Cabaret, by Nerys Williams, New Dublin Press, 109 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-0-993262333
Nerys Williams’s Cabaret is a poetry book in three acts. Like the German Kabarett of the 1920s and ’30s, it is as concerned with politics as it is with performance and song. In particular it probes the uneasy relation of culture to capital. Many of the poems in Act One, subtitled “Treasure Island”, address the aftermath of the financial crisis head on, describing ATMs as “glyphs in our throats”, critiquing the “bureaucracy of loss” and setting the “full-throated” protest of the Occupy movement against the “silver tongue” of those who promise to “change your default into decency / and negative equity into futurity”. The book’s third section is contrastingly dominated by poems that pay tribute to arthouse cinema, but, in borrowing its own subtitle – “Embossed by Silvery Images” – from Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria”, there is an implicit acknowledgment that, no matter how ethereal, art has its own systems of trade and exchange. Silver, even to the artist, is alluring: in the book’s penultimate poem, “champagne / punctuates my script”, and Sally Bowles longs – again combining the heavenly and the material – to “be divine decadence”. Even the book itself is presented as a precious objet d’art, an A6 ivory quarto whose title is embossed in gold type.
The “Treasure Island” of Williams’s book, however, has little to do with that of Long John Silver. The heading refers, instead, to a manmade island in San Francisco Bay, the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition held in 1939 and 1940. One of the aims of the exhibition was to contribute “to the cause of world peace through world trade”. However, in “Occupation” – perhaps this section’s centrepiece poem – the exclusion of “new Pete Seegers” from the “Google-lit” Californian “night-spaces” of the 2010s betrays a fundamentally divided society: “The instinct to enter I into each community / what makes song, cannot lie in exclusion.” Song may, however, arise from resistance: in the opening poem, hiding oneself “Against […] tyrants with bright smiles” (‘against’ is an unexpected but telling preposition here) ends in an attempt at mastery, “heeding hidden song”. And his extraordinary acts of resistance may suggest why the escapologist Harry Houdini is so appealing to Williams: in “Houdini Speaks”, the “handcuff king’s” physical struggles with “straightjackets, / locks, chains, ropes and glass” conclude with a bodiless voice speaking to his wife from the dead – his own “hidden song”.
For all the social critique of the “Treasure Island” section, the performative allure of the Golden Gate Exhibition is far from lost on Williams: “Salici’s Puppet Fair” and “Folies Bergère in the Dark” draw on archived programmes, giving a taste of what original audiences might have experienced. In Act Two, entitled “Famous Feeling”, the scene largely shifts from the USA to Wales (including domestic snapshots) but the balance of poems of protest and poems of spectacle remains. “Capel Celyn Telyneg” and “MOD Document” respectively record the levelling of a local community to build a reservoir and the appropriation of a natural beauty spot for missile testing. Meanwhile, poems for JG Parry – one-time holder of the world speed record who died trying to reclaim it on Pendine Sands – and Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, test Earhart’s proposition that “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”.
“Grace Notes for Amelia” also foregrounds one of the collection’s other abiding interests: the currency of language. On landing in Burry Port, South Wales, Earhart was met by a fisherman who could not understand her American accent. “Do you really not understand / this transmission at all?” the poem ends, a question that resonates throughout a collection versed in language philosophy and attuned to different kinds of transmission.
Occasionally – in common with a lot of language-centred writing – the overt questioning of what language is and what it does can leave the reader stranded outside an experience. “Meeting the Philosophers”, for example, alludes to a paper by language philosopher “Donald Davison” and “delineates a friend’s exchange of views with philosopher John Searle”. While it concludes with a proposal to “marshal war against / the league of bald-headed men”, one could be forgiven for feeling that Williams’s poem might, in fact, be in league with them – at least in terms of the prior knowledge it expects of a reader. Elsewhere though, poems which are sensitive to the way in which meanings can’t be pinned down – to “the breech / between half-lit words” – recognise that the value of language may lie in the uncertainty of its interpretation, in its meaning different things to different audiences. The poem “In Which” concludes with a call to preserve such spaces: “Guard these interstices with care. / They are not for mending.” Cabaret is a collection which disparages silver tongues but – to its concluding piece – values those that are “coded”.
Alex Runchman leads Academic English programmes at University College Dublin’s Applied Language Centre. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: A Critical Reassessment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as book chapters, articles, and reviews on US, British, and Irish poetry.