John Hartley Williams Assault on the Clouds
David Clarke Gaud
reviewed by Ian Pople
Much is made on the blurb of John Hartley Williams’ individuality. He’s described as ‘one of the great originals of contemporary English poetry’, and ‘joyfully anarchic and surrealist’. In fact, Williams and Clarke share a love of quirky narrative. Thus, a range of characters populate both poets work, sometimes with names that wouldn’t have shamed Douglas Adams. In Assault on the Clouds: Hartley Williams has produced a group of short stories in verse, in which a group of characters react in varying ways to wild and surreal events in their ‘lives’. Eggwold Zunn, the auto-didact, meditates on Cleopatra’s nose, and is asked to comment on many things from the deposing of the Emperor, to the nude Saint Ronda of Arboa. The General rides his donkey around an imagined country, Arboa, which, I’m sure, we are meant to assume is a mythical China. And a ‘poet’ who also comments laconically on the action going on around ‘him’.
I’m assuming that the poet in the texts is a him. This is as much because the writing as a whole is muscular and direct. I hesitate to call it ‘masculine’, but actually it does come across as rather masculine. The humour seems of a piece with that slightly common-room satire which has provided a rich vein of English writing but can be a little exclusive and public school.
That is my reservation about this collection. But there is no doubt that Hartley Williams is hugely inventive and has created a ‘world’ in these poems that is often fully realised and involving. Hartley Williams also invents words which nicely fit in the worlds of the poems, ‘The travellers are spying with their vanderscopes/on the geisha and her poet./She retains a single comb in crowblack hair;/ he roams her apricot thighs with his tongue.’ ‘Through the Keyhole’. This excerpt illustrates some of Hartley Williams’ method; the clipped sentence structure containing a clipped portrayal of events; the deft use of an unusual adjectives, i.e., ‘apricot’.
David Clarke’s Gaud is a winner in the Flarestack pamphlet competition. And there is a muscularity to Clarke’s writing too. Where Hartley Williams has a clipped, snappy style, Clarke uses a more impacted, costive syntax. That sentence structure is much more populated with adjectives than Hartley Williams’, ‘Haggard teenagers/in threadbare chinos riffle/Blu-Rays of gaudy murder,/as the in-store DJ spins a/ retro Osmonds cut.// And the result of this density is that the charge of over-writing might sometimes be laid at Clarke’s door. That said, Clarke, like Hartley Williams, is entirely capable of creating an adroitly imagined world in his poems; for example in ‘Notes Towards a Definition of the Revolution’ Clarke reports ‘an earnest// panel of intellectuals consuming/ meat-paste sandwiches in a Sheffield Labour/ Club in the mid 1970s;’ There’s a loving detail in that which is beguiling and strong. And here too, is an example of Clarke’s way with line-endings where adjective may be sheared from their nouns.
Ian Pople's Saving Spaces is published by Arc. His first book of poetry, The Glass Enclosure (Arc, 1996), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His second collection, An Occasional Lean-to, was published by Arc in 2004. He teaches at the University of Manchester.