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Visiting the Minotaur

Claire Williamson
ISBN-13: 
9781781724439
Publication Date: 
Monday, April 30, 2018
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‘At once heartbreaking and comfortingly human, with the skill to make your spirits soar.’ – SkyLightRain

‘Claire Williamson's poems are beguiling hybrids – self-assured yet emotionally raw, mysterious yet not precious, meditations of wonder and exorcisms of grief.’
– Michel Faber

‘Rare is the collection that possesses such a boundless emotional palette, but in Visiting the Minotaur the reader is called on a journey that explores the frontiers of feeling and sutures opposites - past to future and trauma to recovery - in a dazzling display of linguistic imagination and lyrical adventure.’ 
– Carolyn Jess-Cooke

‘What grips and astounds is the writer’s ability to bring the material, the substantial, the solid alive on each page with startling force.’
– Jenny Lewis

‘With each book, Claire Williamson’s poetry draws closer to the true and unselfconscious marriage of the mythic and the personal. The sometimes painfully raw material of a life gains depth and resonance, while the figures of myth draw closer, to inhabit tender, energetic bodies in this world – bodies that may be endangered, may be dangerous, and may be our own.’
– Philip Gross

 

In Visiting the Minotaur, Claire Williamson’s inventive and intensely felt collection, the poet must enter a labyrinth of her own complicated family history, a history beset with secrets and lies, in order to come to terms with her own identity.  She borrows from myths, histories, careful observations of nature, of city life, in order to fashion her artful meditations on experience and mortality.

A Picasso etching inspires the artful dislocations of the opening poem and foreshadows both the inherent violence and the formal beauty of the poems to follow. These contradictions repeat both in form and content throughout the book. The family, in ‘My Mother and Brother as Horses’ appear first of all, brutally transformed. Both suicides, their horse caricatures give the narrator of the poem a tragi-comic distance from their actions in life.

Every poem in the collection is about human relationships, this often gives them the intimacy of letters. The exceptions, such as the poem ‘On Guernica’s 80th Anniversary’ dedicated to Aleppo, Syria, also have this deft knack of intimacy, of being replete with tender observation and feeling. Of particular note are the poems inspired by the physical aspects of motherhood: labour, birth, breastfeeding, become another aspect of the author’s theatre of pain, blood, and love.

There are also poems of considerable tenderness and humour such as the sweetly unexpected poem ‘Cows’, and ‘Laika’ about the first dog in space, not to mention: ‘On Not Being Able To Write About A Dog Without Sounding Sentimental’. The way the author writes about her own vulnerable adolescent self is also key to what emerges as a quest: to find her way from a difficult past towards a more peaceful existence, a creative happiness, a home full of joy for her daughters.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Visiting the Minotaur plunges you straight into the myth in ‘Swimming with the Bull’, a dramatic encounter across ‘three-and-a-half-thousand years’. This sets the tone for the collection as a whole, exploring the surreal nature of family relationships and crossing the boundaries of time and space, as humans and monsters find their roles reversed. The cover image (a painting by Matthew Grabelsky) is both startling and ordinary – the perfect depiction of what lies between the covers.   

At its core lies a story of real life trauma, the process of recovery and the search for identity through a veil of confusion and contradictions. The most disturbing of these poems deals head-on with the suicide of a mother and brother, entitled ‘My Brother and Mother as Horses’. It conjures up an imagined tea party scene, where the two of them return and converse:

My brother still wears the blue noose,
now loosened like a hippy necklace,
drawing attention to the deep-ridged cuts
under his chin, like a tree trunk sawn
by an amateur. I try not to stare.

Williamson’s style is lyrical and straightforward, which adds a certain poignancy to imagery such as this, and there is a strong sense of time being stretched or distorted in many of the poems. In ‘Bathurst Pool’, for example, we observe the slow-motion realisation that a child needs saving from drowning, and other poems step outside of time altogether. In ‘Heterotopias’, it seems as if the poet is recreating an alternate reality in which painful moments from her childhood are relived through the eyes of a more capable, or more rebellious version of herself:

When I sat, aged twelve,
on the brown and orange sofa
where she told me I was not her child,
I was also outside in our garden
with the neighbour’s forbidden black cat
stroking his back all the way
to the tip of the tail.

