BRENDA WILLIAMS: SURVIVING MOZART
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|BRENDA WILLIAMS: SURVIVING MOZART|
The main impression one has after reading SURVIVING MOZART is what an impressive and admirable person Brenda Williams is. Here's a story in sonnet form of a crammed, unconventional life that has had its share of challenges and tragedies and that has also been industrious. The poems are powered by unceasing campaigning for better mental health provisions by the author and by her strong moral principles.
The name of the poet Brenda Williams is one that is well known. This is scarcely to be wondered at, seeing that she has staged a number of protests at Leeds and Oxford Universities and gained widespread attention in the national media. She has also written a seven hundred sonnet sequence THE PAIN CLINIC, which will be published as part of her COLLECTED POEMS in 2008. Wherever literary value is regarded as a relevant consideration, stature as a poet usually receives its due tribute of acknowledgement. Her poetic voice is a strongly individual one, expressing the distinctive vision and sensibility of a writer of passion and commitment.
The collection begins with three pages of prose about the poet's attempted suicide and the loss of her voice, until at the final moment in her breakdown, she realizes that she can speak again. As the poet says,
It was a cry for help in every sense and one that was finally heard.The volume ends with five pages of prose titled SURVIVING MOZART. In this piece, the author talks about her beloved cats, especially Mozart, a stray, Lost and frightened. The cat helps the author to recover from a nine-month protest, which has left her without energy, where the future lay as a black pall. She keeps the cat, and it's a glowing relationship, in spite of all the author's breakdowns and protest demonstrations. The partnership is only broken when the cat dies.
He seemed always to have been aware that he was homeless once, and now I was left with his name, with nowhere to go.The majority of the collection is taken up with fifteen sections of sonnets. In introducing the sonnets, I would first like to point out some of the salient features of the sonnet form: the sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, usually rhymed, usually written in iambic pentameter; a song usurped by ideas. A sonnet often presents an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief. But it may also contain a description of a memorable scene, or a meditation, or a miniature story, or a portrait, or a list. The rhyme scheme and stanza breaks (if any) often determine the structure of the thoughts.
In English there are three principal kinds of sonnet: the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or English), and the Spenserian. They are characterized by different rhyme schemes and different organizing principles. The Petrarchan sonnet has a two-part structure; the break between octave and sestet is called the volta or turning point. It rhymes abbaabba in its first eight lines and variously in the last six: cdcdcd or cdedee or ccdccd or cddcdd or cdecde or cddcee.
The Shakespearian sonnet, named after William Shakespeare, rhymes ababcdcdefefgg. Its structure is four-part, based on three quatrains and a couplet, although stanza breaks are optional. The rhyme is easier, and there are several possible turning points (although the crisis is usually reached with stanza three or the final couplet, which often moralizes or generalizes).
The Spenserian sonnet, invented by Edmund Spenser as an outgrowth of the stanza pattern he used in THE FAERIE QUEEN has the pattern: ababbcbccdcdee.
Williams' sonnets are Shakespearian in form, rhyming ababcdcdefefgg.
The first section of sonnets, KEATS HOUSE, contains poems written after the poet's failed suicide attempt. Keats' house seems to have been a cathartic symbol for the poet as it was
where I had often taken my children when they were young. It was also the place where I had begun a 600 sonnet sequence, written over the course of almost twenty years. I had lost both my children.Williams asks herself in one of the sonnets:
Did I intend to bring my life to an End, the real answer is I do not know.We feel that perhaps she didn't intend to die, but that the attempt was simply a cry for help. In part 2 of this sequence, the second sonnet tells us that her past life floated before her eyes as she recalls
How I longed to get back to you, to be Alive once more and even as we were.The twelve sonnets, entitled BEATEN TRACK, were written for Colm Golden. In the second sonnet we learn that
Only by reading a poem aloud Can I find out what has happened before, From words left out or openly avowed, Silence echoes reaching into the core Of being . . .The sequence does more than describe the inner spirit uncovering itself, it animates the poet's life with a streak of uncontrollable anger:
I said nothing and I let it happen Searching for the end in words and in vain, Silence was the simple constraint and then it became the carapace for her pain.At the end of the mini-narrative, the reader has to ask the questions: in what way does the account complete meaning, or represent complete meaning? There is a strong case for a shock of meaning that nevertheless remains somehow incomplete and out of reach for the common reader. But the reader will have barely formulated this response when Williams plunges him or her into the next sequence of poems.
