Poetry Review: Visiting the Minotaur by Claire Williamson

Visiting the Minotaur - poetry by Claire WilliamsonVisiting the Minotaur plunges you straight into the myth in ‘Swimming with the Bull’, a dramatic encounter across ‘three-and-a-half-thousand years’. This sets the tone for the collection as a whole, exploring the surreal nature of family relationships and crossing the boundaries of time and space, as humans and monsters find their roles reversed. The cover image (a painting by Matthew Grabelsky) is both startling and ordinary – the perfect depiction of what lies between the covers.   

At its core lies a story of real life trauma, the process of recovery and the search for identity through a veil of confusion and contradictions. The most disturbing of these poems deals head-on with the suicide of a mother and brother, entitled ‘My Brother and Mother as Horses’. It conjures up an imagined tea party scene, where the two of them return and converse:

My brother still wears the blue noose,
now loosened like a hippy necklace,
drawing attention to the deep-ridged cuts
under his chin, like a tree trunk sawn
by an amateur. I try not to stare.

Williamson’s style is lyrical and straightforward, which adds a certain poignancy to imagery such as this, and there is a strong sense of time being stretched or distorted in many of the poems. In ‘Bathurst Pool’, for example, we observe the slow-motion realisation that a child needs saving from drowning, and other poems step outside of time altogether. In ‘Heterotopias’, it seems as if the poet is recreating an alternate reality in which painful moments from her childhood are relived through the eyes of a more capable, or more rebellious version of herself:

When I sat, aged twelve,
on the brown and orange sofa
where she told me I was not her child,
I was also outside in our garden
with the neighbour’s forbidden black cat
stroking his back all the way
to the tip of the tail.

This sense of distortion surrounds another central theme within the collection, that of searching for identity. We see the memory of a past self who goes unrecognised in ‘Bakery, 1986’, the blurring of identities in ‘Stepmother Minotaur’, and the switching of identity in ‘The Minotaur Speaks’, as the young Minoans forget that they are humans, not monsters:

minotaur paintingThey eat each other in the end,
caught in hunger’s fists,
not knowing they aren’t me.

This culminates in the title poem ‘Visiting the Minotaur’ which appears at the end of the book, describing a visit to see Picasso’s famous painting. The poet seeks to connect with the painting, the myth and the monster:

I’m here because I am the minotaur,
the veil, the hand, the island,

There is also a sense, in many of these poems, of searching for healing through the telling of stories and through images, as the poet makes new connections with the world around her, and has children of her own. In ‘Unimagined Mother II’ we see the powerful realisation that, no matter what happens,

even absent mothers,

are forever mothers,
however distant, however dead.

And this is echoed in other poems such as the ‘The Walk’, which recounts the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, comparing the fears of parents separated from their children:

I think of that ripping yarn –
a limping lone survivor-witness,
vermin and betrayal –
told and retold,
which won’t be written down
for a hundred years,
explaining how it can possibly be,
that as quick as the flick of a rodent’s tail,
we can lose our children.

In other poems, such as ‘Atonement’ and ‘Blame’, Williamson creates a dream-like feeling of distance from reality, as the words slide across the page, whilst other poems deal honestly with the surreal aspects of childbirth, breastfeeding and being separated from your children in later life.

Visiting the Minotaur weaves past and present, myth and reality into a tapestry of dream-like encounters, where the taboo subjects of abuse, suicide and grief become stories that make up just part of a wider search for identity, alongside an awareness that all of our stories fit together, and that it is through stories that we find out who we are. The Minotaur is a tragic figure, stuck in his labyrinth, awaiting rescue, but Williamson has given him a new lease of life, drawing him out and finding in him an awareness of what it means to be human, and what it means to be hurting.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.