Jennifer Wong reviews Heidi Williamson

Return by Minor Road is published by Bloodaxe (2020)

Beautifully crafted and understated, yet deeply moving, Return by Minor Road — Heidi Williamson’s third poetry collection — reflects on trauma, survival and hope, as it makes connections between natural landscape, wildlife and tragedy.

The title of the collection itself evokes absence and nostalgia. By calling the road a “minor” road, the poet alludes to a hidden path, a way of paying tribute to or commemorating the past, while the word also alludes to the young victims of the Dunblane Primary School tragedy. In its structure, the first section of the collection (2018) moves from the present moment (the moment of writing), to the second section when the historical incident took place (1996), followed by the third section which captures the time that comes “after” (1996-).

Drawing on her time spent in Scotland in her twenties, at the heart of the collection lies the poet’s ineradicable memories and processing of grief. Williamson was part of the community in Dunblane when the devastating shooting took place in a local primary school in March 1996, in which sixteen primary school children and a teacher were massacred. Throughout the collection, the repercussions of grief in the wider community are felt in many ways. In ‘Monochrome’, grief is the act of memory that brings people closer together, even if they are physically apart:

I read you in the papers, 
friend: I see you 
and I read you and I wish 
to hold your monochrome hand 
as it rests across that small child’s hand.

In ‘It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today’, the prose poem begins with a peaceful scene at home (“I iron our small crumpled things”), and as it progresses, absence is deeply felt despite one’s deliberate efforts to forget: “I think. We can’t think. We stare at the garden. Pretend to watch the birds.”

In many of her poems, space becomes very meaningful and very much part of Williamson’s language. The experimentation with lineation in ‘Cold Spring’, for example, allows the reader to contemplate the gaps and omissions, look for meaning in the metaphors and between the lines where “there is a crying that is bone”. In ‘Elegy’, names of individuals — scattered across the page — serve to remind one of those who have died, their stories that need to be passed on, and those who go on living and remembering.

Drawing on the story of the woodcutter, ‘in a school room, the woodcutter’ is a fascinating erasure of Williamson’s own poem from her first collection, Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe, 2011), and which conjures a reimagined scene of the shooting: 

                   they tried to be small                      as birds,   quieter
          one feather         pressed to their beaks
                                                             The woodcutter
       called to them                                                         with his shiny
voice
 
Such manipulation of form and blank space reinforces the taboo nature of the trauma and the fear that one can never exorcise the past, never experience one’s love for the place without reliving the sadness within.

In Return by Minor Road, trauma has no closure, but infiltrates or re-enters everyday life without warning. As mentioned in her interview with Christopher James for MONK, Williamson experiences a panic attack as she walks her son to school one day. This incident prompted her to write ‘Every Day’, a poem in seven parts that charts a parent’s anxiety — triggered by traumatic memory — and attempt to protect her child from any imagined danger (“I walk our son all the way to his classroom door”), while at the same time anything is enough trigger to bring back the traumatic memories of the school shooting (“On World Book Day, even his costume / for Young Sherlock comes with a pistol.”)

In Williamson’s poems, natural landscapes are imbued with history and emotions. For example, in ‘Dumyat’, the sweeping vision of Dumyat in Scotland is tinged with such wistfulness and longing: “the cairn and trig point / that chopped obelisk at its peak, / distant sheep folds, memorials of snow.” Throughout the collection, the river or the body of water suggests the stream of consciousness, memory, and the passage of time. In ‘When we were stone’, for example, the river is delineated through the stones in the river: “The stars were further / when we saw them through water. / The river’s bed near-buried us.”

Reading Williamson’s poems, one is reminded of Seamus Heaney’s poems, the subtlety and clarity in his use of poetic language and metaphors. In many of the poems in Return by Minor Road, there is a sense that “place” gains its gravity through one’s personal encounter and “reckoning” with it. The ending poem, ‘Place’, is structured around the refrain of “when we left, we left it all” and “when we left, we took it all”, and the paradoxical tension between the two statements: “When we left, we left it all: / broadening rain-clouds blending with hillsides.” By the end of the poem, the poet concludes “When we left, we took it all / the bend in the loch we can’t see beyond.” Here “can’t” is both literal and metaphorical, as the poet alludes to one’s knowledge of the place that goes beyond the visible. 

Imbued with music, history is evoked through the complex layers of feeling and memories that cannot be fully reconciled or remedied. In this pandemic time, the reader will find sympathy and strength in the depth of these poems, which so powerfully capture grief, survival and courage.

Jennifer Wong was born and raised in Hong Kong. She is the author of two poetry books including Goldfish (Chameleon Press 2013). Her pamphlet, The Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl, was published by Bitter Melon Poetry in September 2019. Her collection Letters Home is out with Nine Arches Press.

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