Review: The Distance of Observation by Conney Williams
Conney Williams’s The Distance of Observation reminds us that love can take us out of the mundanity of the everyday and make life heroic, even mythical. Williams’s newest collection centers around the spiritual, physical, and emotional drama of this emotion and shows us how our lives are destroyed and elevated from it. He speaks of his lovers as though they are heroes engaged on some epic journey, and his own love life is often treated in this way. The thing about it is that he is right; reading The Distance of Observation reminded me of Novalis’s statement “every person’s life is a sacred text.” Williams demonstrates that concept for us.
One of the ways Williams frames the concept of love as mythical is by making frequent references to history and mythology that recasts his life in those terms. “Waking to Love in a Garden Near Babylon” for example gives his love life an Edenic quality.
had i expected you
i would be more confident
you would see the hazel
of my daughter’s eyes in mine
all of you is more than
this rigid bone and reluctance
unimagined song you
are so much more woman
than adam or i expected (18).
Of course, many poets drop an occasional reference to mythology to make a point, but this is not the effect of Williams’s work. What he does is immerse us in these references, and we as readers begin to resee our lives, or at least his in these terms. Here and later, he is Adam in the Garden of Eden. Of course, we all are. We all have to discover love and the drama of life ourselves, and if we are awake to it, we begin to see life in the way that he describes. The collection helps us to wake to that reality. Later, he brings back Eden again and again including in “Morning,” where he writes:
“you that woman god mythologized,
sweet red reared south side of eden
and first cousin to blood moon
sunday twilight follow you home
with sky blue and cloud song
make you the birth of ashe” (84).
Of course, love is not all Edenic, and he brings importance and light to what is painful in love as well. He does not trivialize the pain associated with it. So often our pain is cast as silly. That the emotional pain of love is silly is the basis for a good deal of literary and cinematic humor. Williams doesn’t see it that way. In “Infection,” he writes:
what manner of woman
do you pretend to be?
furious and tender medusa
transform me until I am without root
web and smoke
masquerade as medicine and venom
you are sky without clouds
i still open my eyes for you
death is not a cure for everything (95).
In the experience of the lover, his ex is not just a woman who has left him. She is Medusa. Her love is venom, and his time with her is something that will stay with him until death. This is the way that break-ups and lovers’ pains often feel, and he is going deeply into the emotion in a way that so many great musicians do, but too few poets do.
Great poetry can elevate us. It can make us feel holy. It can turn us on to the fact that our lives matter and the experience of moving through the universe should be dramatic and bold. Conney Williams’s collection The Distance of Observation does all of that for us and to us.
Photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Brantingham is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park’s first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has ten books of poetry and fiction including The L.A. Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press) and A Sublime and Tragic Dance (Cholla Needles Press). He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College. (Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher.)
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