Ian Williams’ debut collection of poetry You Know Who You Are attempts to do an incredibly daring thing – to meld an unmistakable postmodern sensibility to deeply personal, even sentimentalized subject matters. The poems in this collection explore the perils of embattled relationships, of squandered opportunities and existential angst, but do so with a style that is both quirky and innovative.
In pieces like “Not Answering”, “What Remains of Us” and “Except You”, Williams skirts right up to the line of what we might call melodrama, but does so without losing control of the taut, elliptical emotions he’s expressing on the page. His wordplay, often clever and insouciant, keeps these poems sharp and engaging even as they wrestle with age-old feelings. Take his “Triolet for You”, for example: “There is no synonym for you./ The thesaurus says No match. Do/ you mean yogi?” Here he relies on the constraints of his chosen form to keep the idea expressed within fresh and free of sappiness.
My favourite poems in this collection are the group called “Emergency Codes”, which tells the story of a troubled youth named Dre who goes through various tribulations – each given its own poem under the label of an emergency code (Code Grey: Combative Person, Code Red: Fire, etc). Each poem uses an emergency code to lend context to the troubles that Dre experiences as both a young man and as a person of colour. Even when recycling an old Chris Rock joke (from “Code Blue”: “Folks like us, we/ don’t get assassinated, we/ get shot …”), the cycle maintains an intriguing and original air. And I love how the cycle ends: “Dre married his babymother, got a job/ in Mississauga./ What did you expect?” Brilliant.
Williams shows a tremendous range in this debut collection, and a lot of talent. I look forward to seeing what he produces next.