You Know Who You Are
If you’re asking who are Wolsak & Wynn, I can tell you that, located in Hamilton, Ontario, they’re the publishers of “clear, passionate Canadian voices,” a literary press with more than 122 titles published since 1986, including many winners of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. I can tell you that they produce beautiful books with smart designs on exquisite paper. And I can tell you that their website is worth checking out if you’re interested in Canadian poetry.
If you’re asking who is Ian Williams, I can tell you that he’s a young (as in under 35) Canadian poet who divides his time between Ontario and Massachusetts, where he teaches. I can tell you that his work is inventive and clever. I can tell you that his obsession, as his title suggests, is, indeed, “you” (you know who you are)—you as a reflection of me; you as other; you as not-other; you as the way you talk and the way you don’t talk; you as what you say and what you don’t say; you as voice; you as story; you as name; you as “someone there” and someone not there; and you as part of “we are all we have.” I can tell you that I think Ian Williams probably knows who he is: a poet who can get you (you!) to pay attention to what he has to say.
References to popular culture (Bollywood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Mario Brothers, Law & Order, the Michelin Man, TV characters, Men’s Health magazine), which I typically find off-putting, I really like and admire in this book. I like the poet’s smart, and authentically Canadian, bilingual tendencies with their marvelous attention to sound (“Nous sommes a la limite de l’amitié” / we’re at the limits of friendship [translation mine] in “Not Saying”). I like his psychological insights (“You’re on a mission / to return to the present and prevent / the future,” in “Notwithstanding” [italics the poet’s]) I like the way he plays with language (“He didn’t hear what I said / He wishes me dead for scolding him / in the kitchen to unburn the fish. // It’s about the fish, son. It’s about un. Listen: we’re both angry / at the wrong ones” in “What Remains of Us”). I like the way he spins out a story over the 11 poems of “Emergency Codes” (color coded), the biography of a character called Dre, whose end (“Coda” codes / coda – get it?) is:
Don’t ask how
everything worked out. Do you believe it?
Dre married his babymother, got a job
What did you expect?
It helps to know that Mississauga is a suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. But you don’t need to know this to appreciate what the poet’s created here.
Above all, I loved a poem titled “Must See,” which you really must see to appreciate because its form on the page is an essential component of the piece. It’s based, explains the poet in the book’s Acknowledgements, on a form of traditional Korean poetry (Sijo), which can be translated “My body may die again and again, one hundred times again.” And it is a great example of inventiveness in the service of meaning, rather than simply for the sake of experimentation. “Must See” begins: “All Gaudí” and ends with “kingdom come.” Need I say more?
In “Triolet for You,” Williams asserts: “There is no synonym for you.” But, I disagree. Here’s one: you—future reader of Ian Williams.