Review: ‘The Print Museum’

As a printer’s daughter, author Heidi Williamson has always been surrounded by the world of the text. In The Print Museum, she sets out to ‘celebrate and eulogise a dying craft … unchanged for five hundred years’ which is now rapidly changing as the digital revolution threatens to supersede print culture. It’s her second poetry collection after Electric Shadow (2011), which addressed the intersection between science and everyday life, Although this nostalgia for book-making is perhaps sentimental, Williamson conveys a sense of the loss of the relationship between the individual printer and their work.

The collection uses printing to explore other issues such as the impermanence of the written word, the digital world, and even the relationships between family members. In ‘Furniture’ she asks, ‘do words weigh less in cyberspace?’ Her poem ‘Span’ moves from an intimate memory of her father’s hands, which ‘serve a seven-year apprenticeship’, to delve beneath the surface ‘one layer lower’. Likewise, her collection of poems spans both the intimate and universal, the intensely personal and the collective.

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‘Span’ is headed by a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: ‘Give me 26 soldiers of lead/And I will conquer the world’. The written word governs Williamson’s world — she is intrigued by the ‘tree that haunts the page’. Preoccupation with inscribed language even filters into the poems which ostensibly treat other subjects in a highly self-conscious way. This is mainly due to the reader’s own heightened awareness of the manipulation of language within the collection, highlighted by layout: for instance, continually changing typefaces. Poems such as ‘Majuscule’, ‘The Case’, and ‘Newton’s Rings’ play on the protean nature and strange position of language, carrying meaning yet separate from it. In ‘The Case’, which opens with Eric Gill’s quote ‘letters are things; not pictures of things’, each capital letter becomes a thing in itself, illustrated like medieval capitals, individual objects to be admired. The uppercase letters instantly draw the eye across the page even whilst the reader resists, trying to follow the poem. Simultaneously, Williamson is playing with the language in lower case, delighting in language’s polysemous nature. She uses the spacing of the page, bracketing, and even scores out words such as ‘gone’.

In ‘The Case’, she conveys how ‘the heft of it, the look and the feel, the/ reel of it off the tongue’, how ‘words may wobble/ but they never   fail better’. She examines the act of reading and of interpretation through lines such as ‘Babies     babble    Babel’, highlighting not only how we grow to use language, but also perhaps, through the sound patterning, the importance of the written word over the spoken. Whereas its content suggests the inefficacy of language, Williamson’s language itself is remarkable in its precision.

The poem ‘The Print Mausoleum’ itself is written in many different typefaces, each of which seems to take on its own personality. The typeface becomes an intrinsic part of every poem, which would all undoubtedly be read differently if the entire collection shared one typeface. Each poem seems to be many voices speaking together, and the heteroglossia reminds the reader of their own participation in the text. In ‘The Case’, even as the multiple voices all talk of the man who ‘tended that machine like his own sorrow’, the different typefaces don’t combine to seem contrived. Instead they serve as a testament to the work of the printer who was an ‘Apprentice, Compositor, Machine minder, Monotype, Linotype, Intertype, Reader’ — a part of the printed work himself.

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‘Out of Print’ claims that ‘each man [is] his own museum’. Likewise, in microscale each poem, and in macroscale the collection itself, is a museum of references to printing, to printers, to readers, but also to the human stories and sorrows caught up in the language on the page. In ‘Gutenberg’ for example ‘His name is printed, printed, printed’. But Williamson only uses the printers’ name in the eponymous title, not in the remainder of the poem, in which the subject is instead ‘chemist, engineer, entrepreneur, craftsman, builder, social scientist, printer, scribe, proofer, machine minder, reader. He is devil, god, the first, the best, the only, a thief, a liar, tradesman, whore, prophet’, in a passage without line breaks. He is unknowable and yet we find him in the print on the page, in his worries over the distribution of ink.

In ‘The dark manner’, Williamson further explores the poet’s negotiation of type and type-setting, writing ‘She presses them into the shadows,/ Smoothes them away/ So light is increasingly/ extracted from the dark’ – writing becomes a way of extracting from the darkness, ‘a firefly on the horizon’. In ‘At the Print Museum’, ‘the benefit of close spacing’ becomes something other, as the ‘he’ of the poem ‘spins a line like any other;/ tells me my lips are smooth/ and fine as Solnhofen stone/ my eyes as deep as Rich Black’. Printing is intimately linked to life for Williamson’s speaker, ‘the thin/ gold that sustains’ both the persona and seemingly Williamson herself. There are moments of humour too, as in the simple rhyme of ‘Em Dash’ which references Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes. Here her childlike rhyming in a beautiful four lines reveal perhaps most clearly Szirtes statement that William’s work shows the ‘sensuousness of language’, as he comments in the collection. The dashes, Williamson writes, ‘strike apart of the air’ as do her own lines.

But The Print Museum is not just a monument to Williamson’s life lived in print. In ‘Dimensional Stability’ the poem begins with ‘paper’, with print. But it moves to the fens, to the sea and the stone wall. It ends with ‘the way, for example, the ocean/ freeing itself of its borders/ falls constantly into its element’. Williamson explores so much, from love and language, to climate change, to genealogy and childlessness as in ‘Bleed’. In ‘Lineage’, perhaps the poem I most often returned to, she dreams of a child swallowing beads, trying to save her until ‘the full weight/ of the air fixes us there, still’. It is these moments of stillness in Williamson’s writing, of stasis and contemplation, of sadness and such beauty, that make her poems unforgettable. They make you return to them, to find what made you stop in that silence. Perhaps in that moment we find a way to ‘bear the light the way it is’ (‘Figure’). A sense of extreme loss pervades her writing, but it is counterbalanced with a lightness of touch, a fluidity and a simplicity that keeps you reading.

Tilly Nevin

‘The Print Museum’ is available to buy from Bloodaxe, RRP £9.95.

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