Judith Willson: Crossing the Mirror Line

…In an attic room the uncles are inventing a new century with pliers and tin foil… (Common Things Explained)

I came across Willson’s poetry at WordPlay in Halifax last week. It is precise, economical and often leaves you standing, trying to settle into the beauty of the last phrase, afraid of missing the next. Her poems sometimes make me uneasy, thinking that I was standing somewhere solid, secure, I become momentarily less certain. This is a good quality in poetry.

The poem An optical experiment finishes,

Conclude the eye demands completeness. Conclude/ an image may remain for seventeen seconds on the retina.

Even longer. One day you will stand at the door,/ see yourself crossing a snowfield. Leaving no tracks.

Lines, so beautiful that most poets would labour for weeks to perfect and then throw in a neon blaze across the page, are tucked carefully and undemonstratively away; like the following, the 9th line in a 12 line poem:
…the sea rocks in its net of coordinates… (Falling blue)
…The river twists down its channel, carrying the valley/ grain by grain on its back…
The above being the 5th and 6th lines of the 9 line poem, Kleinvlei.
…and here are a random couple of (non-consecutive) stanzas from the long poem Neither near nor far away:
Winter was a room under a low roof
where your mother lay silent,
distinguished in her carved marriage bed,
slowly travelling out of her bones
A man leaves and does not return
and nothing changes. Or
a man leaves and does not return
and everything changes.


One of the most accomplished poems is The invasion of China which takes its inspiration from the moment noted in the epigraph, “In 1573 Captain Diego de Artieda petitioned the King of Spain for permission to lead an invasion force of eighty men to China.” In two parts, the poem counterpoints the over exuberant bravado of the would-be coloniser, who wants, his ship heavy in the water/ all China in its hold, with the quiet contemplative figure of the magistrate (in China) who turns a mountain in his hand – it is a form of meditation to handle rocks – before, He picks up his brush, begins to write a path across the snow.

And how can you not love a poem that glories in the title, Extracts from three humorous stories in which citizens laugh at the small troubles of their lives.

I struggle to find any poems that I would describe as mis-steps, perhaps Dutch angles. When I came to the one titled The footnotes my heart sank a little thinking I was heading into the dull world of self-appointed-very-clever-poetry, instead the footnotes in this case are nonsense, deliberate and slightly surreal. Point made. No pyrotechnics. No grinding teeth. Next poem.

This is quiet poetry, full of authority that delights in language and telling the tale.

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