Hugo Williams, Lines Off – review

In different ways, Edge, Afterwardness and Flèche are all written in overtly poetic forms and styles. Williams, too, writes with polished skill in his Lines Off, but achieves the hallucinatory vividness of his poems with an art so understated as to seem almost artless, except for the symmetrical patterns the poems fall into.

Understatement reaches an extreme in this stanza from ‘St Pancras Old Church and Hospital’, one of many poems presenting Williams’s experience of kidney dialysis and a life-saving transplant:


I passed my days
lying down with a machine,
till someone unknown to me died
and allowed me to go home.


This comes in contrast to the mordant lyricism and wit with which the rest of the poem plays on the juxtaposition of church and graveyard with hospital (‘Great trees shed their prayers / on the silent company’). It shows how precisely Williams can change and combine emotional tones. Within the stoical flatness of the first two quoted lines there’s a glint of black humour: dialysis as a grim parody of sex. ‘Someone unknown to me died’ flickers between a depressing sense of the facelessness of mass society and relief at not to have to take this death personally. The last line shrinks the poet’s release to a schoolboy’s release from school, only to make us feel more fully the immense meaning of home and of being allowed back in this context.

Rather as Chan constructs her book around fencing terms, Williams lets the reader’s response be shaped by recurring theatrical metaphors. His touch is lighter – they seem to arise spontaneously from poem to poem. Cumulatively, they present both art and life as performance, holding them at an ironic distance from the speaker. This liberates the reader: we don’t feel put under pressure to share the author’s emotions. This is a huge gain, although it comes at a cost in emotional intensity (one of the things that’s remarkable about the Khalvati sonnet I quoted earlier is the degree to which it combines emotional intensity with opening a vortex of different reflections).

Though many poems are connected to Williams’s kidney disease, the range of subject matter is quite wide. So is the variety of tones. ‘Bed of Nails’ transitions seamlessly between casual colloquialism, banal fact and a surreal blaze at its ending. In ‘Transplant 2014’, the only hint at the poet’s own operation is in the title. The poem itself presents the horror of early nineteenth century operations when operating theatres were theatre, the manacled, screaming ‘principal’ watched by ‘vertiginous tiers’ of shouting, drinking students as he ‘struggles to free himself / from the terrible demands of his part’. Silence is a major part of Williams’ art, and there are volumes of unspoken reflection in the contrast between this and ‘The Check-Up’, a ruefully humorous blank verse sonnet about Williams’s own ‘unscheduled return from the grave’, in which he presents himself as the accidental star of a comic vampire movie, or the gentle satire of various poems about his treatment and aftercare.


Hugo Williams, Lines Off, 80pp, £14.99, Faber & Faber Ltd, Bloomsbury House, 74 – 77 Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DA

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Katrina Porteous, Mimi Khalvati, Mary Jean Chan and Hugo Williams in issue 64 of The North.




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