A Determination to Endure: Julia Wakefield reviews The Butcher’s Window by Carmel Williams

The Butcher’s Window by Carmel Williams. Picaro Press 2012

Like Peter Bishop, I was first attracted to the poetry of Carmel Williams when I heard her reading ‘The Lemon Tree’. It is one of her strongest poems, and it opens this collection, encapsulating the theme that underlies Williams’ work: a determination to endure and thrive, no matter what life throws at us. The lemon tree dies, but its one green fruit survives even incineration.

The father described in the poem is also a recurring subject in this book: a tough Aussie bloke, who has no time for poetry and delicate plants (If it’s tough enough it’ll live!). Destructive male figures are in fact the main subject of the first section, either in the form of remote, frightening father figures, as in ‘Dying by Degrees’, or as priestly fathers of a suffocating, hypocritical faith, as in ‘Choirboy’ or ‘In the Name of the Father’, or they appear as strutting dominant males, as in ‘Assuming the Position’:

Small dick, big fear, mummy complex turned macho
Sometimes you see him – puppy dog eyes in the mirror
You want to cut it out of your face
Like your women compliant, visible only in the dark
Poetry about women – all sex and satire
You hump ‘em or hate ‘em…

All these men are the products of an oppressive, misogynistic interpretation of Christianity that has been nurtured in a tough, isolated and male-dominated society. Williams knows these men well. She must have grown up surrounded by them.

But there are dreams of better men in the ensuing section, ‘Second Womb’. The subject of the poem ‘Mr Zimmerman, is her “psychedelic troubadour”, a symbol of hope for a better society. ‘The Butcher of Lobeye’ is another of her strongest poems. It is a slow-paced portrait of a lover whose hands “know what it is to be male”, for whom “one perfect pink cut /brings tears to his eyes”. He is a man who”wears love like a satin harness” and

who can be convinced
that some things
are best
eaten raw.

The poet with a “taste for viscera/a passion for sharp objects” is captivated by this lover, who became her husband for 21 years. But the romance immediately turns sour in the ensuing poem: ‘on Remembrance Day’

The treason of an embrace
repels him, he wants to be alone
lay a wreath
for a soldier he once knew

‘Six more Sleeps’ evokes the desperate, lonely monotony of shared custody, the sudden absence of children, when the house resists her heavy step, and she

Says a prayer for the dark comfort of day’s end
a frantic job, a soft bed
and the courage to wake up, do it all again

The second half of the collection moves away from the essentially autobiographical and plays more with abstract concepts, but there are also some powerful poems that reflect the years Williams spent in Alice Springs, such as ‘Anzac Hill at Night’, where

……town lights dance
like a poor God’s constellation

‘The Therapeutic Mantle’ experiments with a sequence of poems, exploring psychoanalysis and the phenomenon of transference. But it is also another episode in the theme of survival and redemption: Williams come to her analyst looking for diagnosis, perhaps for absolution, but realises that his gift

….is to paraphrase beautifully
like an echo in the dark
Mine is to listen like a bat

Her real redemption comes in the beautiful poem ‘The Transfiguration’. As with ‘In the Name of the Father’ it alludes to the language of the Bible, but this time instead of placing the poem next to the words of the absolution ‘formula’, Williams replaces the formula with her own hymn to the material body:

I resurrect this body and ascend it to heaven
It is God walking

She reclaims the innocence that precedes the Fall:

I claim the right to lay naked as a child
bright, clean, completely present.

