In “A Sick Child,” insomnia carries Alan Williamson back to his childhood and certain dark winter days spent at home when he was sick in bed. He remembers his father looking in on him from the doorway, and “for once he doesn’t expect of me / anything I can’t do.” Nothing is expected of the sick child: he is free, if only temporarily, from the obligation to strive and grow into a man out in the world, like his father. He feels something fall away from him, and his mind becomes “simple,” as if he were being relieved of identity itself.
This vision of blankness might be frightening—a dire loss of self. But because the child’s mother is there to care for him, and will in a day or two serve him “an extra meal,” he will feel almost like himself again, which makes the experience safe. The reassurance she gives lasts long enough for Williamson to draw strength from it (indeed to create a poem out of it) many years later.
Marcel Proust, the convalescent whose master novel begins with a memory of himself as a child longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss, would have understood that experience. So would have Randall Jarrell, who loved Proust and who also wrote a poem called “A Sick Child.”
Like Jarrell, Williamson is a poet and a critic. His several books of poetry and criticism include Almost a Girl: Male Writers and Female Identification, a work that deals with the complex gender identities of Jarrell and other modern authors. In the poems here that incorporate memories of his mother, Williamson gives us a glimpse of the imprint of that sponsoring relationship on his own imagination.
In particular, the syntax and pacing of “Oral Surgery” and “Summer Afternoon in the South,” conveying the suspense and surprises of reverie, suggest a version of the dilated hours watched over by the mother in “A Sick Child.” In this state, thought is freed up and on the verge of vanishing: we enter “the space where planets falter,” and there is “no difference between then and now.”
Put that way, the mental process Williamson is interested in sounds like a form of Buddhist meditation. In “The Bharhut Gate,” we learn that Williamson meditates, and we follow him on a journey to Kyoto, Calcutta (where the Bharhut Gate, one of the oldest pieces of Buddhist sculpture in India, is preserved), Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha was enlightened), Varanasi, and the Taj Mahal.
“There is / a continuity-line,” Williamson’s guide says in Calcutta, “showing how the stories connect.” The guide means the stories of Buddhist legend that Williamson is learning about. But it could just as well be a comment on the unspooling line of his poems, set in motion a long time ago in a child’s bedroom on a dark day in Chicago.
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