Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Personals, by Ian Williams

You know, I read Ian Williams’ first book of poetry and enjoyed it a lot. Felt it was a solid effort, a pleasurable collision of the personal and the postmodern. I had a feeling, after finishing that collection, that Williams would go on to do something grander and even more impressive. Well, he has lived up to that promise and then some with his 2012 collection Personals, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Prize.

Much like You Know Who You Are, Personals is able to impressively blend emotional—even sentimental—experiences with some finely wrought experimentation. The collection takes as its premise the idea of personal ads providing a poetic structure to reach out and connect with our fellow humans, but the book is actually much more than that. Many of these poems read like incantations, charming us with a series of repetitions that build an alluring velocity in Williams’ verse.

We can see examples of this from the book’s opening salvo, “Rings.” Here, each section of the poem ends with a closed loop of words forming an actual ring. But the real propulsion comes from the constant and deliberate use of repetition in the more standard lines:

Like, a girl on our lawn says, you want to hear me talk
like my sister when she’s on the phone? Like she always
says like. Like this. Like me and my boyfriend
went to the mall and like I saw him looking at a girl
and like she was totawy into him. Like I can tell.

We see examples of this sort of repeating poem throughout Personals, in poems like “American History I” with its rhythmic use of the word “right” and “Personal History I, Canon” with its almost identical use of the term “copy.”

Personals also comes loaded with references to all manner of popular culture and consumer products. Everything from UFC and Wal-Mart to Bran Flakes and Old Spice cologne make an appearance. These allusions give Personals a certain down-to-earth immediacy: readers will be able to situate themselves in a middle class, post-capitalist world even as Williams takes them through an emotional or linguist journey. The contrast between the poetry’s references to everyday objects and its more experimental approaches creates some pleasurable connections that will stay with the reader.

Williams writes about personal relationships with a great deal of brio and the various constraints of this collection only help to enhance those preoccupations. Personals is very personal, and well worth reading.

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