Joshua Eric Williams, The Strangest Conversation, Red Moon Press, 2019. 64 pgs.
Joshua Eric Williams’s collection of Western free-form haiku, The Strangest Conversation, invites readers into what at first seems to have the arbitrary organisation of a day book. Yet, on second pass, these brief meditations and their structural arrangement are anything but arbitrary, examining the full spectrum of daily life and themed considerations. Moreover, as we’d expect from haiku, Williams necessarily includes natural, seasonal markers such as clouds and weather, but unlike classic haiku authors such as Bashō and Issa, he does not confine himself to the small and insular, nor to the aristocratically idyllic: his haiku are just as likely to portray the pulse of pedestrian living, large animals, death and decay, modern conveniences, and kitschy bric-a-brac.
Indeed, one is initially tempted to classify these “haiku” as senryū for their concern with human foibles, and yet, often, there is nothing particularly sardonic or humorous about them; rather, implicitly taking a page from the currently developing “New Sincerity” movement in mainstream American poetry, Williams’s haiku are heartfelt and serious. This is not only in contrast with the traditional approach to Japanese forms but also in contrast to the general tendency toward cynicism and irony in English-language poetry since Modernism.
For example, in one piece Williams weds the quiet appreciation we’d expect from haiku to the typically senryū topic of automobiles:
blue hour / the wakes of tires / closing in steam
Such pieces are necessarily economical, yes, but they also provide a startling depth in their somewhat Buddhist worldview, which locates beauty in everything in place of the traditional, nature-oriented Shinto-derived perspectives of haiku’s Japanese masters.
Further, with so much to say, Williams deftly uses the traditional haiku form as a pressure cooker for subtext, while the white space surrounding the one and two pieces per page in his collection act as the unspoken—even unuttered—second strophes of traditional renga; viewed in this way, we come to realise The Strangest Conversation is not an unusual, ellipsised collaboration, but an attempt at conversation from a speaker devoid of a collaborator: the start and ending haiku are there, but the all-important contribution of a second party remains mystifying silence. As a result, the reader is not just asked to pay close attention in the typical way one might expect from all excellent haiku; the reader is invited, rather, to share in the speaker’s genuinely felt, disheartened confusion as he utters his soul’s graces into an unresponsive void.
Thus, existentially jarring at its core, Williams’s collection conveys an emotional turmoil akin to that felt by a child calling to an unresponsive parent – but writ large in a way that can only make sense to an adult calling on an unresponsive universe. Be it God, the ancestors, what have you, the great whatever is not there for Williams’s speaker, despite that speaker’s willingness to meet the sublime other more than halfway and sincerely find beauty in even the most degraded of images:
foul ball/ a doll’s moldy dress / on the ground
Of course, it is difficult for any reviewer with a strictly outsider’s view of a particular corner of the contemporary poetry world to say whether this is entirely novel of Williams; certainly, however, that even one such a poet might exist in the American haiku community should be argument enough against the wider poetic world’s longstanding prejudice against and dismissal of Japanese forms. Nor might we deem these effects of The Strangest Conversation mere felicity or a misreading, for indeed, Williams has written at length elsewhere on the poetic theory underpinning haiku in a way that evinces a master’s hand at work behind the printed page:
[The] haiku poet depends on images to convey the experience and emotion through what the haiku community commonly calls an “aha moment”. In this way, a haiku serves as a kind of demonstration of how readers create and find meaning in a work because these images that are neither too related nor too unrelated create a gap the reader must participate in to fill with meaning.
Hence, one comes to realise, that the felt void and unresponsiveness surrounding
standstill traffic / morning’s wet wildflowers / over the shoulder
might very well not be the universe’s but the reader’s own. In other words, the reader may be the speaker’s collaborator throughout The Strangest Conversation, depending on how she chooses to approach the collection. The only question we are left with, then, is whether we might choose to engage in dialogue with a speaker confident and courageous enough to invite us in despite the risk of an unrequited effort—or if we too will assume the baffling quietude of an unfeeling creation. As with some Buddhist ideas of how the Buddha will manifest to the believer, what we see in Williams’s collection—be it stark nihilism or warm communion—is left entirely up to the perspective with which we approach it.
How to cite: Provance, Phill. “Into the White: A Review of Joshua Eric Williams’s The Strangest Conversation.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 27 Aug. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/27/strangest-conversation/.
Phill Provance was born in an Appalachian valley town of 5,000 people to a Kirby salesman and a welfare caseworker who divorced when he was four. Subsequently spending his early years in a trailer on his grandparents’ farm, he witnessed the same alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and poverty that figure into most stereotypes of Appalachia. Yet, at the same time, he also experienced the genuine devotion and kindness of people whose only hope, often, is sticking together. Since leaving home at eighteen, he has published comics, nonfiction, journalism, and poetry in numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines throughout the English-speaking world. His forthcoming poetry collection, A Plan in Case of Morning (Vine Leaves Press, 2020), is his third book. His other works include the nonfiction popular history A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (The History Press, 2019) and the poetry chapbook The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist Press, 2010). His second full-length work of nonfiction, Postcards of McHenry County, Illinois, is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing in 2021. Visit his website for more information.