Presence By Alan Williamson Knopf. 82 pp. $6 95
THE ASSISTANT PROFESSOR who writes poetry on the side has become something of a cliche in academic circles. Invariably he knows most of the other poets in the area because he has attended so many readings. Writing is a joy and a curse for him--he feels best when he is writing: students are to him as the intruder from Porlock was to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The prospect of obscurity terrifies him when he bothers thinking about it.
Many of these characters hastily assemble first collections lest Time catch up with them. The other more humble type of poet sits on a steadily growing pile of work and publishes it only when he is sure his words will strike a chord. Such a poet is Alan Williamson. The poems in his first collection. Presence, have been written over the 12 years Williamson has taught English at colleges from coast to coast. Any of them would probably have made the kind of mark Williamson hoped for if published as soon as written. Taken together, they present a stunning elevation of the language of modern poetry.
Williamson never falls into the trendy confusion with modern life that so many current poets bewail. Sometimes he cuts straight through characters and their relationships with a calm, deliberate train of thought. The comical "If, On Your First Love's Wedding Day" races through a soap-opera study of a particularly confusing and blue hour. Williamson seems cheerfully to throw up his hands at the end. "What do you say? You say, My first love got married today, if you're drunk enough," Indeed.
The newer poems tend to telescope people, events, places and hint at the inner life in them until the end of the poem, when the joy in only tangible things is destroyed and replaced with a vision of one enduring idea whether it be blood, love, or the continuousness of change.
Williamson redefines the modern world from an almost romantic point of view. The elegy "Dream Without End," puts into practice William Wordsworth's idea that beauty is even more vital when resurrected in the memory. And, like John Keats, Williamson sees life as a source of light
Did the spiffy girl turn and start running
Down those unearthly, now, two years
(The light-years going from her eyes like glass)
To leave you something simple as a mitten
And life, set right, in your hands?
The image of light radiating through glass calls back echoes of Shelley's elegy "Adonais," in which he describes life as "a dome of many coloured glass. Staining the white radiance of Eternity." Williamson acknowledges his debt to that splendid elegy: "And how Shelley outlived his death by writing it..."The Romantic poet, after concluding his elegy to Keats with an image of death by water, drowned and was found with a copy of Keats' poems.
Williamson's romantic vision may be the reason he finds such joy in other people. Haunting images recur throughout Presence of a man alone in a room with a landscape of thoughts, savoring the past actions of other people. In "House-Moving from Tournon to Bescancon," a nod to the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme*. Williamson writes:
How eagerly I waited, that first week, for life--my only real one--to compose itself with the room as I have it: midnight: the mirror: the window bulged with my Dreams like firelight--like the bottomless drawer of an old chest...
MORE THAN INJECTING a new vigor into our confusing and underrated era. Williamson seeks to infuse the language we speak with new beauty. He will crash through a line with many poly syllabics--exciting combinations of consonants and internal rhyming--and then suddenly hit a resounding, one-syllabic word with a long vowel. Such techniques allow him to reemphasize the language of poetry, as distinct from prose, without seeming artificial. The elegance of Williamson's tone lends him the dramatic, questioning role of the nineteenth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in "Leaving for Islands":
And I wonder if anyone is ever young or ruthless enough, to live there entirely. Dolphins won't take us. We must wait.
Presence is a manifesto, a plea to place more value on the people and landscape surrounding us. Williamson has mastered the art of slipping from the general to the specific and sensual, from the simple to the lofty and complex. He sets forth his quest in "Progress of the Soul," an abstracted story of how we move through life: You are in a room, empty and white, and in it you must hallucinate colors.