John Hartley Williams, Assault on the Clouds, 64pp, £9.00, Shoestring Press
John Hartley Williams has been described as a “lord of misrule” and appropriately his book is much concerned with the abuse of power as well as being marked throughout by a spirit of comic irreverence and surrealist absurdity. Its world is Arboa, a fantasy island of inaccessible peaks, bottomless ravines and endless rain, ruled by a psychotic Emperor with fat arms whose picture adorns packets of Wheat Hallucination Flakes, every one of which contains little plastic effigies of him and his family. His General takes a blowtorch to the face of a too-truthful Painter, and leads the army on manoeuvres on pogo sticks. After an elaborately discreet disrobing, his aging Empress is painted in the nude, and we discover that painting her means painting on her, culminating with bringing her to orgasm (“whooping like a wounded walrus”) by painting in her “Royal Seat of Pleasure”.
The book is written almost entirely in the present indicative. Line breaks emphasise rather than counterpointing the divisions of syntax. These features intensify the narrative thrust and give it a deadpan assertiveness at odds with its preposterous nature. This disjunction of substance and manner can seem simply amusing, but sometimes provoked me into thinking how close the world of Arboa comes to the worlds of Communist East Germany or North Korea, or even to our own Capitalist world, as when a reference to “geishas in their pudenda enhancers” made me think of contemporary sexual display and cosmetic surgery, or when a description of child labour made me think of Third World sweat shops. Unlike the other poets I’ve discussed, though, Williams gives no hint of intending to prompt such serious thoughts; his comic mask never cracks.
I loved the sheer inventiveness and wit of his narrative, but Williams is a technical virtuoso who knows that keeping the reader’s attention depends as much on stylistic surprise as on narrative twists. For example, in the brilliantly absurd “Warfare with Mud and Violins”, an army fighting with swords and arrows is overwhelmed by gypsy music. The thudding rhythms used to describe the battle (“Huge bass fiddles pound legs into involuntary jigs”) give way to parodically melting lyricism, and the poem closes with two final lines reminiscent of both haiku and Japanese woodblock prints of heavy rain:
Yearning fiddles fade toward the peak.
Melancholy yawps bring back the General’s mother.
He weeps for her and his mud-bubbling men.
The instruments imitate a dying fall.
Having departed the melody lingers on.
Ashuba-Ko embraces clouds.
Horses huddle together
in the roar of endless rain.
After the no-nonsense briskness with which each of a series of events or processes is described in a one-line sentence, the shift to a sentence enjambed over two lines at the close makes the huddling of the horses seem more passive, more of an inescapable condition, and the roar of the rain louder and more endless.
I wrote this for The North 50 and would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to post it here.