This sense of distortion surrounds another central theme within the collection, that of searching for identity. We see the memory of a past self who goes unrecognised in ‘Bakery, 1986’, the blurring of identities in ‘Stepmother Minotaur’, and the switching of identity in ‘The Minotaur Speaks’, as the young Minoans forget that they are humans, not monsters:

They eat each other in the end,
caught in hunger’s fists,
not knowing they aren’t me.

This culminates in the title poem ‘Visiting the Minotaur’ which appears at the end of the book, describing a visit to see Picasso’s famous painting. The poet seeks to connect with the painting, the myth and the monster:

I’m here because I am the minotaur,
the veil, the hand, the island,

There is also a sense, in many of these poems, of searching for healing through the telling of stories and through images, as the poet makes new connections with the world around her, and has children of her own. In ‘Unimagined Mother II’ we see the powerful realisation that, no matter what happens,

mothers,
even absent mothers,

are forever mothers,
however distant, however dead.

And this is echoed in other poems such as the ‘The Walk’, which recounts the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, comparing the fears of parents separated from their children:

I think of that ripping yarn –
a limping lone survivor-witness,
vermin and betrayal –
told and retold,
which won’t be written down
for a hundred years,
explaining how it can possibly be,
that as quick as the flick of a rodent’s tail,
we can lose our children.

In other poems, such as ‘Atonement’ and ‘Blame’, Williamson creates a dream-like feeling of distance from reality, as the words slide across the page, whilst other poems deal honestly with the surreal aspects of childbirth, breastfeeding and being separated from your children in later life.

Visiting the Minotaur weaves past and present, myth and reality into a tapestry of dream-like encounters, where the taboo subjects of abuse, suicide and grief become stories that make up just part of a wider search for identity, alongside an awareness that all of our stories fit together, and that it is through stories that we find out who we are. The Minotaur is a tragic figure, stuck in his labyrinth, awaiting rescue, but Williamson has given him a new lease of life, drawing him out and finding in him an awareness of what it means to be human, and what it means to be hurting.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Drawing on myths to make sense of our mortality, Claire Williamson’s first collection with Seren is at once heartbreaking and comfortingly human, with the skill to make your spirits soar.

Seen through Williamson’s eyes, a half bull, half man hybrid is nothing compared to the complexities of surviving your average childhood. From the aching tenderness with which she knits memories about her own daughters to the grief and confusion of losing a sibling and mother, Williamson immerses you with such conviction that you can’t help but empathise.

There’s a distinct irreality to much of the carefully conjured imagery, which only serves to heighten the stark honesty of the sensations being shared. Family members long gone return as horses: “She thrusts her black muzzle/ into the cleft of my torso and arm/ and I feel her warmth for the first time/ since she drank that poison.”

Bereavement is a theme throughout, but even in the bleakest contemplations, Williamson manages to find humour in the moments she captures.

In the powerful Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, support group conversations become gaudy crochet garments hooked “by a well-meaning aunt,/ separating us from the cool set.” It’s the unexpectedness of the analogy that works so well – speaking depths about the layers of difference unwittingly foisted upon us by others.

Motherhood weaves a brighter but equally searing thread through the collection.In No Man’s Land, a hospital bed becomes the Somme, and the poet, losing blood through childbirth, spells out a name “to keep my senses.” It’s one of the most brilliant and believable descriptions of labour I’ve read.

Williamson envelops us in her inherent protectiveness for her children, as a July day at a lido results in her jumping in, fully clothed: “My dress billows/ on the surface,/ then clings, as your in-breath/ pulls us gaze to gaze.”

And an encounter with a peacock trailing its “teal ballgown”, leads Williamson and her daughters into the pleasures of a debate over why “bird-boys” are so much more flamboyant than “boy-boys”.

The possibility of true happiness glimmers in the stanzas too, summoning visions of Williamson’s younger self wearing expressions as “hopeful as buttered crumpets”

But it’s the presence of the minotaur that will stay with me – misunderstood, lonely and awkward, yet, in Williamson’s hands, imbued with an uncanny grace.

Williamson’s writing is wise, wry, and, above all, illuminating, inviting us to experience the world with the same intensity as she clearly does, and to celebrate that scale of emotional intelligence as a vital means of survival. Quite simply, this collection will remind you how to feel.

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