Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Review by Jayme Ringleb
All of the poems in Thief in the Interior, Phillip B. Williams’s debut collection, are poems in direct conversation with poetic forms and traditions, with poets and poetic movements, or with ongoing acts of violence against both Black and queer lives. The poems also work to narrate the difficult progress of a speaker in conversation with himself, an interior speaker split by an exteriority (or a number of exteriorities) forced onto him. The poems of Thief in the Interior wrestle with and embrace these tensions. They live in careful spaces carved between awe and terror, beauty and atrocity, and progress and constraint.
“Some minds are groomed for defiance,” says the speaker of “Vision in Which the Final Blackbird Disappears,” and it seems the poet’s mind at work inside Thief in the Interior is one of these. Perhaps the central defiance of this collection is in its handling of form. The sonnet is of particular value to Williams, and many of the poems are in conversation with the sonnet formally or structurally. Metrical strictures aside, “For Joy Be Righteous” and “A Spray of Feathers, Black”—the latter of which borrows from terza rima and replaces rhyme with anagram—see Williams at his most formal. “Of Darker Ceremonies,” too, even despite its thirteen lines, is traditionally deferential, particularly in its use of volta and the rhetorical opposition established by the “yes” and the “no” of the final two lines. This sonnet is also in conversation with its form thematically, both in its divine invocation of the “god of armed robberies and puff-puff-pass” and the argument Williams establishes between a kind of ancient holiness and the contemporary criminal activity and violence of a particular landscape and community.
While even these three, more traditional sonnets enact subversions of the form, Williams’s most radical defiance of the sonnet is in the only poem actually identified in the collection as one: “Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies.” Here, Williams replaces the sonnet’s fourteen lines with “fourteen” sections—though, because there are thirteen sections labeled as being the thirteenth, there are in reality twenty-six. The effect is not only radical fragmentation in the structure of the poem as a whole, but also, particularly in the repetitions of the thirteenth sections, a canny use of a sonnet that depicts Black self-harm: the repetitions of the thirteenth sections both delay the outcome of the poem’s final section and point toward a notion of blockage, of being constrained in both a personal and historical narrative.
Thief in the Interior as a whole thematizes this constraint, this difficulty or lack of progress, both in its unfolding narrative and in its choices of form. “Inheritance: The Force of the Aperture” borrows from the sestina, a form whose repetitious interweaving of six terminal words plays on a tension between progress and stagnation. Here, beyond a leniency he affords himself in his play on and substitutions of these six words, Williams makes two very interesting formal decisions. First, he combines the middlemost (the third and fourth) of the sestina’s sestets and reorganizes their traditional arrangement. In a way, this subversion of form might mark a kind of progress, a kind of breaking free—but even if it does, the poem remains mostly bound to its six terminal words. What’s more, and this is the second particularly impacting formal decision of the poem, Williams includes only six of the sestina’s traditionally seven stanzas, omitting the final envoy. His omission of this envoy, which offers the sestina (often limitedly) a sense of closure or even progress, indicates either complete incapability or suspension of any attempt at closure in his poem. It’s another canny, readily traceable decision in the form, one that echoes the various formal decisions Williams makes throughout his collection.
Even more radical is the use of “form” in Williams’s other “Inheritance” poems, “Inheritance: Spinning Noose Clears Its Throat” and “Inheritance: Anthem.” “Spinning Noose” is in the shape of an actual noose, and the words that create this noose come from a swirl of perspectives and politicized language that surrounds, in the middle of the noose, a small stanza, a seemingly unfinished, nearly empowered meditation on a futureless, promise-less freedom. “Anthem,” meanwhile, is a series of six circles—a numerical echo of the sestina that almost directly precedes it— often containing numerous visual displays of allusive text. Stylistic reproductions of Star Wars prologues, quotes from Beyoncé, quotes from Talib Kweli, and captions from the recorded murder of Eric Garner hold together here, and all are popularized, differently troubled representations made by American culture into myth-like spectacle. In Williams’s “Anthem,” these representations are of numerous voices bound, in narratives of Black arrests, by circular text—a text that loosens, ultimately, in the poem, to finally become legible as the Miranda rights. In the final, loosest circle of “Anthem,” Williams quotes Kweli: “But I never write to remain silent.” This is, again, a thematization of constraint: despite the quote’s punning defiance, despite the ways in which it echoes Williams’s own project, the words are someone else’s, and they are still trapped in and echoing the language of an oppressor.
Thief’s third section includes what I assume the poet would identify as a sonnet cycle, one that plays on the notion of a crown of sonnets. These loose, broken sonnets (all but one are in two parts) are, again, subversive in their performance of the form. That said, their use of volta, their explicit and implicit arguments, and their play with the structure of a crown keep them in a space of particular tension, one that echoes the collection’s themes of restraint. The way this cycle plays on a crown, linking together, sometimes barely, the last line of one sonnet to the first line or title of the next, imitates, too, this restraint—but it also emphasizes a kind of progress. Here, in this short, seven-sonnet cycle, Thief reveals, or begins to reveal, a narrative that is more intimate, more familiar, than what’s come before. When we reach the final sonnet of the cycle, the last line doesn’t link back to the first in the crown, as a crown of sonnets should; instead, the line, which reads, “light masked the door to the dream,” links back to two other poems in the book. The first is an earlier poem, “First Words,” which ends:
the boy’s first word for pain
is the light’s
new word for home.
The second is in the sonnet cycle itself, and the line is one that marks the beginning of Thief in the Interior’s suspended near-consolation: “No, Tell Him—” ends, “to enter, turn the knob though the knob will burn.”
Before concluding, I’d like to acknowledge the perspectives of two potential readers. The first will buck against Williams’s formal choices, against the notion that simply the number of lines and the use of volta, rhetorical arguments, and even theme may serve as grounds for calling a poem a sonnet. This reader will likely also read Williams’s subversions of the sestina in “Inheritance: The Force of Aperture” as grounds on which we might dismiss any reading of the poem through the lens of the sestina form. This reader will likely also be averse to the visual poetry of “Inheritance: Spinning Noose Clears Its Throat” and “Inheritance: Anthem.” The second reader will take a drastically more lenient perspective toward form, insisting that whatever identifications the poet makes of their poems—calling something that barely resembles a sonnet a sonnet, for example—are acceptably valid. In Thief in the Interior, neither of these perspectives is very productive. What is productive, instead, is asking how Williams’s meticulous command of the forms he borrows from, performs, and subverts is an extension of the themes the collection takes on.
There is so much this review has been unable to address: the power of the collection’s final section, particularly in poems like “Do-rag,” “Often I am Permitted to Return to the City,” and “He Loved Him Madly” and in the transformation, which ultimately ends the collection, traceable in poems like “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same,” “Visitation,” and, of course, “Birth of the Doppelgänger.” This review also hasn’t addressed the formal complications of “Witness,” the fourteen-section-long sequence of the collection’s second part, which furthers many of the arguments made in this review with harrowing lines like,
I try to appear broken in order
to appear unbreakable, not worth further breaking
and which is so important in its handling of the murder of Rashawn Brazell. I believe, though, that this speaks to Williams’s power and the brilliant complexity with which he’s created the message of Thief in the Interior: there is so much here, so much we must talk about.
Jayme Ringleb grew up in upstate South Carolina and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. He holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and is currently a PhD student in poetry at Florida State University. Jayme is the recipient of scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat, a Fishtrap Fellowship, and prizes from the University of Oregon.