Prolific Regina writer Edward Willett took a great idea and ran with it, and the result is his first collection of poems, I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust, a collection of twenty-one fantastical poems with illustrations by his niece, Albertan Wendi Nordell. That initial great idea? It began with former SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill’s 2016 “first lines” project, in which he e-mailed the first two lines from poems by two SK writers each week day in April and invited all Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild members to use them as springboards for new poems. Willett embraced the challenge, and the result is this creative, entertaining, and occasionally spine-tingling collection of poems that no one but Willett – well-known for authoring sixty books, including twenty science fiction and fantasy novels – could pull off.
Willett claims a life-long love affair with poetry, but admits he’s not known as a poet. The man is a story-teller, through and through, thus it’s not surprising that each of these poems tells a miniature story, many with an apocalyptic or space-based bent. The black and white illustrations contain figures or creatures that accentuate the often haunting work, which includes titles like “This is the Way the World Ends” and “The Labyrinth of Regret”.
Despair and loneliness are major players here. Take the poem “Virtuality,” partly inspired by Barbara Langhorst’s line: “It wasn’t the flu/the sad stones in my heart simply ran out of room”. Willett takes this and gives us a melancholy character who “exchange[s]/the real life for the virtual” – hopefully his “second life” will be happier. In the piece “Facing the Silence,” “Hope crumbles to dust” as a “tsunami of night” blackens out the world, and a couple, waiting for certain extinction, sit in a cabin “where normal still reigns:/the steam from our tea mugs,/the crackle of fire”. This well-wrought poem and the accompanying illustration make a highly effective pairing.
But it’s not all darkness and foreboding: the book ends with a rollicking poem inspired in part by the lines – and cowboy poetry rhythm – of Ken Mitchell. In Willett’s poem people live in “colonies out ‘mongst the stars,” and the protagonist, Old Bill, “was born in a starship” and rides a robotic horse. Willett’s turned to lines from Stephen Scriver and Joanne Weber to inspire “Saint Billy,” about a man whom God wants to saint so “he can talk to all them sinners” about things like “their drivin’ after/drinkin’ and their gamblin’ and their/droppin’ of the final g’s on words”.
The poet’s written several of his own quotable lines, ie: “Now, please don’t think we’re prejudiced/against vampires,” and I loved the small stanza he’s made using the first two lines from a Sheri Benning Poem: “In the near dark/when she’s almost asleep/there are stories”.
I’ve read about 90% of the books the quotes were drawn from – Willett’s also used one of my lines in this collection – and it’s fascinating to see how he’s spun these lines into something fresh … and most unexpected.
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