By Darran Anderson
A Scotsman setting out to assassinate General Franco, Walt Disney’s mirrors, Van Gogh painting ‘Wheatfield With Crows,’ ‘Easter Road on a winters night.’ In A Room Darkened is as eclectic and radically tinged a collection as you’d expect from the former Rebel Inc supremo Kevin Williamson. In tune to his passions of leftist politics, counterculture literature, music, football and his native Scotland, it’s less a new voice in the rich firmament of Scottish literature than the welcome return of one absent for too long.
Beginning with the inspired evocations of ‘A Different Kind of Love,’ which glides from a serotonin-buoyed troposphere to some earthly hell (a “furnace made of / tiny fishhooks”), it is immediately clear that this is a intimate personal vision but one that is open to the wide world. Possessing a one-man think global, act local outlook, Williamson has the courage to not only swing lyrical punches but to bare his innermost thoughts and feelings. There’s the elegiac lament for lost love ‘Vanishing Point,’ the dark contrasting eroticisms of ‘Canute’ and the transfixing title poem, the soul weighing of ‘Conversation With My Accountant’ and ‘George Best (On The Eve Of Destruction)’ (with it’s surprisingly affective tribute, “some things last forever”).
It’s clear though that Williamson intends to do more than map his own soul and when he gets a bead on political and literary targets, his verse blazes. In ‘Advising A Philistine,’ he takes on the enemy, “the venereal scribe” who has driven poetry into an aloof cul-de-sac, the “dotage” in which it languishes today and gives it to them with both barrels. But it’s more than that. For Williamson’s verse doesn’t just criticise or lament, it crucially offers a way out, through an engagement with, rather than a lofty dislocation from, life in all its messiness and glory. That it seems is the last hope for poetry and Williamson, amongst others, is pointing the way.
And so proceeds a collection that approaches the real world directly (with a sly wink to forefathers like William Carlos Williams, Norman MacCaig and Tom Leonard). ‘Hymn to Karl Marxism’ is initially an intriguing humanist view of the old curmudgeon of the International, “who couldn’t find time / to bury his father’s corpse.” In its second incarnation it becomes an enigmatic minor masterpiece, a glimpse into the border with death, with its eerie refrain “Karl, my strength is ebbing,” the deathbed words of Marx’s blessed wife Jenny, whose demise pulled the two of them down together. It’s one of many truly remarkable poems on show along with the enigmatic ‘Anja With A Jay,’ ‘The Luminous Flame of Rosie Savin’ and ‘Before The Fall,’ where it is the mysteries, and what eludes us, that captivate, the adept fusion of Plath and Hughes in ‘Somebody’s Done For,’ the compelling tyrannicide of ‘Stuart Christie’ and perceptive glances over the Beat Generation (‘What A Howler’) and relationships (‘One Down’).
That’s not to say there aren’t criticisms. Some poems, for all their good intentions, fall short of the mark, being too loose or too blankly aphoristic and for all the open-heartedness it’s difficult to shake off the well-worn clichés of romantic verse in particular. When he does though, which is frequently, it’s first-rate writing. With imagery as impressive as “the sun / set alight at dusk / the life / slow as a junkie’s walk” (‘Wishing For A New Life’), jolting as ‘Poetry Has Gone Soft’ or haunting as the lost love of ‘Vanishing Point,’ Williamson more than compensates for the occasional slip-up. All the positive elements are present in ‘Requiem For La Belle Angele,’ Williamson’s tribute to his city and a stage in his life, immortalising the Cowgate, the nocturnal, hedonistic setting of James Connolly‘s birth, Ahmed Shek‘s murder and Williamson’s fondly remembered nightclub rendezvous of the title (destroyed in a notorious fire in 2002), a strident celebration of comradeship and debauchery and all the more melancholic for its passing.
In A Room Darkened reaches its political apex in its assertions of Scottish independence, dusting down the other culture of the land, beyond the kilts and jimmy hat legacy of that wolf in sheep’s clothing Scott, the other histories, the buried ones. In ‘Pages Torn From A History Denied’ (employing Rabbie Burns trademark rhyming structure), Williamson presents an overview of Scottish rebel history (from the betrayal of the Act of Union to government tanks rolling through Glasgow to crush the workers) and an exorcism of Sir Walter’s attempts to turn the Scot into the “happy slave,” “the Englishman abroad” (there’s a reason Walter Scott has the biggest monument to any writer in the world and it’s little to do with his writing). Illuminating a counterculture with a more valid claim to the nation’s soul, his is a reverberating voice in favour of freedom and independence. The poem makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that Scotland has a fiery apostle in Williamson. In A Room Darkened proves resoundingly that poetry does too.
In A Room Darkened by Kevin Williamson
Two Ravens Press
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika. His writing features in The Flash fiction anthology [Social Disease] and in the Poetry Salzburg Review [Austria], the Listening To Water anthology [Foothills Publishing, NY State], BLATT magazine [Prague] and a load of websites. He has completed a collection of verse called Tesla’s Ghost, and is working on a short story collection entitled Junk and a novel entitled The Immortals.