The Golden Age of Smoking, John Hartley Williams, Shoestring Press, 2014, 79pp, £10 (paperback)

Twentyone Men and a Ghost, Matthew Sweeney, Smith/Doorstop Books, 2014, 29pp, £5 (paperback)


“Still Grieving” is the final poem in this posthumous collection by John Hartley Williams who died in May 2014. The poem seems to suggest that he is missing the world from beyond the grave and still has something to say. His poetry allows him to do this since he has always had an idiosyncratic – even slapstick – view of the world, its customs and beliefs. In this poem, he looks back to the world we still inhabit and sees the sunlight “wander in like Groucho Marx and sit astride a stool with eyebrows raised.” That does seem to sum up Hartley Williams’s slant on the world.

In another poem called “Stand Up”, he imagines a dialogue between himself and the doctor who diagnosed his terminal cancer. He complains that the doctor was no craic, he was too serious, should have seen death as a bit of a laugh, a kind of ROLL UP! ROLL UP! spectacle. In that poem, he keeps telling the doctor to lighten up and be part of a duo, a really funny, show-bizzy song and dance team. So, from the after-life, he sends back invented wise-cracks on the subject of death and addresses his doctor directly:


It’s serious fun.
We’re the new comedy team. Soon you’ll see our name
at the Trocadero: Sid Shimmy and Todd Trouble.
We’ll wear T-shirts sporting Death Can Be Fun
and tap dance on a long box.


I was present when John Hartley Williams read this poem at his last reading in Bookmarks, a bookshop in Holborn, a few weeks before his death. He was obviously in pain and had trouble getting to the microphone, and when he read such macabre, brave and very funny lines it sent a real frisson through all present. Poignancy and courage were very much on display that evening. Let’s celebrate death not life, seems to be what he was saying in those last poems.

But when this savagely ironic mask suddenly slips, there is earthly love, man/woman, husband/wife. In the poem “Yaggle”, he describes – obliquely – life within his marriage; a lifetime of marriage, a lifetime of breakfasts, his world, her world. His world is “Yaggle” and at the end of the poem he begs her to share with him his work, his vision. She peels an apple, bites into it and says “Yoggle”. This is quite a good way to describe what used to be called the battle of the sexes.

But beyond the skittishness of many of the poems there is an underlying and terrible seriousness. That the poet had this intention can be found in the prologue where he quotes the chilling words of Louis MacNeice:


We flicked the flashlight
And there was the ferryman just as Virgil
And Dante had seen him. He looked at us coldly
And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar
Were black with obols and varicose veins
Marbled calves and he said to us coldly:
If you want to die you will have to pay for it.


When Hartley Williams tangles with death in the underworld he writes:


I need a medium to help me snag your line … There’s
Ectoplasm everywhere and garlanded in bladderwrack.
I peddle shoddy through the lobby of the Hotel Neptune:
Spectral octopus! Get your spectral octopus here!


Fun and games again, but a real reaching out, a wanting to make contact one last time.

In almost all of the poems in this collection, he saw the world and his place in it as a movie or a stage play – one poem is even entitled “My real name is Stanley Kubrick”. It is a world where everyone is cast as actor and there is an invented backdrop. This is never more evident than in the laconic title poem, The Golden Age of Smoking where he describes an ominous “new-world” and sinister landscape where people cry for help, where “buildings throb and thrum” where “impossible projects are tearing at their heart”. But from a viewing platform, an observer lights another cigarette:


What happens next? The smoker
inhales. The crowd is tense.
A faint cloud of blue perturbs
the air with silk resplendence.


A grand (and very detached) good-bye? So what is the world that the visionary poet John Hartley Williams has left behind? It is one completely invented and, from this collection it would seem, undying.

In his new collection, a pamphlet describing “Twentyone Men and a Ghost,” Matthew Sweeney (Hartley Williams’s friend and collaborator), lets rip with a zany and madcap zeal, which touches at times on a genuine surrealism. “The Daft Man” decides the tightrope he has strung up in his garden is too easy so he takes a paintbrush and oils it to make the task of walking along the line more difficult. When “more difficult” becomes “too difficult”, he paints glue to the soles of his trainers and tries again. Suspended between what is too easy and what is impossible, he falls. The trainers are left sticking to the line, while he begins to paint what is to become a masterpiece.

Is this code, perhaps? “The Strong Man” runs away from the circus because the lion didn’t love him. “The Big Man” builds his own ballroom and dances with a straw girl. “The Lame Man” “hates crutches” and likes to wear shorts, and is always first on the dance floor at “hooleys.” “The Madman” flails at crows; “The Dead Man” lies in his coffin, “a cold clown” dressed in a cowboy suit thinking of his mother, “… her / red hair, her freshly baked bread” – but wants to pull a gun on those who attend the funeral and “shoot each one of them dead.” “The Ghost” comes back to haunt his own memories – “he knows he’s not wanted but he’s staying on.”

There is an element of real sadness and discontent running through these poems. In the blurb Sweeney states that these “men” poems are really about men – and women – he has known and who have shaped his life; the poems can be seen therefore – he claims – as a kind of alternative autobiography. This curious, slanted “other-take” makes the collection a valuable, moving and – at times – very funny addition to his oeuvre – but it is a bizarre composite.

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