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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 Angela Topping, Stride Magazine

Monday, February 4, 2019

 

Williamson is unafraid to dive into the darkness and confront her worst fears and tragedies. In ‘My Brother and Mother as Horses’, she explores the notion of haunting by having her mother and brother return in animal form, her brother still wearing ‘the blue noose’ he died in, her mother affectionate, warm, comforting her, by nuzzling her chest, replacing the warmth lost since the mother died when the child was only three months old. The poem is one of those consoling bereavement dreams one has after losing loved ones. One of the motifs in the collection is the imagining of her relationship with her missing mother. 

Williamson is adroit at finding a myth to tell her truths. In ‘The Walk’, she uses the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (told by Browning in his famous narrative poem), remembering an incident on a walk where she was separated from her children, when they were guided through a narrow pass and she had to go the long way round to reach them. This in turn leads her to mediate on the Aberfan disaster, when children at school were lost in a mud avalanche that crushed their school. The line ‘quick as a flick of a rodent’s tale’ is a good example of Williamson’s skill with the music of consonance and assonance. 

‘The Minotaur Speaks’ is a text transformation in which the monster is, like all cattle, vegetarian. He does not eat the tributes: they hunt each other in their hunger. He knows the way out, but has been kept inside the labyrinth by shame only. The poem is similar to Brugel’s painting ‘The Fall of Icarus’, in that the falling boy only appears in the final stanza, whereas in the painting, only the boy’s leg appears as he vanishes into the sea, dwarfed by everything else in the picture. The reader has sympathy for the bull’s loneliness in this poem. The Minotaur appears as a motif in lots of poems in this collection, and the cover painting, of a girl with a shopping bag, and a bull in a suit, on the London tube, also plays with that idea (Alexandra & the Minotaur by Matthew Grabelsky). ‘Swimming with the Bull’, ‘Stepmother Minotaur’ and the title poem, ‘Visiting the Minotaur’ are all variations on this motif, but in the title poem the speaker herself identifies as the monster. 

There are other topics to add to the mix. Strong poems about motherhood and parenthood, significant objects like the ‘Matryoshka’, which is pinned down with devastating accuracy and becomes a symbol of a selfish woman: ‘She only had room for herself’. ‘Heterotopias’ explores a fractured relationship with a stepmother, the speaker making herself not present for the difficult moments, like being told ‘I was not her child’ or being slapped, claiming the incident by refusing to acknowledge it. The poem’s last stanza is disturbing, in that the reader is unsure whether the violence happened or not: 

            When I left the carving knife on the table
            with the back door unlocked and she slit a mouth
            in my cream jumper, cut my skin,
            I was already topless, the discarded garment
            staring up at me with its caked red lipstick
            which I’d never be allowed.

The shift into uncertainty unsettles the reader, and the visual shock of the slashed cream jumper and red lipstick is symbolic of skin and blood. Williamson plays with the notion of truth versus facts in other poems too, such as ‘I Never Did Join the Circus, Did I? Overall this is a powerful collection, both disquieting and tender, entertaining and frightening. 

Review by Catherine Kelly, The Cardiff Review

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

 

AN EARLY PIECE IN Claire Williamson’s collection, Visiting the Minotaur, suggests a poet on the defensive: "On Not Being Able to Write About A Dog Without Sounding Sentimental".

 

The accusation of sentimentality might sting, but it does not seem to have prevented writers—largely, though not always, women—from finding worthwhile subjects in their pets. In a long tradition of literary dogs, we find Virginia Woolf channelling Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel in her pseudo-biography Flush, Eileen Myles’ memoir of her pitbull, Afterglow and Emily Dickinson, who once sent a friend a lock of fur from her Newfoundland, Carlo, claiming it was her own. Maybe these writers, already deemed too feminine or too confessional, felt they may as well dig deeper into the emotional landscapes of domestic interdependence. Beneath an apparently "sentimental" bond, they find the complexities of the strange and intimate act of caring for an animal. As Myles put it in Afterglow, a dog is "like an eternally silent child. Who you trust. Who shouldn’t trust you."

 

Its "sentimental" force became more clear to me in the collection’s second poem about a dog. “Laika” recounts the story of the first dog in space, the Moscow mongrel who "became a name on the world’s lips". Laika has had a long afterlife as a "rising star"—a symbol of utopian progress—but her body had a different fate. Her heart, Williamson writes, was "hard-wired to the spaceship"; she survived a few hours in space—two, maybe three—before she died, overheated and panicking. Her death casts a shadow over the pet dozing sweetly in the earlier poem. From the outset of Visiting the Minotaur, there is tenderness but there is also grief, the anticipation of loss.

