1292 Circling lines & opening spaces
Word Problems: Poems
by Ian Williams
Toronto: Coach House Press, 2020
$21.95 / 9781552454145
Reviewed by Candace Fertile
The title of Ian Williams’ latest poetry may be Word Problems, but it could just as easily have been World Problems. The poems tend to explore how language both prevents and allows communication and how difficult it may be to keep track of how language (and life) may drift from meaning. To show the challenges, Williams uses diction, of course, but also an inventive deployment of text: sometimes lines run horizontally across the top of the page above a poem and sometimes they run vertically. Lines are superimposed over other lines. Lines are printed in circles. Readers have to keep adjusting their focus and possibly their grasp of the book. And all that makes for a thoughtful journey through the pages.
The book is divided into Part A (twenty poems) and Part B (twenty-four poems). The first poem, “It Is Possible to Move On Without Moving Forward,” immediately introduces what is a recurring issue: “suppose you are a black man who is supposed to be white okay you don’t have to be a man.” The poem is in smaller, lighter type and develops in one horizontal line over following pages, which may have other poems beneath. The use of open space is wonderful as it encourages contemplation of the situation. Part B. starts with a poem titled “It Is Possible to Go Back Without Going Away.” And the lighter lines run vertically.
Williams has the ability to jolt readers with a flash of insight, often delivered in such a way as to sneak up and then flatten you. Injustices resulting from race or gender abound. Social media takes a drubbing. For example, the title poem is a prose poem in ten sections with ten separate problems. In the second section, an eleven-year-old girl is writing a novel. “She has not been able to advance it lately because she is having her period. In all the novels Claire has bought or read to her, women don’t have periods.” In the fifth section, a woman welcoming guests forgets “the names of the land on which she is living. . . . She used to live in Vancouver. Now Squamish, Musqueam, and three syllables. Who in the room will behead her online?” This particular poem is completely lucid in its message like so many in this collection.
In “Where Are You Really From,” a question asked by a white man, the answers are ignored or willfully misinterpreted or explained. For example, “I played tennis with a white man who would play my shots when they landed beyond the baseline and my faults as well, as proof. There’s a long wake across the Atlantic. Proof of. I don’t know anybody who’s actually still racist. I don’t know why we are even talking about it. Because of you, I wanted to say while waiting to receive.”
Williams’ background as a professor of creative writing and English is evident in the many literary allusions, but he is no slouch when it comes to music, both popular and classical. An index to some of the allusion is provided at the end of the book, along with the source of epigraphs. His word play is always in the service of a deadly seriousness, and recognizing the issues is critical to an improvement in relations among human beings.
Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine. Editor’s note: Candace Fertile’s recent reviews include books by Amber Dawn, Rachel Rose, Susan Alexander, Katherine Fawcett, Marjorie Celona, Garry Thomas Morse, Nazanine Hozar, Tiziana La Melia, and Rita Wong & Fred Wah.
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