The Eighth Phrase
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
Quite some time ago, I was told that good things come in small packages. I was reminded of this when I opened L.B. Williams’ collection, The Eighth Phrase. It is a small book, about 5 ½ X 5 ¾ inches, with a poem on each of its 16 pages. The “good” thing that it held was the gift of memory that personalized it for me with poems drawn from her youth in New York City.
Most people think of New York City with skyscrapers, bustling Fifth Avenue crowds and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” driving the rhythm of the frenzied movement. This is “tourist” New York, a far different place for those of us who grew up in the city. We lived, mostly, in the outer boroughs, went to school there, passed our milestones there while our parents commuted by subway to “the City” to work. New York City was a larger, more complex place for us, a schizoid venue where we lived our lives much like anyone else yet had the opportunity to take in the sometimes forbidden fruit of Manhattan for the cost of a subway token. This movement between two worlds is the theme to the first poem in the collection, “At Fourteen”:
I change for the Seven Flushing line
When I get back to my house
The Flushing Line, aka the Number 7 Subway, provides an escape from the young narrator’s “quiet” (read “boring”) life in Queens to the enthralling streets of Greenwich Village. The deception seems to come easily, as if well practiced, and the parents don’t seem to question it as the narrator goes back to her life of school and homework.
A reader can feel how the city in all its forms became enmeshed in Williams’ poetry. She quotes Yeats as she sits in the New York Public Library. To a New Yorker, there is only one branch that conjures the respect of capitalization – the 42nd Street branch headquarters of the library system. She sits at a table
“…where the homeless,
This is the most vivid description of the 42nd Street Library’s reading room that I’ve ever come across. This poetic sensibility is not limited to Manhattan. It extends to her home in Queens where, in her poem “Unreal City”,
“Windows yellow soaked in sunken fog…
Nuzzle up to brown fog rising.”
This is not Carl Sandberg fog coming in softly on “little cat feet”, this is a “yellow dog” of a fog directly from Elliot’s “Prufrock” rubbing its nose among the anonymous window panes of semi-attached homes.
The poetry found in this collection does more than simply create metaphors for the city. The many facets of New York provide a web upon which Ms. Williams displays the emotional landscape of teenage years. In “Kings Point Specialty”she writes:
“In our high school women’s group
A week later, he broke up with me…”
Again, there is deception both for a parent and the omission of her tryst from her peers. One wonders whether the deception of “At Fourteen” had become commonplace, a shield to conceal the pain induced by peer pressure as well as forbidden action. The narrator is maturing, growing introspective in a city where transgressions are lost in the decibel level of the streets or the silent concealment of a home.
The title opens this work with an enigma. “The Eighth Phrase” seems to allude to the eighth phrase of The Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from evil”. How does this tie in to the poems presented in this book? The poet makes us wait until the final poem, “Blue Years”. The last stanza where she tells us
“When there is sorrow,
As with many of us, the memories of childhood are reduced to the memory of our homes, visible through the far away lens of elapsed years. The Janus faced city of her youth as well as the emotions first experienced are bound to the clapboard of her home where the temptations of maturity were encountered. The sorrow of these years were simply a beginning, a “morning” when the world took a different shape because our eyes were opening. The “atonement for misgivings” is also in the past, tempered in a memory visible from faraway.
As mentioned, this is a small book but it is dense with the poetry of one coming of age against the polyglot sounds of a great city. Do not let the size of the book deceive you. The imagery is almost narcotic and the phrasing speaks directly to the soul. L.B. Williams has fashioned a fantastic book of poems from her memories as well as her fine poetic technique.