I was interested in reviewing The Model Shop because Williams hails from my own part of the world and is just a few years older than me. I hoped to find the cultural icons I grew up surrounded by, rooted in a familiar environment. Williams’s style is one of clarity and precision, with a quiet wit in his sidelong glances at things. Like William Carlos Williams, F.J. sees ‘poetry only in things’. The title poem acts as an intriguing opening to the collection, as he compares model making to world creation, the maker to God:
God repeats himself in the flat-pack doll’s house,
The rubber furniture and plastic piano
Hushed of all arpeggios
These are the toys of the nineteen fifties, echoed by the model railways in the opening few lines. This could be a nostalgia trip, and it could be something altogether darker as well.
Williams juxtaposes the modern world’s foolish business obsessions with the more innocent world of the recent past. He doesn’t romanticise, thankfully. Take ‘Depression furniture’ for instance:
They made you cold no matter how you sat
Those no-designer chairs bought before the war
For front rooms and special company.
A touch on the heavy side,
Made of planks and bed springs,
And nailed in the warehouse with joiners’cloth.
You saw the world sitting in a suitcase.
The wit and precision of this description captures exactly how ugly and uncomfortable those chairs were. His nostalgic approach towards the “old Dansettes” is offset by the fact they “skipped” and were “suitcase size”, making them sound clumsy and ineffective in contrast with the “phone and screen/ That smoothes out wrinkles with the glow/ Of steady purpose” (‘Busy Time on Brash Street’). Yet “A dozen records such a luxury” shows the value music had then, because it was hard to come by, expensive and fragile. Teens had to save up pocket money to buy vinyl records and each one was treasured. Woolworths was a national institution then, not only a purchasing palace but a place to meet and hang out. Williams’s ‘Woolworths’ poem gets it exactly right:
As if we’ve followed the wrong god out of church
With hankies, gift mugs and paper flags,
To find we’re on the other side of sacrifice
And everything’s to celebrate:
The music of doo-wop coaxing time back
And the smell of peppermint and leather.
He structures the poem using the seasons, deploying some wonderful imagery, such as a “boat like a long golden answer”. The marvellous mixture of Woolies, as it was fondly known, is captured here as he selects seasonal merchandise; the aromas of the shop and the sense of bustle are somehow conveyed between the lines. There are lots more memories in this first section, some general, some personal, but all interesting and pleasurable. In amongst the particularities of things, there are some tucked away wisdoms like: “Memories don’t care where they live” in ‘From the Gallery’.
Every Liverpool poet has to write their own Mersey poem and Williams has written ‘An ounce of Mersey beach glass’. That great river which dominated all our childhoods is an endearing subject, as it shifts and changes constantly, yet remains a constant pull. Williams’s way is original. Instead of choosing the vast river, he focuses on a piece of glass picked up from the beach. He uses these washed-up sea-worn fragments as symbols for people:
as if we like to see ourselves as less,
in a maker’s mark, in a bristle of glass…
The sea glass is taken home where it “brings whole rooms to light”. Williams’s language is tactile and full of assonance and consonance which provide inner music. ‘Lost corners’ is another fine poem made of scraps but so much more than its parts, as he remembers some of the things that languish there “as if grief and failure came clear at last” on their rediscovery.
The second section, ‘The Rain Gauge’, is also packed with lovely, real things. I wasn’t fully convinced that the book needed to be divided into two unequal parts, as I couldn’t see much difference between the poems in the sections, either thematically or stylistically. Overall, it is an enjoyable collection, particularly for those who enjoy clarity and directness.
Angela Topping is a widely published poet with eight solo publications, including two collections from Stride, one from bluechrome, two children’s collections, a Salt Modern Voices chapbook and a Rack Press pamphlet. She has reviewed for Stride, Ore, Other Poetry, Honest Ulsterman and Iron. She also writes for Greenwich Exchange and OUP.
The Model Shop is published by Waterloo Press, 2011, £10
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)