The poems in One Unblinking Eye cast a steady and serious gaze at life outside the beltways. Whether testifying at a prayer meeting in Indiana, tramping the backwoods of northern New England, or working on an oil derrick in the Gulf, the inhabitants of these poems live on the margins of society. “They are the left-behind, odd-manneredones/Who speak in starts,” Norman Williams writes of the last residents of a West Virginia mining town. Describing the woods of central Maine, he speaks of “lives … scraped from sides/Of deer and garden plots; where double-wides,/On concrete pads abut a hard-pan road.”
It is the art of these poems to convince the reader that these lives matter. There is desperation here, and madness, but there is an equal measure of determination and faith. In one poem, Mr. Williams writes of a fisherman haunted by his daughter’s death, who “casts his line/In hopes a flash and strike will draw him back.” These words describe the poet’s method as well. The work in this collection is built on a supple metrical foundation; it is filled with glancing rhymes and wordplay; and it is touched off by striking images. It is, in other words, composed with care, and it richly rewards a careful reading.
Norman Williams writes in Burlington, Vermont, where he works as an attorney. His first book, The Unlovely Child, was published by Alfred A. Knopf to enthusiastic reviews. Anthony Hecht wrote that “the voice of these poems is marvelously modulated, low-key in its acceptances, modest in its exultations, steady and unintoxicated in its long vision. It is my fixed conviction that with his first book he has fashioned a landmark in our literature, and sounded a uniquely American note with beautiful certainty.”
With his second book, more than fifteen years in the making, Norman Williams reafirms the truth of that assessment.