Today marks the official publication of this book: the first new collection from Hugo Williams since West End Final in 2009 (with its brilliant poems evoking his mother, the very glamorous actress, Margaret Vyner).
But this isn’t just any new collection. It coincides with a campaign by the poet’s family to get him a new kidney, before he becomes too ill to be able to accept one. The campaign was launched a couple of weeks ago on Facebook and has made it into the press.
After three years in dialysis treatment, Hugo’s illness permeates this collection: even before it ends with a long section called ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ (you can read some of these poems in the Times Literary Supplement), it’s full of intimations of mortality. (I was nearly about to write ‘intimations of normality’, there. And indeed, what this book does, in that inimitable crystalline easy-looking way Williams has, is to put illness and death in the context of daily life with its uncertainties, foibles, and wry humour.)
The opening poems deal with being ill, I think, though they don’t say so exactly. It’s just a part of reality. In ‘New Year Poem’, ‘The day is slow to start…’; ‘I leave the room for a moment/ and when I come back it is evening,/ everything bleached and friable…’; and ‘Sleep is the great hobby…’ ‘The Work’ and ‘Eucalyptus’, the next two poems in the book, could almost – almost, but in a Hugoish way – be by Charles Simic, they’re so playfully dark.
There is a short, particularly poignant poem to Mick Imlah, who died a few years ago. The title poem, a memoir of the poet’s sister, Polly (1950-2004), includes what must now feel a slightly devastating self-reflection on how sanguine we can be in the face of others’ illness:
You put yourself together
for occasional family lunches
at the Brompton Brasserie,
appearing coiffed and chic
and on time, so that I imagined you
going about all day looking like that
and even assumed you were getting better.
A reader or casual acquaintance might assume the same of this poet: he gives all the indications of the old sparkle. The poems are full of sunshine, little moments captured in full light. There are several relationship poems (it wouldn’t be right without them), including the completely wonderful, diffidently heartfelt ‘Love Poem’. A reminiscence about his school days (‘A Boy Call’) made me laugh out loud. A reflection on stairs, ‘I Was Like’, deals maybe obliquely with the pressing theme, but as if it were by Powell and Pressburger – dreamy and out-of-time, yet strangely familiar:
Stairs are the sort of place
where unnatural tenses
produce the effect
of treading water.
It can be creative
in a dumb sort of way,
on an up-draught of warm air,
or it can be annoying
when you come to a stop
and all your possessions
go hurtling past you
down the waste-chute.
The opening poem of a section called ‘Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton’ is called ‘Bar Italia’, and recalls – is a sequel to – plays with the imagery of – inverts the anxiety of – and is as lightly handled as his original poem of that title.
The dialysis poems that end the book are forensically – no, also lightly – alively, generously, attentively – minutely observed. They deal with life in the ward, life at home on the days between treatment, the other people there, even a dog. Even a zombie. They inhabit real moments, in the same way Williams’ poems always have: they’re infused with a sense of the present past, the precarious future, the delicious present; the bliss of sleep, and the kind of joy whose hand is ever at his lips, bidding adieu. I don’t want to give the dialysis section – stark and poignant and moving as it is – all the attention, because although this is a book of illness, it seems primarily to me a book of colour and light and life.
And, and, of poetry. ‘In ‘The Song of the Needles’,
Needles have the sudden beauty
of a first line.
The last poem in the book is called ‘Prayer Before Sleeping’:
Send me a poem, God,
before I go to bed…
Throw me a first line
that I can sleep on…
I don’t suppose anyone is going to read this and suddenly decide to donate a kidney to Hugo Williams. It would be wonderful if they did. I was involved in a conversation on Facebook where someone was judging people for sharing the link but not donating a kidney; but with every share of the link and the info, one does like to feel maybe that someone will see it and think YES. It’s a long and rigorous assessment process to be accepted as a donor; most of us, quite possibly, would not get through. The Baroque circumstances are not at all propitious, but it’s possible to hope someone else’s are. In the meantime, this book is like a ray of sunshine in its yellow cover and with its clear, bright, emotionally complex poems, and I recommend that you read it.