Following her first book, With a Cherry on Top, Angela Williams’ Live From the Tiki Lounge brings a life and fire to the inevitable process of change. The Michigan poet addresses this topic of change—as well as loss, love, hope, and doubt—through imagery of the passing seasons, the passage of time, the light of galaxies, planets, and moons. She gives new relevance to mythological and literary characters, and in turn, Williams entices the reader with a sensual humanity through a shared and relatable experience that confronts the challenges of life head on.
Williams does not hesitate to address heavy topics or to play with language, space, or time. The opening poem of Live.., “Field’s Edge, Mid-September,” floods the page with mythological and astral allusions, seasonal imagery, and change both the speaker and reader are unable to escape. There is a mystical quality to the poem, and within the very first stanza, the reader is immediately transported to a time and place that, though a land of dreams, is one that is unmistakably human.
While the title of the poem offers preliminary information useful to the understanding of the poem, the first lines provide the reader with additional expository details not yet acknowledged. The reader already knows that the setting of the poem is a “field’s edge” and that, seasonally, the poem takes place in the last days of summer, the first days of autumn. This shifting of the seasons is emphasized by the diction of the opening line: "The wind is not yet brutal as I dream."
Williams’ use of the word “yet” alerts the reader to an expected change. Trapped in this time of “mid-September,” the speaker knows the seasons will change; in fact, they will change soon. However, in this moment, the coming winter has not yet arrived with its “brutal” wind.
This first line also alerts the reader to the role of the speaker throughout the poem: he or she is dreaming, a detail that provides context for later aspects of the poem. The dream-state of the poem is further emphasized by the rest of the stanza:
Tonight I could be anyone’s Venus,
framed by blood red sumac
and field corn waiting for
its shocks to be made fodder.
These breasts, hips, and ripe thoughts
could melt the coronas
around the moon itself.
The references to night, Venus, and the moon reinforce both the time at which this poem occurs and the dream-like state in which much of the poem exists. Venus, however, serves an additional role here. While the name might evoke the image of a bright planet in a star-filled sky, here the name specifically refers to the goddess. Williams juxtaposes Venus, the goddess of fertility and feminine beauty, with a field of corn. The harvest will serve as “fodder,” nothing more than food for mere animals.
Yet here is this goddess—or, rather, the speaker acting as this goddess—standing upon the page. The gleam of her body sticks out against the dark red of the sumac trees, the leaves already changing for fall. The speaker tells us that her thoughts are “ripe,” the diction fitting the almost-autumn motif of the poem. Venus fits this motif in that she signifies fertility, and the land is ready for harvest. However, her presence also instigates a shift away from the image of the field, away from the idea of change, and draws attention instead to the desires of the speaker:
I want time to let me be
the figurehead on a Viking ship,
an albatross to no one,
a Titan nude painted
on a bomber as a ‘40s pin-up girl
looking over my shoulder
as the currents lift and
there’s no going back.
This stanza is packed tight with images of femininity and various forms of beauty: the figurehead, the painted nude, the pin-up girl. Perhaps even more notable, however, is that in addition to the beauty, these images provide a sense of power and triumph. The speaker doesn’t want to be a figurehead on any ship but on the ship of a Viking. She isn’t just any nude, she’s a Titan on the side of a bomber, flying above the currents of the wind. She delights in the fact that “there’s no going back.” She’s escaping something.
It’s important to note the way in which Williams has written this stanza. Unlike the first stanza that contains three complete sentences, the second stanza contains only one sentence, and the sentence itself exists as a list of images. This compression of images into a single sentence in a single stanza accelerates the pace of the poem. The reader is hit with one detail after the other without a chance to fully pause and catch his or her breath. The poem is racing ahead, toward or away from something.
The point of return is
a fresh tattoo on my heart,
a moon-dog before the killing frost.
I woke to the pale moon’s hollow
departure to make a covenant
with morning doves because
faith comes more easily
to birds who plan to leave in autumn.
While the first two stanzas give the reader enough information to guess what the speaker is running from, this third stanza reveals even more. It is “the point of return” that the speaker fears. The reader knows the speaker doesn’t want to be anybody’s albatross—she doesn’t want to be their death, their bad luck. This is emphasized by the “killing frost,” the “departure,” and the doves who “leave in autumn” in the third stanza. The coming season symbolizes an end of things the speaker wants, things the speaker doesn’t want to live without.
Something else happens in the third stanza: the speaker wakes up. She tells us the moon is “pale,” no longer glowing as it was in the night. Williams also plays with the language in this stanza. She calls the birds “morning doves” while they are normally called “mourning doves.” The use of “morning” emphasizes the passage of time from night to dawn and the inevitability of change. The absence of “mourning” also furthers the shift in tone. The speaker is no longer excited about her dream, but she is mourning the loss of it. She recognizes that autumn and winter are still on their way.
This awareness of the coming change, and the eventual acceptance of it, is revealed in the final stanza:
These next days will be
for stacking wood, piling deadfall.
Each slab is the wing of a grackle,
pairs of goldfinches,
plum flesh of a scarlet tanager,
the nape of a ring-necked pheasant.
We will hear their songs as their
flags unfold in each night’s fire.
