Claire Williamson: Visiting the Minotaur
Jane Simmons continues her series of reviews of contemporary women’s poetry
Published by Seren
Claire Williamson has an MA in Literary Studies, (UWE), and is a Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy and Programme Leader for the MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute in London. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. She has worked closely with Welsh National Opera since 2003, writing the words for Cardiff City Songs, Billy and the Dragon and The Merman King, all WNO MAX productions. She is also involved in musical collaborations including ‘Home by Christmas’ which was performed by 350 singers at Colston Hall to commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of WW1, and she was nominated for the British Composer Awards in 2015. Claire has written chapters in academic books on themes of creative writing and health and well-being. She is the author of two previous collections: Ride On, and The Soulwater Pool. Individual poems have appeared widely in magazines. Her third collection, Visiting the Minotaur, was published by Seren in April 2018. She regularly gives readings around the country, and she also leads poetry workshops in the Bristol area.
‘Visiting the Minotaur’ has received an enthusiastic reception from critics – as can be seen in these examples taken from the publisher’s website
‘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
Initially, I was intrigued by the title ‘Visiting the Minotaur’, with its reference to Greek mythology. What could the monster and the labyrinth be in this collection of poems by a 21st century woman poet? Who or what was the monster, the minotaur? Did the poet see herself as Theseus, or as Ariadne? As I began to read the poems, I began to solve the puzzle: the labyrinth is the poet’s family history, and the poet herself is on a quest to unravel family secrets and lies in order to understand the past and, by understanding it, to come to terms with it.
On her quest, Claire Williamson does not just explore myth: she also explores histories, and develops detailed observations of nature, natural landscapes, cities, and city life. Through these detailed observations, she crafts poems which are carefully constructed meditations – not just on her experience of life, but also on mortality.
The opening poem ‘Swimming with the Bull’ begins:
The animal is bookended by two women
floating on a Cretan wash of silicate copper,
their blanched skin soaked into walls
by hydrate of lime
Then, as the description develops, details such as, ‘the whip/of a tail’, ‘clamped,’ and ‘stamped with’, hint at the violence which is to come in later poems such as ‘My Mother and Brother as Horses’. Here again, the poet uses an intriguing title, suggesting a surreal vision which is then described in detail in the poem itself:
They sit at a green plastic table
with me after all these years,
enjoying a pot of tea in May sun.
I stand up to pour,
ignoring that they are horses.
How else would they return?
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.
I couldn’t grasp hold of the rope
with these hooves. Once I’d jumped it was too late.
He waves them about, knocking
his teacup out of its saucer.
I grab a napkin, mopping up,
no use crying over spilt milk.
A silence follows –
lit by the white of his skin
shining through close-cropped hair.
My mother, a blood bay, is shy,
her forelock flopping over her forgive-me eyes.
I say, I’d love to see more of your face.
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.
Her trembling mouth
tugs the highwayman’s hitch in my ribs
which I’ve had since she left me
three months raw to the world,
chewing my thumb to its bone.
That knot which I’ve pulled tighter and tighter
lets go with a slip,
They both reach out to catch me,
but I’m the only one with hands.
The tea set wobbles
as if a steeplechase is passing.
The surreal and brutal transformation of the poet’s mother and brother into horses seems to be a device which allows the poet to distance herself sufficiently from the double suicide in her family history to enable her not just to contemplate it – exploring the emotions of all three characters – but also to accept what has happened.
Every poem in Visiting the Minotaur’ is – in some way or other – about human relationships, and it is the poet’s concentration on the personal that gives the collection its intimacy and its intensity. It is certainly true of the poems inspired by the physical aspects of motherhood – labour, birth and breastfeeding. In ‘No Man’s Land’, Williamson develops the idea that giving birth is like warfare through her use of language, ‘gasp of gas’ and imagery ‘It’s like the Somme’, ‘my personal trench’, ‘a white battle-field’. In ‘Breastfeeding’, she juxtaposes ideas of pain, surgery, music and nature to startling effect:
It feels like
I’m being sliced
with a scalpel as ever-soaring
scales of pain
from my throat
Williamson does not limit herself to the personal in her subject matter – but when she writes of current affairs, she still focuses on the human, the personal, in her choice of detail. This can be seen in the poem inspired by Picasso’s painting of |Guernica, ‘On Guernica’s 80th Anniversary’ which she dedicates ‘for the people of Aleppo, Syria’:
A mother’s breasts exposed,
neck bent in a guttural howl,
catching the bull’s breath
as she cradles her dead baby.
Elsewhere, William surprises the reader with her choice of subject: ’Laika’ – a poem about the first dog in space or ‘On Not Being Able To Write About A Dog Without Sounding Sentimental’, and the equallly surprising and unexpected ‘Cows’. Nevertheless, it is the immediately personal poems – those about her adolescence, her family tragedies, her experience of motherhood and family life that have the greatest impact.