A black American cannot look at a tree without the awareness (subconscious or conscious) of the role of trees in the history of lynching in this country; white people (like me) have the privilege of looking at a tree as simply a tree, and thereby romanticizing the natural world as an “idyll”; also, a more disturbing reality is that some white people even “mak[e] a fetish / of the land,” reveling in the imagined (or recalled) spectacle of white-on-black murder evoked by the sight of a tree. For Williams, the lynching victim is a Christ figure, raised as a sacrifice “into god-hood” at the hands of white men. But the question this poem seems to beg is, “Where, then, is the resurrection?” Such despair seems to inform Williams’s view of the Christian conception of God and underlies such poems as “God as Failed Figuration,” in which “Emptily the blues signify.”
In many places, Thief in the Interior explicitly engages the contemporary black experiences of discrimination, oppression, and violence. “Inheritance: Anthem” incorporates a visual element in the tradition of “concrete,” or shaped, poetry. Orbiting around the text of each section of the poem is a ring of text; the orbiting text is illegible, but shifts forward toward the viewer with each successive section, until finally in the last section it is identifiable as the Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent,” etc.). The poem thus concretizes the ever-present menace of biased or unjustified arrest, and of police violence, for people of color in our country. In the second section, Williams recounts a black man’s experience—which strikes the reader as the author’s own experience, although it’s narrated in second person—of being pulled over on his way to a funeral, subjected to unjust scrutiny, suspicion, and delay, and made to wait for backup to arrive. “You were on your way to a funeral,” Williams writes: “You will miss the open casket to avoid your own.” Similarly, in “Witness,” Williams writes to the mother of Rashawn Brazell, a black boy murdered and dismembered in New York City: “I try to appear broken in order / to appear unbreakable, not worth further breaking.” In such places, Williams speaks powerfully of the black person's experience of being objectified by his society as a threat and a target, and in response altering his demeanor in order to allay white aggression.
If the black body is objectified by the white gaze as a source of menace, it also objectified as an aesthetic object to satisfy white fetish.
Black bodies and their high aesthetic
value: teeth, toes, and severed penises in jars
strangely priced. A post card, violent mail,
shows the photo of three men lynched in Minnesota.
Williams is aware that in writing about violence against people of color, he may be perpetuating the fetishistic pleasure of the white gaze. These poems seem to be aware that there is no simple or satisfactory solution to this dilemma. But ultimately, Williams appears to feel that any art he makes would be incomplete, romanticized, whitewashed if it avoids addressing this violence: “I too wanted beauty without risk,” he writes movingly in “Inheritance: Anthem”, “but the Black bodies fell into beauty to disturb it.”
The range of styles and forms employed in Williams’s debut is daring and impressive: personal lyrics brimming with erotic and spiritual tension, documentary poems focused on black history and contemporary experience, shaped poems (including a noose), formal approaches that include repetition devices and an imitation of the pecha kucha slide presentation format, and even an occasional foray into fairy tale. Williams has a talent for making striking metaphors, beautifully phrased, as in “Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies,” in which a cut is personified thus: “a single mouth its total face.” Note the metrical and syntactic symmetry of the two halves of this phrase—perfectly balanced—further justifying its place in a section of the poem all to itself. Other exceptionally lyrical moments include: “smoke masking / the sun with its cloak of slow owls” (“Door to a War I Never Knew”); “Snow / falls like a mask in pieces over his face” (“Love Story”); and “A bell / some miles away—bats in its mouth—loved / the taste and swayed” (“Visitation”). Yet every once in a while, Williams’s metaphors are confusing, as in “No, Tell Him—”: “Then it was spring. The alluvial earth of grief / found its hoof’s bottom and went.” Are we to try to picture the earth as a horse running on itself—the earth? Sometimes a metaphor will seem unintentionally comic, as in the grave poem (quoted above) “Sonnet with Cut Wrists and Flies,” in which a boy cuts his wrist to find a miniature man inside.
But these moments are few, and overall Thief in the Interior is a remarkable collection that balances engagement with both the horrific and the beautiful. Williams’s poems are not didactic, even when making historical or social commentary, as they always seem to interrogate themselves and their roles in the conversations they are entering. They are not didactic, but they are instructive. While a gay black man could easily and justifiably respond with simple fury to the “vastness over [him]” that hates and oppresses him and those like him, that has oppressed his ancestors for centuries, Williams responds in a much more complex and even saintly way. His poems seem to reach out to the white reader—to me—and say, “This is what it’s like. Can you inhabit for a moment, imaginatively, this experience? Do you understand some small part of what it’s like to be black in America, then and now?” Williams’s prayer, enacted in his work, is always “Would that we could / make any pair of eyes see us new” (“Of Shadows and Mirrors”).
LUKE HANKINS’S most recent book is The Work of Creation: Selected Prose. He is also the author of a poetry collection, Weak Devotions, and the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.
Thief in the Interior, by Phillip B. Williams Alice James Books, 2016