In the 16 sonnets contained in DISMANTLING FORDWYCH HOUSE we learn that Williams
came to Fordwych House when my own life Had collapsed, left in utmost jeopardy In the past, I lived each day on the knife— Edge of existence with my family Still around me and gone from me, yet always In disarray.Williams reveals herself to be an intense and solvable poet: much of the density of her writing resolves itself in her patterning of the collection. Even then, I must confess a wish that she had been more experimental and not limited her poems to the sonnet form, because at her best she has an engaging presence and pulsing narrative energy. For example, Williams' depiction of herself with
nothing to salvage from those daysleads to the crescendo of
the unending planning of how to die Kept me alive for a little longer, This was the only certainty and I Could not allow for anything other Than a last endless countdown to the end.When the place of refuge, which the poet had attended every day for six months was dismantled, she was devastated. She tried hard “for twenty months to keep going:
The life I had known was devastated And not a stone was left to stand or rest Upon another and there was nothing Left within . . .IN MEMORIAM CHRISTINE BLAKE is a strong suite of eight sonnets written for a friend, who as the poet notes:
Christine died in her home in Fordwych Road a few doors away from the West Hampstead Day Hospital. Christine had been denied this refuge. (June 1945 – April 2002).As the reader comes to realise, this energy is augmented by the patterns of the sonnet form. The way Williams describes the leaves and theAlone on Tuesday morning just thirteen Weeks into the year, the first day after Easter, you put an end to what had been An unmanageable existence . . .
single candle in the space behind Youcontrasting with the darkness of her friend's passing seems to me to form the underlying tension to the poem.
Our Lady's Candles were still emerging, Chestnut leaves unspread, recently broken Under hazed green smokeand the poem ending with the paean:
As you passed before us into the hold Of time, where sunlight and material Darkness broke from the cordon of Aprilis superb.
THE DARKEST RIM is a sonnet Written during the Fordwych House Protest in which the poet remembers seeing the
...great sycamore leaves turn Closing like fingers on their own surface, Exposing whitened hands of paper thin Drained skin . . .From THE FORDWYCH HOUSE EXTRACT contains eight sonnets in which Williams tells us,
I cannot finish what I have begun.Poems written for Drs Doris Lister and Peter Raven, in the sequence WE ARE STARDUST, tell us about the poet's parents:
How I long to be able to pull free And to lay aside her daily sorrow, The nights without end when she had to flee In fear of her own pursuing shadow, In flight from the footfall hurrying near, Random his clamouring far-flung echo Veering between us and before and sheer As the neon darkness of tomorrow.Williams' mother died of cancer when Williams was fifteen. Her father was an alcoholic suffering from schizophrenia. These events scarred her for life. The final poem in this sequence says,
All there was left to do was to follow You however many years it would take And of so little use to anyoneMARGARET is a sequence of 16 sonnets, beginning with a poem that tells us
The end remains and who knows what to do With it, leftover as though by chance from another century, where do I go From here.The sequence ends with the startling poem
It is the world that has come to an end, Its equilibrium and its orbit Awry with a malaise nothing will mend.The reader builds up a picture of the potential of the narrative. Nevertheless, such an approach often forces itself to run a narrow gauntlet between providing a richness of the detail surrounding the narrative and overwhelming the reader with too many narrative elements to consider the implication of. For example, in Williams' narrative about Margaret, she writes:
No one can imagine in the present Tense the last moment of someone driven To the edge, the life that was only lent For a little while, failed to break even.LIFE AND DEATH IN CAMDEN (16 sonnets) celebrates the life and death of Margaret, who the author met at Fordwych House in the late 1990s, and another woman, Christine, who died there before her:
Margaret, like Christine before her, became A brief episode in the theatre Of sudden death in Camden with the same Pass through internal review thereafter. Nothing was done, nothing would ever be Done yet the patients kept on dying by Their own hand, pushed towards extremity With nothing more to be done but to die Waiting there for help that would never comeThe poems are a very sad indictment of the failings of the mental health service, for which Williams has campaigned for many years.
THE TERMINUS and ROYAL FREE HAMPSTEAD are places where Williams reflected on her life and what had brought her to the brink of despair. THE TERMINUS
From another time, somewhere in a far Place other than this where we are patients pausing on our way from a nearby day Hospitaland ROYAL FREE HAMPSTEAD
The meaning I have lost, how childhood's key Is broken fast within its lock, leaves late in their own stillness falter as I waitexpress the poet's harrowing wait for something to happen to help the patients in their hour of need.
There is enough evidence in the poems to suppose that Williams' mother's early death, her father's mental illness and alcoholism, the loss of her own children and friends, and her divorce, played a great part in her own mental instability, but the relationship of all these elements is mitigated by some compelling poetry.
If the implication is that Williams has a style that is depressing and self-pitying, this is far from the truth. Williams self-imaging of
... the end Of my life had then already begunfrom KEATS HOUSE at the beginning of the cycle of poems, reminds me of her ending in THE TERMINUS
mourning both for time once known and the pain of time to comeThe movement turns her pain away from herself to a future, which she can only surmise. We can only hope, for her sake, that the future will be brighter, and that she will go on to see her collections of poetry achieve the success they deserve. Like many works in the genre, SURVIVING MOZART, could be more selective and more varied in pace and tone. But the author writes vigorously and lucidly, with an eye for detail, an ear for anecdote and a nose for controversy.
|reviewer: Patricia Prime.|