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Chrissy Williams, Flying into the Bear and Epigraphs

(Flying into the Bear, Happenstance Press: Fife, 2013. Paperback, 48pp, £4)

(Epigraphs, If P Then Q, Manchester, 2014. Paperback, 32pp, £4) 

Reviewed by Marcus Slease

Chrissy Williams is opening a new space for British experimental poetry. A space that uses the neo-avantgarde strategies of some first and second generation NY School poetry, with its generosity towards the reader via a light touch and warm experimentalism. The poems in both Flying Into The Bear and Epigraphs acknowledge, like T.S. Elliot’s 'The Waste Land', the fragmentary nature of our contemporary existence but they also provide a means to construct a whole from both received wisdom and lived experience.
In the opening poem of Williams' Flying Into The Bear, “The Bear of the Artist”, the speaker asks the artist to draw a heart. Instead he draws a bear. The speaker asks, “what kind of heart is this” and the artist replies “it’s not a heart at all.” When the speaker asks “what kind of bear is this?” the artist replies “it’s not a bear either.” The bear is both the heart and mind. We are told the artist exists “to put bears in your head, who exists / to put ideas in your head in place of bears, who mistrusts anyone / who tells you they know what kind of place the heart is.” It is up to us, as individuals, to make meaning. This is the proverbial bear on our back and this bear is both individual and collective. The bear, as seen on the cover of Flying Into The Bear, is a constellation. A grouping of individual stars that form a picture of a bear, a whole. Yet this whole only exists because we construct it as whole. As gestalt theory has told us, our minds tend to form global wholes. And we actively construct this wholeness, both individually and collectively. How can we, both collectively and individually, construct new wisdom from the fragments of the old? 
In “Some Notes From Lars Von Trier’s Five Obstructions” the speaker tells us: “Don’t show. / Tell the story. / Play with fragments, / crumbs you can find.” And this is exactly what we have in Williams’ Epigraphs from the experimental poetry press If P Then Q.  They invite us as readers to construct knowledge from our shared lived experiences. One of the epigraphs is a quote from a review of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters: “In the poem, nevertheless, the Ouija board gives pertinent or at any rate ponderable answers.” These fragments, shored against ruins, are like a Ouija board. We can find meaning and purpose through both the voices of the dead and our own lived experience. Unlike T.S. Eliot’s call for the impersonal with a deep awareness of history, Williams engages the fragments of history, collective and personal. The poems in Epigraphs are tweet sized nuggets of wisdom that mix what used to be called high and low culture. They invite us to use them to construct our own meanings, knowledge, and purpose. But this is not a mere exercise. It is existence through lived experience, or in the words of the famous existentialist slogan by Sartre: existence before essence. Williams uses a quote from Confucius in Epigraphs to highlight the importance of lived experience: “I hear and I forget / I see and I remember. / I do and I understand.”
The poems in Flying Into The Bear and Epigraphs also engage with history and our shared social space, both via social media and in the outside world of lived experience. In “The Burning of the Houses“ the speaker uses the present tense reporting mode as London burns during the London riots of 2011. Like Frank O’Hara, Williams shows us the landscape of social activity. The speaker tells us “Croydon is on fire now / And Anna is Facebooking furiously from Manchester.” There is also, like O’ Hara, reference to the power of our shared popular culture. The speaker remembers “when Bianca came to stay / and we got tickets to watch The Night James Brown Saved Boston.”  We are told in the notes at the back of the book: “The documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston shows how a televised James Brown gig halted the Boston riots of 1968.” Rather than resorting to high-brow literature or theory, Williams, like O’ Hara, celebrates both the dailyness of our lived experience and the power of our popular culture.
Williams’ poetics is a poetics of engagement. A fully present present. Chrissy Williams is not only making it new: she is making it vital.
6 August 2014