“How long does it take a city to discover / how to separate the dead from the soon-dead?” (“Witness” lines 34-35).
When I first read Phillip B. Williams’ poem “Do-rag” in the 2014 Best New Poets Anthology, I fell in love with his voice and style. Not only is he a poet who fearlessly addresses social justice issues, but his poems are not afraid of taking on new forms in order to tackle these tough topics. When I ordered his collection Thief in the Interior, my expectations were high. Now that I’ve finished it, I can confidently say this is a collection that does not disappoint. Each poem is braver than the last, and I’m thankful to Best New Poets for introducing me to Williams’ work.
Upon opening the collection, readers will find a collection of poems that center around gay and civil rights. The prose poem “Inheritance: Anthem” is a powerful account against police brutality: “When backup comes they both lecture you for thirty minutes. You were on your way to a funeral. You will miss the open casket to avoid your own” (15). The poem, which spans multiple pages, transcends form and becomes a work of art (see photo). Williams’ language is daring. It withholds nothing: “I keep writing about Black bodies and You keeps asking why, refusing to count the dead piling up at our doorsteps like phone books” (18). Voices like Williams’ become evermore critical in the wake of police shootings and the continuation of hate crimes against the black community.
Aside from the poem “Inheritance: Anthem” Williams dedicates an entire section of the book to a longer poem about the murder of Rashawn Brazell. Williams’ words are haunting, especially when he addresses the mother of Brazell in a series of short poems that begin with “Dear Ms. Brazell-Jones:” “I try to appear broken in order / to appear unbreakable, not worth further breaking” (“Witness” lines 184-185). Because it’s so raw, section two is one of my favorite aspects of the book.
Thief in the Interior also does a great job in addressing gay rights. Towards the end of the book, the poem “Epithalamium” gripped me: “Last month a couple of guys left a gay bar / and were beaten with poles on the way / to their car” (lines 4-6). Although this collection is sometimes tough to read because of the hard topics it tackles, these poems are written with such heart wrenching honesty that it’s impossible not to fall in love with Williams’ words.
In total, the collection is 79 pages of poetry. The cover of the book is fabulous, and I especially loved the size of the collection. If you’re looking for something that will take your breath away page after page, Thief in the Interior is the way to go.
Cover of Thief in the Interior courtesy of Alice James Books.
Buy Williams’ collection here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.”*