Thief in the Interior
Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books, 2016
Phillip B. Williams' debut collection, Thief in the Interior, absconds with luminous witness from the darkest places in our culture: the shadow’s hem, the bull’s corpse, the trash bag full of dismembered body parts, and the spinning noose. In poem after poem, Williams sings in counterpoint to violent anthems composed in the American grain; Williams sings against “one nation coughing up black tongues.” He sings for the vanished, for the haunted, for the tortured, for the lost, for the place on the horizon where the little boat of the human body disappears in a wingdom of unending grace. Thief in the Interior moves gracefully from pastoral through elegy to epithalamion; along the way, Williams deftly vivisects the sonnet and explores the lyric possibilities of forms as disparate as the calligram and the pecha kucha. More importantly, Williams applies his dynamic syntax to an exploration of the buoyant wreckage inside the self, which might allow one to endure “the alluvial earth of grief” and “the hostile enigma” of misogyny, racism, and homophobia confronted daily in these United States.
Williams divides Thief into four sections. The first section begins with the poem, “Bound,” a poem that questions heteronormative cultural expectations and the strictures imposed by others on the self. Williams continues throughout this opening section to elaborate a series of tropes centered on decaying and broken bodies: a rotting bull’s carcass, lynched black bodies, a lacerated wrist. Williams nests these tropes within hallucinatory pastoral imagery. Reading this section is like listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” backwards underwater. The second section of the book consists of one long poem, “Witness,” which details the death and dismemberment of a nineteen year old gay black man, named Rashawn Brazell. “Witness” provides a keening meditation on the Brazell case, which both celebrates the life of the victim and ruminates on the broader cultural implications of this murder. As Williams puts it, the poem attempts to “tell how a city phantoms a boy, phantoms all witnesses.” The third and fourth section of the book continue to explore the personal repercussions of this type of phantoming.
In these two concluding sections, Williams shifts back and forth between threnody and serenade. Perhaps the finest poem in Thief occurs in the final section. “Do-rag” reads in full:
O darling, the moon did not disrobe you.
You fell asleep that way, nude
and capsized by our wine, our Bump
‘n’ Grind shenanigans. Blame it
on whatever you like; my bed welcomes
whomever you decide to be: thug-
mistress, poinsettia, John Doe
in the alcove of my dreams. You
can quote verbatim an entire album
of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
with your ass in the air. There’s nothing
wrong with that. They mince syllables
as you call me yours. You don’t
like me but still invite me to your home
when your homies aren’t near
enough to hear us crash into each other
like hours. Some men have killed
their lovers because they loved them
so much in secret that the secret kept
coming out: wife gouging her husband
with suspicion, churches sneering
when an usher enters. Never mind that.
The sickle moon turns the sky into
a man’s mouth slapped sideways
to keep him from spilling what no one would
understand: you call me God when it
gets good though I do not exist to you
outside this room. Be yourself or no one else
here. Your do-rag is camouflage-patterned
and stuffed into my mouth.
In many respects “Do-rag” is emblematic of the collection as a whole. Here, Williams begins by apostrophizing the beloved in a manner at once intimate and chiding. The motion in “Do-rag,” as everywhere else in Thief, is both intensely private and raucously public. We are ushered into a bedroom, into an interior monologue, into a dialogue with a lover, into a conversation with black culture, into a colloquy with American culture as a whole at this very moment, into an endless symposium on the self. Deep inside this nested parleying, Williams’ “fists that bloomed like devotions” signal strength and hope and love.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.