After this comes ‘The Mulberry Tree’, another hymn this time to childhood and the affirming tree of life, as opposed to the damning tree of knowledge. The poem starts with the bare tree, “pruned to a carcass”, but as winter passes, the tree performs a miracle, with the help of the redemptive rain:

Rain teased out
the first
awkward shoots
dotting the boughs
with hope

Even in ‘the oven of Alice’ this new growth can occur, and as the tree expands so do the lines of the poem:

I watched from my house, red turning to scarlet
in the oven of Alice and the turn
of the tides of life. The spill of royal carpet, red beaks of birds
busy ants, pink fingered children picked, climbed and bloomed with red
Boughs in the tender arch of fullness, spelled out harvest. Limp leaves like new
mothers took their rest in the sweet crimson air

This is a vision of Paradise in the back yard of an outback town, so different from the bleak view through the window in ‘Six more Sleeps’:

…the absence of trees
patchy couch grass, yesterday’s leaves

The last section, ‘Surrender’, contains lighter, less personal poems such as ‘A Moral Disposition’ and the gloriously sensuous ‘Wanted Ad’, but ‘Quickening’ is another poem about Alice that echoes ‘the Mulberry Tree’, capturing this time the innocent delight a child feels at the redemptive touch of rain after a long drought:

skin courts a shiver of mingled senses
pounding of icy drops
Chin upturned eyes closed
the perfect prayer, hair tossed on the wind
then like a lit fuse, she runs
laughter percolating
spinning like a skater, whipped as the grass….
….She has heaven on her tongue
time between her teeth

Two poems, ‘Red Car’ and ‘Son of Alice’, remind us of the bleaker tales of the earlier poems. But they are more objective, about people the poet has glimpsed, not met. However, the stories are part of the fabric of life in Alice and elsewhere, and ‘Red Car’ brings back echoes of the past:

Every body that cradles a womb
down Bradshaw Drive, heard that scream
It was a little death, a rough shove into the special groove
into which you were born

The brave new world that tries to turn its back on Alice’s violent side is simply an unthinking facade:

It won’t make the papers….
Zero tolerance is saved for petty crime
The streets are swept clean every week
The coffee is good
And the view is unbelievable

‘Son of Alice’ elaborates on this theme, with the view of ‘the bastard son of Alice’ as seen by the flatlands of Gillen, a half despairing indigenous, half aspiring white man, trying to sell his ‘white-walled house’, desperate to leave the emptiness of a failed marriage and the lack of identity bestowed by his birthplace.

Gold card in his back pocket
must have worn a hole
clean through to his skin

The last but one poem, ‘Starry Starry Night’, seems to begin bleakly:

On the first night
of losing everything

But this time the view from the window, the stars above Diggers Hill, becomes Vincent Van Gogh’s canvas, a perception of intense beauty that in the end overcomes despair.

drawing for his brother
consumed, for this moment
only by the grace of the stars
urgent in a scratch to ink
his meticulous surrender

The final poem, ‘Surrender’, brings us back to the beginning, and reaffirms the surrender to Nature of ‘Starry Starry Night’. The father who planted the lemon tree is reconciled with his rebellious daughter. When he appears to her as a young man full of apologies,

I had only love, extravagant, pulsing
stripped of any argument
utterly without pain

Father and daughter are united as they were long ago, lying beneath the stars:

His hand so warm around mine
His baritone syllables sounding the names
of constellations
Nothing between us but the sound of crickets
and the earth breathing
When all is said and done
there is nothing so precious
as surrender

Although this is not a verse novel, there is a storyline that encourages the reader to read the poems in sequence. The dark images of the first part of the book are later largely replaced by messages of hope. The poems may not be in chronological order, but they give the impression of an evolution, perhaps more of content than of style. Williams wrenches at the viscera in the early poems, but the affirming, inspiring imagery of the later poems creates a more satisfying and lasting effect on the senses. This is an impressive first collection, and promises even greater achievements to come.

– Julia Wakefield


Julia Wakefield is a reviewer and broadcaster for Radio Adelaide 101.5FM. She has published one small poetry book, A Disastrous Honeymoon, an Epic Poem for Short Attention Spans published by Littlefox Press, 2009. She has had other poems published in Page Seventeen and several Friendly Street anthologies. She is also a member of the Bindii Japanese Poetry Genre group http://haiku-bindii.blogspot.com/

For details on how to obtain The Butcher’s Window visit http://www.picaropress.com/page1/page1.html

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