Flatlands. Ruth Williams. Black Lawrence Press. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 2018.
Today's book of poetry is parroting Erin Belieu when we say that the spirit of Willa Cather breathes sturdy throughout Ruth Williams most excellent Flatlands. But that is a narrowing of focus when Williams has so much more to offer.
An old man's perspective on a young woman's poems has to be taken with several large grains of salt. So Today's book of poetry will tell you our secret methodology. Today's book of poetry grew up in a matriarchal home environment with four sisters, all of fine mind, and when reading I sometimes call upon them. I ring the poems off of their ears to see if what feels true to me feels true to them.
As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many
years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by
someone very strong[...] She knew at last for whom it was she had waited
and where he would carry her.
—Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
In my 13th year, hanging
the laundry, the white sheets
were like blowsy dresses
and my heartache
was a new
nostalgia, the plains
grasses a long cry,
the hair of my later years
growing before me.
How I spent that summer
like Cather, wanting
the strong arms
of another coming
round me, knowing
that this too was a foretaste
of what it meant to be flattened,
to love like the dirt,
how fertile then
not to know what
I would become.
It is hard to point out precisely how she does it but Williams likes to lead the reader down the garden path, gentle them to acquiescence, and then truthpounce them right between the eyes. Williams is an understated gem.
Flatlands can be read as a book of hard won truths. The reader can be sure at every turn because Williams makes you want to stay. Once you've read one of these twisters you're hard wired to want more.
On TV, the fattest man in the world
says his body was the result of
It's a practiced explanation
Significantly, he notes,
he began losing weight
when his mother died.
hang with wings
the pretty doctor
I don't mean to make more of it
than I should.
We are all envelopes
of loose teeth.
"We are all envelopes of loose teeth." Today's book of poetry almost fell off of our seat when we read this line, we are thinking it might go on our headstone.
Today's book of poetry has been laying low for the last little while; there are all sorts of unavoidable reasons. Today's book of poetry will continue on a reduced schedule for a brief period. We will return to regularly scheduled programming as soon as possible.
Our morning read was full of enthusiasm so these poems came out charged. They bounced around the office like laser beams of clean, clear light. Straight as an arrow.
The winter lengthens. The blank horizon is a way
of being more profound than snow. Inside it, a lantern
swatch of yellow curling over a buried leg.
In pioneer days, they'd tie frozen
bodies to the fencepost. The twine a way of
waiting for spring.
Ruth Williams is a poet after our own poetry heart. Today's book of poetry is a big fan of the unadulterated voice, the real voice.
Williams writes understated bulls-eyes. There is music here.
Photo: Kira Whitney Photography
ABOUT THE AUTHORRuth Williams is the author of Conveyance (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her poetry has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, jubilat, Pleiades and Third Coast among others. She has also published creative nonfiction in DIAGRAM and Crab Orchard Review as well as scholarly work on women’s writing and feminism in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, The Journal of Popular Culture, and College Literature. Currently, Ruth lives in Kansas City where she is an Assistant Professor of English at William Jewell College and an editor for Bear Review.
BLURBSSome writers approach the Nebraska plains as a big, empty other into which they may imagine. I understand the appeal of that mythology. But in Ruth Williams gorgeous new collection, Flatlands, the landscape is as alive as the plains truly are, and serves as both a generating place and quixotic companion to Williams's subtle, precise speaker. Throughout the poems, Williams images are beautifully wrought and full of surprises: a salmon being filleted opens like “a girl’s coral dress come undone,” and the "night heat” of spent fireworks sleeps in the hands of children who are “ready to knock.” I love this book—it’s musical syncopation, the tight, clean transparency of the poems’ lines. I think Willa Cather, the collection's genius loci, would admire Williams’s work, recognizing its fundamental truthfulness. Which is about the highest compliment I have to give.
—Erin Belieu, Author of Slant Six, Co-founder, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts
Ruth Williams' Flatlands starts from the premise of emptiness and uncovers resources for what can be found and what's to be made. Landscape, identity, desire, the past and the moment—the distinct constellation of her concerns is thrown into focus by a taut, understated craft. These seemingly casual observations break out in bursts of insight flaring against the broad horizon.
—Don Bogen, author of An Algebra
Written in the key of Willa Cather and in kinship with the spare and located writing practice of Lorine Niedecker, Ruth Williams’ Flatlands could very well be a continuation of the Prairie Trilogy. A subtle defiance circulates through these poems—a book of mouths—whose investments include the erotics of place, gender expectations, insecurity, and boredom—the "radical blah" that fills in and out so much of a life. Williams works through what it means to be from and in a place, understanding we are shaped by land and language. In an era of platitudes, I admire the reluctance in these poems, balanced by awe that our bodies may be our best souvenirs—“I don't mean to make more of it/ than I should.// We are all envelopes/ of loose teeth.” Reading Williams’ poems, I feel a little less weary about being a packet of debris, about being, in general.
—Kristi Maxwell, author of That Our Eyes Be Rigged
In Flatlands, Ruth Williams turns her surroundings into well-crafted poems that deeply explore the physical and metaphorical landscape. We glimpse youth growing into maturity through a lens of desire and the elusive nature of love. Williams’ poems are filled with imagery, making inventive use of repetition (“Radical Blah” and “Sister” poems), syntax (“Surviving on Equations”), surprising, delicious sounds (“His Georgette”), and more. Her poems wisely lead us up to the edge, to the sense that there’s more beneath what is said. A fine collection.
—Twyla M. Hansen, Nebraska State Poet, author of Rock • Tree • Bird
Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher. They are shown here for publicity and review purposes. For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.
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