Debates about the value of confessional and personal poetry are often discussions about how much intimacy a poet should allow, and how close to one’s personal experiences and perceptions poems can hew before they lose their broader significance. Few things are as personal or obviously subjected as dreams or hallucinations. Nonetheless, the poems in John Sibley Williams’ Controlled Hallucinations occupy the space between intimacy and distance, a closeness that, like the hallucinations of the title, has to be controlled.
The choice to number these poems instead of giving them titles contributes to this paradox. A title can serve as a key that gives the reader a way to enter a poem quickly. Without them, it can be difficult at first to get into individual poems. At the same time, such a quick entrance can let a reader move through a piece too fast, missing the trajectories that do not fit that initial idea. In the absence of titles, readers have to get to know each word and line in order to orient themselves, which results in a more lingering intimacy, even if it takes longer to reach it. It is in this longer time that Williams achieves what seems to be the goal of the collection, as the couplet that concludes the poem that precedes the numbered pieces says “To be, just once, / an unending conversation.”
The numbering of the rest of the poems locates the book as a whole in the space between a long poem and a collection of discrete pieces. It is a sequence, but what connects its constituent parts is not always obvious. Each poem is a different “hallucination”, controlled in a different way. In the first numbered poem, the control takes place through direct manipulation:
I see a man on an adjacent building,
silhouette cut from the skyline.
So I also cut out the roof
he stands on.
The impossibility of performing such an act in physical reality confirms that these poems relate hallucinations. The act of changing the scenery (next replacing a mountain with a silo) suggests an act like lucid dreaming, but in the context of a series of poems, it also points to the way a poet may re-form a lived experience for presentation for a public audience, thus rendering a work of both confession and craft.
The short third poem presents and then limits intimacy by beginning with vision and ending with questions that depart from the vision, maintaining only the most tenuous connection. A poem that opens “In a country where everyone is mute, / I’m throwing my body into a silent dance” ends “What is the sound of a shared idea? / What is the sound of your agreement?” These questions turn attention from the a single, subjective experience to the question of whether a shared subjectivity can be heard. This pattern of moving from closeness to distance is common in these poems.
In other poems, the control is an emotional distancing within the hallucination itself. The poem V, for instance, begins
She calls me to the window.
With the current of winter frost
breath struggles to converse.
The window separates inside from outside, while the cold that hampers speech reduces the possibility of intimacy inside. The first line of the poem’s last stanza reveals an additional distancing in the language of the opening stanza, one that is easy otherwise to overlook. “She calls me to our window” reveals how the definite article in “the window” refuses attachment. This concession to closeness can be made because of the rest of the sentence:
and points to a ship
upon the near-distant river,
mast lit by thousands of bulbs
I cannot see.
On the one hand, the inability of the speaker to see the bulbs that the woman does highlights how perceptions never quite match—a necessary disjunction that limits human connections. On the other, since the speaker never specifies how he knows about the bulbs—does she describe them? is it dream logic?—some piece of the hallucination remains unknown. The reader cannot become one with the speaker or the writer. Distance is maintained, and a conversation about broader issues of seeing is begun.
The balance between personal and impersonal is not only struck on the level of the individual poem. Where one would normally find a dedication, we find instead “to the coming extinctions.” Where we would ordinarily expect a personal statement, even if an oblique one, instead there is a reference to environmental destruction, which has effects that go far beyond the intimate (and yet are deeply personal in each individual case) and which, in this position, comes to frame the whole series.
The phrase returns in the twentieth poem, in which winds break words apart
from the thousand and one
_____disbanding and re-
_____joining, each plea
_____a whole new
another sign of restoration,
another white-knuckled prayer,
another ode dedicated
to the coming extinctions
Each poem becomes, in this frame, desperation in the face of a storm. There is intimacy in the emotion but distance in the reference to such expressions as odes, which can only be ironic. The following poem speaks about facing a storm as a child—“I would cry out a list of synonyms / for what was to come”—and concludes “I still react in words, take comfort in the distance.” Confession, combined with language that resists closeness, comforts the speaker, even if each poems is not a synonym for what is to come: the climate-change-induced extinctions that may end the personal and the impersonal.
But is this comfort a good thing when facing a potential disaster? The same poem in which the speaker relates listing synonyms for storms describes how other children “. . . assisted their families / with the shutters and shovels” instead. They acted to reduce the potential damage of the storms instead of soothing themselves with words, but not every child who did not take comfort in language acted so practically: “others counted the time / between claps and flashes”. In parentheses, Williams tells us “We were then what we would soon become.” The aside suggests that all children, not just the speaker who says “I still react in words, take comfort in their distance”, enact the coping mechanisms they will favor as adults, but it also implies a kind of futility. The storm would “soon” blow them away (or not) regardless of their shutters; if they were to become corpses, they were in some sense, dead already. The coming extinctions already are.
The value, for addressing disasters, of the kind of synthesis of distance and intimacy that John Sibley Williams achieves in Controlled Hallucinations goes beyond the fact that calamity is always both personal and impersonal. Without the comfort offered by distance, catastrophe is overwhelming. Without a sense of the intimate meanings of disaster, its meaning is lost. “[T]he coming extinctions” demand that poets move beyond debates over being subjective or universal and, instead, learn how to be both.
- In Praise Of Messy Poems(dish.andrewsullivan.com)