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This review is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Cover of Lines Off
MaitreyabandhuMaking the Most of It
Lines Off, Hugo Williams (Faber) £14.99
‘Between two friends’ says Auden in his essay on Don Juan, ‘the first concern is not to bore each other’. They know that they each have their share of suffering, but in conversation they will either avoid discussing it, or if they do ‘they will avoid the earnest note’. Auden’s remark speaks volumes for the life and art of Hugo Williams.

Williams’ instinct – no doubt fostered by his father, the film and stage actor Hugh Williams, and mother, Margaret Vyner, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Australia – is to ‘avoid the earnest note’. The challenge for his poetry is: can he be a friend to the reader (in Auden’s sense) and at the same time speak valuably about old age and debilitating illness – years of dialysis followed by a kidney transplant?

Lines off, his twelfth collection, rises to the challenge in a variety of ways: madcap desperation (‘The Coming Out Ball’), surreal nightmare (‘Transplant 2014’), comic analogy (‘TV Times’), and mock-historical simile (‘Pepys Island’). The best poems manage to be funny, tragic, charming, and deeply felt all at the same time:
It seems to come naturally to you,
demonstrating your new talent
for imitating Harpo Marx –
joke hair on top, collapsible legs,
that hilarious expression of dismay
as you start to fall.
(‘A New Country’)

‘Prayer Before Sleeping’, the final poem of I Knew the Bride (his 2014 collection), imagines poetry as something to live for: ‘Send me ...


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