‘All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head’ by Tony Williams

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

Nine Arches Press have a well-earned reputation for high production values, and so it is not surprising to see such a visually arresting and distinctive publication as All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head coming from Rugby. With it, Tony Williams has produced a confident and ambitious collection of poems and a strong statement on behalf of the art form.

This bold pamphlet incorporates elements of conceptual and concrete poetry. Purportedly, each poem reproduces a painted tile from one of Hanz Prinzhorn’s mentally ill patients. (Other reviews of the pamphlet have focused on this ‘hoax’, or have even accepted it). The pages mimic facsimiles of these tiles, including cracks (suggesting the etymology of ‘crazy’) and missing fragments. Each poem is surrounded by a rotating border of text and appended by sidenotes, disturbing the experience of linear reading from page-to-page, and encouraging taking each page as a self-contained artefact. Altogether, this slows and alters the reading experience. W.N. Herbert, in Poetry Review, writes that Williams is engaged in ‘repositioning the reader’s experience as something balanced between text and image, or between text and concept’. I also suspect that the excessive marginalia in All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head, with its horror vacui, are intended to suggest the creative process: how to redraft is to write on top of old writing, and how it can be hard to know when to stop. As its title suggests, the pamphlet’s poems, as a series of boxed squares, are like the rooms of the unnamed speaker’s Uncle’s head, just as the head becomes the asylum when ‘[d]oves strut on the finials of Uncle’s crown’ (‘Uncle Imagines’) and his eyes, like windows, let out their light ‘on the empty lawn’ at dusk (‘Garret Brain’). The poem as a space to contain the mad is the central idea behind the sequence, as All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head explores the relationship between containment and freedom, and the implicit comparison between madness and poetry.

Many of the aims of poetry, or even of fiction, are conditions for speech which, in any other social context, would be signs of madness. Metaphor is close to hallucination, and Williams’ speaker is, accordingly, haunted by this further edge of metaphor; for instance, in ‘Enroute Nowhere’:

Fingers of a tree are shivering,
Dotted here and there with leaves
That have not understood their death–
Perverse as fingers that grow hands
To wave goodbye to all their friends.

Here thin branches are likened to fingers, but this metaphor doesn’t yield to reality, to the fact that fingers grow on hands, not vice versa. It persists alongside the second metaphor, that a leaf is like a waving hand, to combine and create something altogether more striking and ‘perverse’. The madman’s perception of the world resembles the poet’s derangement of the senses, and refusal or inability to privilege one reality over another. As the example demonstrates, it makes for some powerful images, in part because it feels somehow profoundly unsettling. Jon Stone perceptively notes that one of the themes of the pamphlet is ‘the tension between creativity and the strict order of a methodology or regulated structure (social, spatial, psychological)’. The Professor, typically, represents restriction via the conformity required of ‘curing’ the mad, which precludes poetry; as the Professor, whilst eating a bird, says in ‘Ox Looking Behind Him’: ‘Your dreaming never comes to any good!’ Poems, like asylums, provide an acceptable social space in which language needn’t ‘make sense’, but this space is also restrictive, as poems are, for instance, economically useless.

The paradoxical freedom borne out of containment is expressed in the theme of flight, the (proto-)symbol for freedom and for poetry/creativity. Williams refreshes the trope of the prisoner’s dreams of Daedalus-like escape by rotating through different grotesque variants, which constitute the main subject of the speaker’s thoughts: a balloon made of ‘[h]uman hides […] stretched on a bird-bone frame’ (‘Heliotrope’); a wounded Gregor Samsa-type winged beetle; an archaeopteryx; a great auk eaten by the Professor; and a swan:

[…] FLY,
White lung, illiterate bagpipe, king of the ponds,
Look down on men’s divisions

There is a similar freedom granted to Williams, who is restricted and freed by writing in the persona of a madman, as a madman’s speech, since it has departed from the necessities of ‘making sense’, signifies for the most part by tone. Whilst there are elements of a narrative thread which Williams allows to be glimpsed from time to time – real or imagined characters, the spectre of the Great War – we are generally caught in the loops of irrational thought. Williams is free to range as wildly as he wishes in the knowledge that his lines are effective not for their explicit meaning but for their tone, for the sound they make as they pass, which is electric for such a talented writer. The danger, however, is that we become so estranged from the speaker’s mode of thought that we are unable to have any sympathy. It does not take long for madness to become clowning. But the sequence masters this too and, in ‘King of the Wood’, it ends powerfully:

[…]Worth the tiredness and tears

TO STAND SOAKED among the hawthorns and look
East across a mile of withered beans,
Fuel for next year’s crop on the rolling slope,
And see the fine rain greying out their black,
Coming towards us as the sky lightens,
Coming towards us at the end of another trance,
Coming towards me I won’t let it stop.

To produce a moment of quiet in a pamphlet which is so fantastically noisy shows that Williams has a great command over his craft. This is a clever collection of poems, and an insistent reminder, as Sean O’Brien has remarked of Williams, that ‘this is an exciting time for poetry’.

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