On Spec

by Tyrone Williams
Omnidawn 2008
Reviewed by Hansa Bergwall



on specMy mother once gave me a Hallmark card that was both sappy and vaguely offensive. It said, “I am a pearl, in an oyster, under the sand, at the bottom of the Ocean. If you loved me, you would find me.” What gleams in Tyrone Williams’s poems in On Spec proves just as difficult to find. I will grudgingly admit that I found a couple of pearls. Be warned though, this book is cryptic and often seems deliberately designed to confuse and obfuscate. If Williams were in the business of making crossword puzzles, I suspect he would incorrectly number the clues out of spite.

If punctuation were salt for words, Williams has unscrewed the shaker. His periods, dashes and ellipsis heap up on the words that would have anyone brave enough to recite these poems stuttering. I suspect much of his extraneous marks are mere visual adornment. He is also fond of cerebral punning he will use parentheses to fit two words in the space of one: “lo(f)ts,” for example. It’s all very distracting. It either hides what is good in the poems, or hides that there is nothing good in the poem. Here is an example of the latter:

                                    (R-Steve Portman, Ohio)
The throne behind the throne—
his mommy (some mammy) [ H.
                 R.40] railroad(s) Freedom—
center(s) liberte
                                credit deferred
quarters/cabin-(et te) Bush…

 I sense this poem vaguely criticizes Republicans. The nature of the complaint is about as clear as someone mumbling, lips barely parted, clearly angry but not yet with enough courage to speak. Much of the book reads like this poem.

Several times in the book, Williams writes something as clear, bright and fresh as anything being written today. With subtle brilliance he delivers on his themes of the African American experience, gang violence, political suppression, a broken incarceration system. These moments, though rare, are exceptional. In “Descant,” a ghost runs from his newly slain body:

I left my heart in the teeth of jumper-cables—
black tongue, superfluous nipples…

By the time I hit the yellow tape—
it was already turning red…

Of my fair and alabaster love?
My redundant chains drawn in chalk?

Halfway to the stars I stopped—
turned, spat—it’s too late baby…

The poem inhabits its space of a crime scene although the voice rings from beyond life. The heart gripped in jumper cables is as arresting an image as they come. The regret in the voice, of a life wasted hits upon the tragic and expansive. At the same time, the body is fenced off in yellow tape and white chalk. The punctuation clearly aids the rhythm of the voice. If a majority of the poems in On Spec, read like this one I would give it rave reviews.

But more often, Williams banishes his readers into labyrinths of abstraction and theory. The style of these abstract musings varies wildly but it isn’t pleasant in any form:

qua tertium
“natural equivalence”

qua “the unity
of analogy”—qua
The Great Chain

Of Being—qua

It is tedium I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It is particularly disappointing for a poet who shows such raw talent in the rare poems like “Descant.” Line after line of academic theory references will go by without one rhythm or image to bring the reader back to something bodily, sensual, or engaging.

The themes Williams espouses about identity, imprisonment, slavery and prejudice come through on occasion with brilliance. I wish he more consistently brought his language down to earthly sounds and images so that the brilliant ideas ran throughout. But Williams chose the cryptic and cerebral route most often and it proves tedious. I do not recommend this book.