John Hartley Williams’s Canada explores a country of the mind, where whatever mania comes to mind becomes its own reality, and writing happens automatically. In Canada, poems arrive out of the ether like the fabled, lantern-jawed Mountie coming to the rescue out of nowhere. Others are on their way back into the ether, transmissions from the brain of an uneasy redman. These are poems which make you feel like the hairs on a pony’s neck. Canada opens in the backwoods of autobiography and narrative, then reports crisply on the alarums of sex and desire. After crossing the frontier, a final coda blows innocence off the map for good and all. Shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize 1997.
The long poem at the centre of John Hartley Williams’ new collection is a dramatic monologue narrated by a laconic, possibly lamed, forest dweller, a lowly crewmember on a barge travelling an unnamed waterway. Some of his remarks are addressed to his talisman, the shrunken head of an African tribesman. The barge carries a sinister cargo and its captain has a preference for sadistic sex. Other poems in the book undertake joumeys – to Northern Cyprus, China medieval France, Florida – but like ‘The Barge’ they’re not exactly travel poems, more poems which travel. Welcome to the unsettling world of John Hartley Williams, whose restless, inexhaustible imagination, originality and maverick humour have enlivened contemporary poetry for years. Paranoid, erotic, disturbed and disturbing, these are bulletins from a dislocated, parallel world that excites, entertains and terrifies – and often feels more real to us than our own.