Poems by John A. Williams
It is common to identify a writer with a single genre --- W. E. B. DuBois with nonfiction, Toni Cade Bambara with fiction, and August Wilson with drama, failing to remember that accomplished writers do not live in one penthouse or prison cell. They, like non-writers, explore, undertake imaginary and real expeditions. It is common to recognize that John A. Williams (1925-2015) wrote The Man Who Cried I Am, but quite out of the ordinary to know that he published Safari West: Poems (Montreal: Hochelaga Press, 1998), which won the American Book Award in the same year. It is as uncommon to identify him as a poet as it is to identify Charles Johnson as a visual artist.
For readers in my generation, reading the forty-five poems in Safari West can be a rewarding exercise in discovery and renewal, in noting relocations of long-term dislocations. One of the earliest poems "The Age of Bop" (1953) takes us back to the territory of attitude, innovation, and music associated with post-WWII events and the thematic adventures of searching in Western worlds. According to Williams,
Bustling Bop in retreat from Baroque
Finds it own answer, free from the yoke. (36)
Being "free from the yoke," however, is an ephemeral condition, because as Williams challenges the proposition in one stanza of "Nat Turner's Profession" (1995)
All men whom others hold in bond
must one day know a time is near,
when they will meet their Babylon
in those with little left to fear. (19)
This irregular ballad stanza of thirty-two syllables gives voice to a promise that crashes into a Rococo delusion, a bourgeoisie entrapment that, in the language of Sterling D. Plumpp, is ornate with smoke. Reading Safari West is ultimately refreshing in its affirmation that as a poet, journalist, novelist, cultural critic, and witness of time, John A. Williams brought relentless common sense and clarity to the existential dimensions of being. He really nailed wisdom in the brevity of "In Private" (1972) -----
Knowledgeable of myths
we create our own
seeking truth halfway. (47)
Safari West brings reality back to the promiscuous assignations we insist on having with poetry.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 13, 2016