- Sometimes a Woman, by Kimberly K. Williams. Recent Work Press, $19.95.
Kimberly K. Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan. After 20 years writing and teaching in the American Southwest, she has now moved to Canberra to complete a PhD. Her new poetry collection, Sometimes a Woman, is a fine example of how the enterprising local publisher Recent Work Press is widening the range of its offerings.
Based on extensive research, Sometimes a Woman is a collection of monologues spoken by prostitutes in the American "Wild West". The voices vary widely, reflecting the attitudes and situations of the speakers. It's a book of considerable moral complexity and does not take sides in the continuing debate around whether prostitution is inherently degrading or just an example of women making their own way as they choose.
Like Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology, Williams catches the colloquial tones of her narrators very accurately and is content to let them speak for themselves rather than use them to moralise.
Although there are a few examples of prostitutes (or madams) living successful lives (financially, at least), the dominant impression is one of harshness and extreme vulnerability.
As Williams says in her introduction, she wants to counter how movies, books and histories have depicted these women "flatly and predictably: the fallen woman, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the luring vixen and so on". Though few of her poems run to more than two pages, Williams has managed to create a strong sense of the women not embodying a cliche but rather existing uniquely as individuals.
Their circumstances may be those a reader might expect but the women's responses differ markedly. "Three Doves at the Edge of Prescott", for instance, suggests a perky camaraderie. At other times there's an ironic humour - as at the end of "Jessie, Leadville, CO": "The cold // up here is like a man: it always has its hands on you, but never where / you want to be touched."
The language suggesting degradation, however, can be explicit, possibly too much so for a family newspaper.
"Ain't never / fun servicing a man with your mouth. You can pretend /otherwise, and there's lots of reasons // you might have to, given that most / women are wives or whores."
It's a brutal summary but we can see what she's getting at. The options for women in that time and place were not numerous. The book's second poem, "What's In", spells it out neatly: " ... Darkened / angel, fallen / flower, woman /. of the half / world, red / light lady, // sporting / girl, soiled / dove, frail / sister - all / doing what / she had /to do."
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.