Sarah Westcott reviews
The blurb on the back cover of Heidi Williamson’s first collection focuses on the poet’s “fascination” with science and the exploration of what her publisher Bloodaxe calls “less usual territories” for poetry, including maths, computer programming and space travel. But Electric Shadow is written from a more integrated, subtle area than the traditionally diametrically opposed cultures of poetry and science and their ‘territories’.
While Williamson does indeed write about sciency subjects, this collection is less notable for its scientific substance and content - and more for its clear-eyed approach to the world and its mysteries, with poems often written in the spirit of Keat’s negative capability.
Williamson’s writing has an openness to ‘not-knowing’, a spirit of exploration tempered with quiet rationality, a drive to convey the ‘astonishing state of possibilities’ in the world. It also stems, like science, from a state of curiosity, with clarity of thought and close observation of natural phenomena key in the search for knowledge and groundedness:
While every poem ever written
about the moon rises before me,
about the moon rises before me,
I wait here, in the dark,
with my eyes wide open.
Electric Shadow is concerned with forms of light - skylines and sunsets, aurora borealis and shadows on the palm of a hand, a vertiginous view of a world where ‘space is only one mile up/closer than the next town.’
Again and again the reader is unsettled and tipped into something approaching a parallel universe - Williamson’s poems are peppered with the quotidian - caravans and card games and campsites - and yet they also zoom into the troposphere with sometimes giddying speed as she explores the slippage between times and states and places with precision of thought and language.
She acknowledges the essential chaos and instability at the heart of a universe ‘running away with itself / like a child on a red bike on Christmas Day,’ and often writes from a fixed perspective, where the present is a fulcrum from which to hang this shifting, sliding world.
There is a strong sense of being a still point, a distinct consciousness in many of her poems. In ‘James Dean escorts his mother’s coffin’ the poet addresses the nine-year-old Dean in the second person, managing to inhabit his psyche and capture the sense of a relentlessly moving world as he looks from a train window:
Each stop you check your tender cargo
is not yet lost...
The world speeds past, begins to blur to nothing.
...Something inside you is peeling away.
...Somewhere within you a small cargo shifts.
Some things take a lifetime to travel past.
The centering effect is strong, too, in the poem ‘Flickr’, an unusual meditation on photography: ‘How quickly each country contracts/to thirty-six bits...The fact of being // far away recedes, becomes a fiction / you tell yourself over and over./ You check the evidence often / lacking something to hold / in your hand and believe. Like this.’
Most striking though is Williamson’s representation of two states existing simultaneously - be they psychological or physical realities - a conundrum beloved of quantum physicists. In lines reminiscent of Frost’s 'The Road Not Taken', she entertains the possibility that being both incorrect and correct is compatible - that multiple possibilities can exist simultaneously.
In my favourite poem ‘Circus pony,’ ‘chosen / and not chosen become pathways,’ while in ‘Old tricks,’ a wonderful description of learning to swim, a girl takes her ‘first experience of flight, buoyed up, / surviving in two directions at once.’
The numinous partner in ‘The grand dance’ is ‘always there / and not there, against my cheek.’ And the subject of ‘The Travelling Salesman Problem’ is a construct, who ‘travels in the minds of mathematicians’ and who ‘has no form but going - a pure line.’ Yet Williamson also makes him tangible, sitting in jams, flogging ballpoint pens, a fallible and frail human being.
The sense of multiple selves is captured most explicitly in ‘At the hands-on science centre,’ which describes the disorientation of standing in a hall of mirrors and saluting ‘our many selves ... apart / but linked by science.’
...A slide to the right leaves
a curved staircase of ghosts rising behind us.
We spool endlessly away, the real us just
a frame in a film running before and after
(‘At the hands-on science centre’)
There is a refreshing lack of braggadocio in Williamson’s writing - lofty scientific concepts do not create an intellectual barrier for the reader, as they so easily could. The poet leaves space for poetry to bloom; sometimes subverting theoretical concepts to create some arresting, and almost comical imagery:
For her, theoretical physics
is a bird soaring next to a plane.
(‘Schrodinger’s pregnancy test’)
A discourse on static electricity - surely the first poem to do this in the world? - is also notable: ‘You collect it daily anywhere ... You’re barely aware of the loss / as each charge transfers / from you, to you ...’ (Static.)
Some of the most memorable poems are those that draw from personal experience and transmute it into the universal. Williamson’s apparently personal writing about childhood is especially powerful, beautifully evoking a British childhood of the 1970s and 80s - an era of Little Chefs, salt n shake crisps, and plastic jelly shoes:
...Prawn cocktail crisps and card game
punctuate the rain. The salt of sea and crackers
coats my lips like doughnut sugar. The sand
works my skin, smoothing, smoothing.
The chevronned, stainless steel steps,
removable, lead my jelly shoes to a world
of bare open skies.
I was struck, though, by the number of poems written in couplets - a quick count found twenty or so in the collection - and found myself occasionally wishing for a poem that experimented or even exploded form, a craving for an opening of white space on the page, in tandem with the openness of Williamson’s ideas and the lightness of the collection.
These are open-minded poems written in a spirit of exploration which offer up a liberating, expansive view of a world where ‘meaning brims/almost always.’ Highly recommended work which wears its metaphysicality lightly and with charm.
Sarah Westcott is a poet, blogger and journalist living in London.