Reviewing “All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head”

Tony Williams, All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head (Nine Arches Press 2011). 

Tony Williams’s recent pamphlet, All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head is a beautifully produced work of art that riffs on the idea of art brut and especially on the work of Hans Prinzhorn, the German psychiatrist and art historian. The blurb of the pamphlet claims that after Prinzhorn’s death, a number of his patients’ works were discovered packed away in the cellar and that among them were a number of poetic ceramic tiles which the pamphlet reconstructs. It is extremely difficult to convey in words the experience of reading/viewing these tiles. You can see some pictures on Peony Moon, on Tony Williams’s blog and on the Ravenshead Press blog.

The square pages each contain a  kind of sonnet, but tile shards are missing and cracks interrupt the flow of the text. Seeming non-sequiturs snake around the edges of the tiles, such as: ‘Moral, A timid sailor does not trust to the painted beauty of his figurehead.’ Such nonsensical maxims recall Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ and as in Blake’s writing, an air of sinister menace underlies the seeming innocence of words. The sonnets are often divided into sections which are categorized with vertical labels in the margin. For example, in ‘Uncle Imagines,’ parts of the poems are labeled ‘The Threshold’, ‘The Baptism’, ‘Consultation the first’ and ‘Consultation the second’. Mingling psychoanalysis and spiritual imagery, Williams’s evocative art objects are worthy of Freud as they encourage the possibility of free association between the poems, labels and maxims. They also conjure a Europe that is deep, dark and mythical, almost primitive and grotesque too. In ‘Enroute Nowhere,’ the leaves on the bare trees ‘have not understood their death’; and so they become ‘Peverse as fingers that grow hands / To wave goodbye to all their friends’. These ghosts are also the subject of ‘Empty Grotto’:

[…] all

the rooms of Uncle’s head reverberate with their

Audible absences mingling with the mean constraint

Of the living who have usurped them.

Such evocative, ghostly poems are not about making sense but conjuring sensual experiences out of insanity. I would very much recommend All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head for its startling imagery, its playfulness with form and its clever, evocative presentation.

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