This final stanza clues the reader in to what’s to come for the speaker. The “next days” will consist of work, of preparing for the coming winter. The wood, though dead, will sustain the speaker’s life. However, this does not seem to be a comfort to the speaker. She compares the wood to the bodies of birds, most of whom will be migrating for the winter. The reader knows from the third stanza that the speaker envies these birds to whom “faith comes more easily,” and the mood in this final stanza continues to be a heavy one. The speaker recognizes the natural order of things. She does not have wings; she cannot fly away above the currents. Time will continue to pass and she will not live as an immortalized goddess. She does not, however, stop seeing beauty in things around her. The flames of the fire, her sustenance in the cold, become the wings and songs of birds.
“Field’s Edge, Mid-September” is important to the rest of the collection not only because it is the first poem but because it sets the tone and style for the poems that follow. The theme of change, emphasized by the changing of the seasons and the passing of time, is one that resurfaces again and again. “You and the Ides of March: A Love Poem To Winter” addresses both time and seasons within the title and the body of the poem. The poem is addressed to winter, but the Ides of March, the 15th of the month, falls near the beginning of spring. Winter has almost, if not already, passed. In the last two stanzas of the poem, Williams writes, “The woods grew thicker, / darker, as if morning was / never again to wake us. / I could hear no birds, nothing but the / pounding of what was once my heart.” Like the first poem, this poem addresses the end of something, the loss of something. “En Route” also addresses the loss of something at the hands of seasons and times. Williams ends the poem, “But there is nothing the wind and the rain won’t eventually take from us.”
Another poem that addresses both loss and the seasons is “To Persephone as a Man in the 21st Century.” In mythology, Persephone, a Greek goddess of vegetation, comes to and leaves earth with the seasons. Her coming and going closely marks the passage of time and is often revealed through the fertility of the earth or the lack there of. Though the poem does not directly address the seasons, the presence of Persephone alone is enough to evoke this image. Additionally, Williams writes, “You once led me away from myself,” and, “Before you return home.” These two phrases illustrate a cycle of coming and going. Sometimes Persephone is here, sometimes he—in this case—is not.
Another important aspect of “To Persephone” is the simple fact that Williams is alluding to mythology. As discussed, Williams introduces this concept to us in “Field’s Edge” with the presence of Venus. Throughout the collection, Venus resurfaces in the title of “A World Without Venus,” accompanied by Eve in the body of the poem. Eve is not the only biblical character present throughout the collection.
In fact, several biblical, literary, and historical or cultural figures—particularly artists—appear throughout the poems. Jesus appears in “Hale-Bopp,” and the Virgin Mary is pictured as a painting in “Maples on Fire.” “Maples” also mentions Madonna. The artist Picasso appears in both “A World Without Venus” and “Father Dream,” van Gogh is present in “Step Four: Taking a Moral Inventory,” and Georgia O’Keefe is named in “Early Saturday.” Shakespeare’s Ophelia is included and “Mayday Eve: Insomnia and Flowers,” and Williams references Romeo and Juliet in “Hale-Bopp” when she writes, “Star-crossed, indeed.”
Though the allusions Williams uses throughout the poems (and I have not listed all of them) vary in their purpose based on their context, there are a few patterns. Nearly all of the fictional, religious, and/or mythological characters used are female, each usually somehow related to fertility, other specific aspects of femininity, or feminine facets of love. When artists are mentioned, Williams usually uses the allusion to draw specific images from their art into the poem, providing more details to other images she evokes. Often, though not always, several of the allusions, regardless of type, are skewed in some way. For example, in “Field’s Edge,” the speaker becomes Venus. Elsewhere, the shifts occur in Williams’ attitude toward the subject; she often addresses the allusions with a bit of satire. Regardless of Williams’ intent upon using allusions, each allusion offers something to the poem that could not exist without that reference. Most of the allusions she has selected are familiar enough to her audience that, even without knowing all the specifics of the allusion, the reader is able to create some new meaning in the poem based solely upon his or her own knowledge. This process provides a sort of interactive feature to the poetry, one that is present throughout the whole of the collection.
A final feature of Williams’ poetry that is presented originally in “Fields’ Edge” and resurfaces again and again throughout the rest of the collection is the idea of a shared consciousness. Certainly the allusions play a role in creating this consciousness, the historical and cultural references forcing the readers to recognize a shared knowledge pool from which they each draw understanding. The seasons, too, play a role in this in that they are a part of nature and, though the characteristics of the seasons may vary by place, overall, seasons are something most of humanity experiences. What’s more, we, as humans, are often at the mercy of the natural world. Unable to fully predict the weather, unable to stop the world from spinning, we know that eventually change, both good and bad, will come.
Live From the Tiki Lounge, characterized by allusions, imagery, stylized diction, and the playing of language and time-space constraints, is a collection of poems that ultimately address life. Life is human; life is change; life is learning to continue despite the change. Williams doesn’t back away from illustrating her own fears, doubts, and losses, and as such, she welcomes the reader to share in both her burdens and her joy. It is a joy of language, a joy of discovery, a joy of nature that allows us to look one another in the eyes and say, “Yes. me, too. Let’s continue on this journey together.” Williams has opened her hand as an invitation. It’s simply a matter of the reader reaching out and holding on.