Visionary, charged with tense grace, Crystal Williams’ new collection Detroit as Barn is an extraordinary act of redemption. Language becomes fact, agency, and what it makes is real as brick. More real: Williams’ desperate and ecstatic poetry takes us beyond Simulacrum Detroit, the stage-set of crisis capitalism, to the human landscape of absolute potential and contingency: “the hidden sack/in which we each stash/a God, the gods, tatters/of kindness, four halved plums.” Williams’ aim is to reclaim a world, knowing that the signposts have been deliberately mislabeled—“history is nothing more/than a chronic transfer of limitations,/a way of understanding/who we might have been & who we are/is bodies born of shackles.” Williams’ taut lines are wild to intervene, to create new forms. This book is a journey, from the stunted myths we inhabit towards a city still to be acknowledged, a city of living women and men.
Times may be tough, Detroit, but oh you are lucky in love. And lucky beyond all measure in your newest laureate, the marvelous Crystal Williams. If Detroit in decline is like one of those barns we see on a country road—unpainted, emptied-out, and leaning ever nearer to its Mother Earth—here are poems to praise the good hard wood that made it and the pitch of the roof once raised in praise. Here are songs of sorrow and fierceness that make us believe in joy again.
In Detroit as Barn, Crystal Williams distills the breathing presences and absences in her native city, its industrial decay and human resilience, its shouts of despair and whispers birthing love. Her poetry teaches us the words to the beauty that the world passes over, discovers the soul in what has been lost or cast aside. This book gives me hope for America and for American poetry—and hope too for the spirit of Detroit that lives within us all.
About the Author
A daughter of Detroit, Michigan, Crystal Williams is the author of three previous collections of poems: Troubled Tongues (Lotus Press, 2009), winner of the 2009 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize, finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award, and shortlisted for the 2008 Idaho Prize; Lunatic (Michigan State University Press, 2002); and Kin (Michigan State University Press, 2000). A recipient of many awards, fellowships, and honors, she currently serves as Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Bates College, where she is also Professor of English. Williams holds degrees from NYU and Cornell University. Her website can be found at: crystalannwilliams.com.
Detroit as Barn
for Phil Levine
Gone the hay. Gone the tools. Gone the morning work.
Over there a tractor rusts. Gone the cows, goats,
the slack-tongued mule. Left are owls & rats, fat, wily cats,
& the field where wild weeds grow.
The farmer, they whisper, driving past, knows everything
a body needs to know about dying. You can tell
by how he doesn’t bother to paint or prop
the barn’s worn wood.
Still, folks click their teeth & wonder on which day,
at what time, the pitiful barn will give. The farmer too
scratches his mighty, balding head.
But he’s forgotten the good wood he used,
the hard nails, the family, the friends & their strong backs,
that long ago barn raising, that cider & fine punch.