A Poetry Review: Billy’s Rain by Hugo Williams

Today, I have another suggestion for those interested in finding some new poets to read.  This time I’m talking about Billy’s Rain, a volume of poetry by British poet Hugo Williams.

Hugo Williams is one of those poets who is well-respected in England but is, sadly, not well known in the U.S.  I was introduced to him in a graduate-level course on Confessional and Post-Confessional Poetry, and I do not know much about him except what is written on Wikipedia (yes, I’m addicted to that site).  However, it is not necessary to know anything about him to understand why Billy’s Rain (1999), his 10th poetry publication, is so popular.

Billy’s Rain charts the course of a love affair, as remembered by the narrator after the fact, from beginning to end, and beyond to all the moments that remind the narrator of what used to be.  These poems deftly traces the joys, obsessions, evasions, surprises, unspoken lies, secret languages, and tiny telling moments of the relationship with tenderness, honesty, irony, and humor.  As William Scammel from Independent on Sunday states: “The charm lies in… the way a whole world is evoked – and lightly judged – by means of spotlit details… Nobody is more deft at summing up a world in a few glances” (from book back flap).  The first poem, “Silver Paper Men” begins to paint this world of “rudimentary gardens,” bridges and balustrades, and flowers that say “all there is to say about love / in their shiny black world.”  And the image of the world is continually built upon with a layering of details within each poem.

Billy’s Rain won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1999.  I would also add that this volume is short, even for a poetry collection (only 54 pages), and the poems are straight-forward in a way that I think will appeal to those who are interested in reading poetry but do not have the time or patience to muddle through the more complicated, dense kinds of poetry.  This collection is, in short, accessible for the general reader – I believe.

The readers witness the first meeting of the lovers in “Sealink”:

On the boat, we foot passengers

were shuffled like a pack of cards

and thrown down in new combinations

all over the half-empty, off-season decks.

Children bumped into one another.

Parents looked for somewhere quite to sit

away from the video games.

Young couples ate enormous, nervous meals,

while single people roamed back and forth

between the restaurant and Duty Free.

/

As land came into sight, one asked another

‘Do you know the way back to the coach?

I think it’s on Whale Deck.’

A conversation begins with ‘May I sit

next to you? God it’s hot in here!

Do you mind if I open this window?’

We take off our coats, settle back, peel oranges.

Shall we speak in English or French?

Are we going on holiday? Or home?

Do we mind knowing each other’s name?

/

The moment when the relationship is irrevocably ended in “Nothing Stinted”:

We have taken up our positions

over a complicated board game

of coffee, cigarettes, wine

(nothing stinted for the occasion)

while she tells me with a certain sadness

how she’s got ‘muddled up’ with her boss.

/

I come out of my corner laughing, likeable,

full of stories about my trip.

I refill her glass for her.

Feigning concern for her welfare

and knowing her openness on the subject,

I ask about birth control.

What method are they using?

Are they being careful?

/

She leans towards me across the table.

‘Remember you used to tell me

men would always treat me badly if I let them?

Well, he doesn’t.  He treats me well.

You don’t have to worry about that.’

/

And it finally ends with the memories that continue to linger, long after the affair is over, in “Balcony Scene”:

The street light shorting on and off,

casting a balcony on my bedroom wall.

I seem to have wired it up

to my thoughts of you, your first-floor studio,

the ladder to your bed, car lights overhead.

/

I was climbing the ladder one night

when I caught the eye of a man

going past on the top of a bus

and for one moment became him

as he turned to look back at us.

I feel asleep after that, never dreaming

I would give it a second thought.

/

I see his face now, passing my window,

as I draw the curtains for the night,

the street light shorting on and off,

somehow refusing to blow.

I hope you have enjoyed these few short poems included here.  And if they appealed to you at all, I highly recommend taking a look at the whole collection.  And please, let me know what you think.

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