Adam Ford Reviews Rae White’s Milk Teeth and Anders Villani’s Aril Wire

By | 27 June 2019

In contrast to Milk Teeth’s brash and intoxicating energy, Aril Wire, the debut collection from Anders Villani, is a comparatively reserved collection, more reminiscent of a short film or documentary. Villani is a graduate of Creative Writing from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, from which he received the Delbanco Prize for his poetry.

Villani’s poems are largely set in the natural world and in places where the world of nature encroaches on the constructed landscapes of humanity. They take place on and around beaches, forests, abandoned houses and industrial estates. His protagonists often occupy these settings alone, quietly adapting to or responding to their environments in ways that contain both a sense of loneliness and one of strength. They go boar hunting and pipi fishing, swim rivers, stand under ‘gauged earlobe’ moons, perch on the edge of abandoned wells and shit in the woods.

This is a carefully constructed and curated collection in both form and content. There’s something almost architectural about it. The thoughtfulness that has gone into the creation of the book itself, from the stirring pen-and-ink illustrations by Tyler Arnold, which adorn the start of each section, to the smooth bone-coloured pages and matt black flyleaves, is a subtle visual and tactile reinforcement of the care and concision of Villani’s poetry.

In these poems Villani exhibits an open and enquiring mind and a hungry eye for observation. His poems are equally at home exploring a train of thought as they are painting a picture from dreams or life.

In ‘Learn the Flowers’ Villani wanders with Dorothy Wordsworth and Gary Snyder, connecting their independent lines of thought about nomenclature in a way that explores the subjective value of knowledge when weighed against the time required to acquire it and its uncertain applications.

With no prospect of learning
to know a tulip
when you see one, what does it matter?
What do you know? 
Whose graves are you digging?

This inquisitive and patient poem concludes on a hopeful note by asserting the value of knowledge previously or unintentionally acquired as a panacea against reflections upon what one does not – or may never – know.

In ‘Mr North, Still the Janitor’ the passing of time and the cyclical nature of our lives are framed with verisimilitude by a missed encounter between a former high school student and the janitor who still works at the school twenty years later. The contrast between the janitor’s now-grey beard and his wearing of the same earmuffs and shirt from two decades earlier is a skilful emulation of the disorientation that comes from revisiting places that we have left behind.

In keeping with the careful way Aril Wire has been crafted in terms of book-as-object, similarly precise curation runs through the poems themselves. Of particular structural note are three interconnected sequences woven through the book. Each sequence is identified by the poems in that sequence bearing exactly the same title: the seven poems called ‘Pillow Talk’, the four called ‘Animism’ and the five called ‘Lover’s Candour’.

Each of these three sequences follows a disjointed narrative that is dispersed between the other poems in the collection, providing a secondary framework in addition to the book’s division into numbered sections. The effect of these recurring titles and those poems’ revisitation of the same events and protagonists is subtle and cumulative, sneaking up on the reader to create a subliminal sense of continuity before it is consciously recognised. It’s a wonderful and satisfying sleight-of-hand.

The first of these sequences is ‘Pillow Talk’. In these poems a woman lies in bed with a man who is largely unresponsive but gently making threats of violence – sometimes vague, sometimes direct – while lying completely still.

Lie on top of me now.
Without hesitation
she throws off the bedclothes
and climbs his naked body.

As the story unfolds with each new poem the reader is left wondering what is keeping both protagonists from leaving the bed. Is the man’s presence restraining the woman, or is her presence in the bed holding off his threatened violence?

The ‘Animism’ sequence presents less of a narrative and more of a sense of a shared protagonist, particularly in its first two poems. These are poems about transformation, interpretation and responding to the natural world. The third of these sequences is ‘Lover’s Candour’, which uses other structural techniques to tie its constituent poems together. Each poem features italicised epigraphs that seem to be prompts to the narrator spoken by an unidentified other. Each poem in this sequence becomes more and more prosaic until they coalesce into a memory of witnessing an act of great violence at a birthday party.

Villiers demonstrates bold and unexpected challenges to unspoken poetic conventions. What he achieves creatively and intellectually as a result marks him as someone who is prepared to think deeply about his art and capable enough to trace less-frequented paths or even carve out new paths for others to follow.

Although on the surface White and Villani might seem to be facing in different directions, both poets are undertaking the same intellectual project: to combine an acknowledgement of the history and conventions of their craft while driving confidently and passionately into less-explored territory, refusing to limit themselves to what they have already learned. It is thoroughly pleasing to be impressed, stimulated, entertained and challenged on so many fronts by the first collections of these two emerging poets, and it is exciting to imagine where they both might go from here.

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