ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Controlled Hallucinations," by John Sibley Williams, Reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.


John Sibley Williams, Controlled Hallucinations, FutureCycle Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-938853-22-7

It is enough to open the front cover of this book to be swept by an elegiac wind.  The opening gust, an hors-d’oeuvre, consists of twenty-or-so breathless yearnings, all starting with the words “to be”:

“To be love
neither the loving
nor the beloved.
To be translatable.”

A Whitmanesque tone, you might say, and you would not be far off; but there is something else here, coming from a different source; an element of alienation that works against the Dionysian, a dark tincture of Romantic irony that hits us right from the beginning and the dedication: “to the coming extinctions.”  Not, mind you, “to the coming generations.”  The early Neruda of Twenty Love Poems and a Despairing Song, the only poet quoted in epigraph by Williams (XXVIII, page 38), is a closer-to-the-mark elegiac tone, one where we can hear Heinrich Heine’s irony filtered through, and translated into Spanish, by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.

Love itself is, for Williams, conversation.  The final two lines of the opening poem quoted above say it clearly:

“To be, just once,
an unending conversation.”

This same yearning surfaces here and there through the book, climaxing near the end, in poem LV:

“We silently walk the alleys
that cut deep into cold
blocks of architecture
while rubbing each other
with these phantom limbs
that still tingle,
still reach bitterly
for substance,

still reach,

finding animal warmth
and semi-permanence
in their unbroken dreams
of building up
and pulling toward
a shared conversation
that will never cease.”

In these days of totalizing connection, conversation is only the unbroken dream of phantom limbs; it has become impossible among cold blocks of architecture; it is, at best, a side-by-side but silent walk.

If love is shrunk so pitifully, its opposite, naturally, is to be found everywhere.  Williams calls it “saccharine,” as in the following (Poem XXXVII):

“The air is saccharine.
The wind is saccharine.
Our breath is saccharine,

      leaving behind a trail of broken things.”

Controlled Hallucinations is no saccharine; it is, or rather it might be, if only you listen attentively, the beginning of an unending conversation.

John Sibley William's poems appeared in Offcourse #41 and his book "A Pure River" was reviewed in Offcourse #43.

Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

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