 

Although she only appears in one poem, Laika reverberates throughout the collection. She’s the Icarus in the collection’s extended retelling of the myth of Daedalus and the Minotaur. Through her, we are pulled in two directions, towards the animal body, and towards the mythic. Williamson’s poems are rhythmically and formally straightforward, often in the first person and the present tense. Their lightness allows her to navigate this balance.

 

In Visiting the Minotaur, the body is always the body under pressure. There is the emotional pressure of grief; the death of a mother, a brother, and other losses in between. In "Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide", Williamson recounts a desire for a return to normality after a violent death, a wish to take part in the "banality / of clothes, shoes, what so-and-so said / to whom" instead of the "confidential histories … about pills, hangings, drownings, / fault, guilt and blame." 

 

And there are the pressures of motherhood. The physical pressure of breast-feeding and of childbirth, the "spine bent … as if in labour", compared in "Extremities" to the mountain-climber’s ascent of Everest, one of many moments in the collection when the vocabulary of the body seeps into natural and urban landscapes. In the fourth section of a poem called "Temple Church, Temple Street, Bristol," Williamson writes, "My tower tilts like the mast / of a sinking ship on a grassy sea. / My body is a whale’s carcass". The medieval buildings also have a touch of that Icarian balance between vulnerability and resolve; standing firmly after hundreds of years, they lean into decay.

 

Along with Laika, many other animals populate Williamson’s collection—birds, rats, cows, deer—but the book’s central animal is the Minotaur itself, the monstrous hybrid that threads the poems together. The collection begins with "Swimming with the Bull", in which "the animal is bookended by two women … body curving like a dolphin", and ends with the poet’s declaration that "I’m here because I am the Minotaur". The lurking horror of the monster in its labyrinth, and the expressive voice of the poet are combined into one, into the relatively stable lyric "I" that carries the reader from the beginning of the book to its end.

 

Although Williamson speaks as the minotaur, Daedalus, as architect and as parent, is a significant presence in the collection. The death of Icarus is partly caused by his father’s zeal for invention; a frightening figure for a poet weaving her children into her lines. More so than with any other subject, the themes of motherhood are threaded equally with fear. In "Bathurst Pool", she watches her daughter vanishing into the water, the "seconds stretching / into our drowned future". In "Split Ends", she relinquishes her children to their father for "four days", measuring the banal, tragic distance between them—"seventy-five minutes apart… eighty-miles-per-hour-cars". At times, the desire to mother and be mothered come together painfully, as when she writes, in the acutely poignant "Unimagined Mother II", "I long for you privately / to buy me a surprise red winter coat / with roses round the hood, / to love my daughters, have them on your mind."

 

As well as Greek myth, Williamson alludes to fairy tales and the semi-mythic figures of a sprawling European canon—Shakespeare, Chaucer, Eliot, Vélazquez, Picasso. Williamson’s allusive palette is a familiar one, but it doesn’t make for overly-familiar poetry. As the poet Jack Spicer once wrote, "prose invents—poetry discloses." In Visiting the Minotaur Williamson discloses the fragile, interconnected worlds of mythology and childbirth, griefs personal and historical. In this space, Williamson sketches an image of a mother and daughters framed, as she describes Vélazquez in his famous "Las Meninas", "at vanishing point."

Review by Zoë Brigley, Planet

Friday, November 16, 2018

...

Family loss is also significant in Claire Williamson’s Visiting the Minotaur, where the underlying theme is the suicide of a mother and brother. The Minotaur figures in Greek myth as a terrifying foe, elusive in the labyrinth but deadly and voracious in his consumption of humans. The symbolism has great relevance for thinking about suicide as something frightening and destructive, linked to an underworld of human feeling. The collection opens with the gut-wrenching ‘My Brother and Mother as Horses’. The poems continue to resurrect the mother and brother, invoking other stories of loss, as in ‘Guernica’, based on Picasso’s painting and dedicated to the people of Aleppo. ‘The Minotaur Speaks’ references Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the mythical plunge overlapping with images of the brother’s suicide in other poems.
        The collection also makes good use of counterpoints, so that poems about loss and grief sit alongside poems about the intensity and fragility of birth and parenting. This tension makes the sequence ‘Unimagined Mothers’ (in conversation with Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons) all the more poignant: the narrator is working out how to parent her own children without her mother or brother to help her. She must quest through the maze to make sense of the deaths and her grief. What she finds, at last, is the darkness that exists within us all. So in the final poem, ‘Visiting the Minotaur’, she views Picasso’s Minotaur with Dead Mare in Front of a Cave and finds:

I’m here because I am the Minotaur,
the veil, the hand, the island,
the woman, the horse, the hooves,
the cave, the first, and the death.

 

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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