Williams, Phillip B. Thief in the Interior. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2016. 82pp. $15.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Khadijah Queen
From the start, Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior situates the reader in sensorial language both abject and beautiful, horrific and tender. Leading with salt, sweat, breath, the body’s automatic excretions; threading in “a great system of clouds” (1), water, dew; injecting blood, earth, the moon—the book has an elemental quality that anchors the poems firmly into that ancient conversation about what it means to be human in a particular time and place. And, specifically, what it means to be a certain kind of body, one labeled “queer” and “Black” in a country with a long history of unjust and often unchecked violence toward such a body.
“Bound,” the opening poem, introduces a speaker who feels limited by biology and cultural expectations. The question “Can I only be one thing / at once?” (1) hints at an answer in the negative but an answer that, as the book progresses, ultimately results in a defiant assertion of self: “I walked away from car and corpse and made / room for nothing but this body’s / first words. See my mouth move, like this—” (79). The book’s trajectory moves from a voice bound in innocence to the pain of speaking, from violence imposed in the form of a spinning noose to a landscape and its objects humanized by memory while at times indifferent, inhabited by the dangerously ignorant and/or unconscious: “Watch boys be forced / into men by men who’ve forgotten their own / forcing” (60).
But first, difficulty. Navigation of oppressive norms holds no romance. Trying to love and to stay alive are equally fraught. The minefield of self-determination seems an endlessly gaping landscape, “Madly pastoral” (49), swallowing all the death visited upon it, most often in the form of boys and animals, but its hunger for death is never sated: “And the bull into the earth. And the boy into the earth. / And the earth not full, the earth not full” (3). Comparisons embedded in the preceding lines: black flesh as disposable, as animal, as fodder, unconsidered. The poems, however, do consider, and find lacking, a world that seems to take no responsibility for the devouring the speaker relates: “No one listens. They are still alive not to” (35).
The omniscient eye misses nothing, a consummate witness, one that the reader may wish would gentle the delivery of what’s seen, and yet this witness indicts society at large. From Rashawn Brazell to more recent victims of police killings to anonymous targets of racial and gender/sexuality-based violence, Williams indicts these wrongs in language and tones that hold both passion and authority. The voice in these poems accepts no excuses, and rejects external pressures to conform or to be silenced: “Some minds are groomed for defiance” (10). And love is important—self-love, love of others—and the speaker laments the ways love gets warped by shame and other internal and external destructions: “Some men have killed / their lovers because they loved them / so much in secret that the secret kept / coming out” (64).
Structurally, the book works as a four-part (dis)harmony: the anthem and Langston Hughes-tinged “weary blues” (13) in section I, the extended dirge of section II’s “Witness,” the hymn-esque “Greatly Be Gentle” of the third section, the hip-hop of “He Loved Him Madly” in section IV. One criticism of Thief might focus on that structure, pronouncing the sectioning artificial or unnecessary. The length of each section varies, with the 10-page section III preceded by “Witness,” a 16-page section by itself. The tough and complicated material the book tackles should, arguably, be broken up to provide space around that poem in particular. “Witness” recounts in a multiplicity of forms the harrowing death by dismemberment of Rashawn Brazell, a nineteen-year-old gay community volunteer and aspiring fashion designer, unofficially a hate crime. However, unrelenting poems such as “Witness” could have been trusted to do the work of pacing, and removing the sections might have allowed the poem’s sections to echo Brazell’s mother’s grief, for example—also unrelenting, no breathing space—creating their own authority and giving up none.
As stated earlier, Thief carries a nearly archaic sensibility, in the sense that the poems are poems for the most part, a strength in that they are balanced by a clear narrative arc. They have a solid sense of place and do not waver. Take “Often I am Permitted to Return to the City”: “Wherefrom fall all the architectures I am / I say are my people’s people and my people / whose houses tremble as thunderous bass passes” (57). The word choice “wherefrom” and the antiquated diction belie the contemporary urban location and provide a sense of surprise that enlivens and elegizes: “The blacktopped roads sop up heat for double / Dutch feet to greet, rope slapped down / by a child’s hand. I used to know her name” (57). In “A Survey of Masculinity,” many poetic elements almost seem to be on bold display, particularly alliteration, which is easy to overdo:
Gaze of detonation, of well-bred
taxidermy, of ghouls misnamed Mandingo
till the weight of their manhood stuck
like a mannerism. Is it loving men that removes
my manacled mouth, mutes my mule dick’s howl
as the gelding knife lands? In this land
manicured by manure and blood, hyacinth and bullets, the tool
and the temper rule while the suicides of sons
feed the softened earth beneath our stampede. (60)
However, the glut of alliteration works here. These lines provide the most dramatic example of the book’s overall reliance on heavy, meaty words, the language of viscera and brutality called upon to do the work of hammering home the urgency of the voices of the dead: “Please. I cannot speak. I hold it all in” (35). Even the visual poems and innovations serve as gyres, particularly in the case of “Inheritance: Anthem,” the textual vortexes highlighting the seeming endlessness of police violence, a nod to both Yeats and to nature.
How much pain can the body endure? How much misery can a heart bear? How much devastation can a mind comprehend? The poems in Thief in the Interior do not answer those questions, but present impossible burdens and ask the reader to consider their weight. In his well-crafted debut volume, Williams lays out the intricate relationship between sex, race, violence and the overarching culture. With the eyes of the figure on the cover forced open, Phillip B. Williams scrutinizes how those national obsessions intertwine, both publicly and privately, in America.
(POST NO ILLS Tip: Read Kaveh Akbar’s insightful interview with Phillip B. Williams at DiveDapper.)
KHADIJAH QUEEN is the author of five books, most recently Fearful Beloved (2015) and the forthcoming I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (2017). Individual poems and prose appear in Tin House, The Rumpus, The Force of What’s Possible, Women Write Resistance, and widely in other journals and anthologies. Her verse play Non-Sequitur won the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers, and was staged in New York City in late 2015. She is core faculty for the new low-residency Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. For more information on Queen and her work, visit http://www.khadijahqueen.com.