A Review of Candace Williams’s I Am The Most Dangerous Thing

Recently, I’ve been following Jake Skeets’s poetry experiments with ChatGPT on Twitter. In one version, the chatbot generates a tidy column beginning with a question. In another, Skeets has the program revise against cliche, and ChatGPT suggests literary journals to which he might submit the AI-generated poem.. It’s safe to say that Skeets’s poetry is easily distinguishable from the simulacrum of his poetry, not only in terms of language but in terms of form. If chatbot programs are popular for formulaic writing—a cover letter, a marketing email, a term paper—what separates form from formula? This spring, I keep coming back to Candace Williams’s I Am the Most Dangerous Thing as I hear stories about the AI technology entering the creative sphere, because of how their work is in such strong opposition to predictive text algorithms that perpetuate existing patterns. Their debut full-length collection defines art as logic: absolute and irrefutable and disruptive. As the title of their opening poem (“THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF”) suggests, this is work that demands the reader’s engagement. But not their empathy. In other words, this is not a space for you to write your name. 

Williams offers the shape of familiarity without rote comfort. The collection’s opening poem depicts the indoctrination of students in social structures defined by the history they study:

Eyes pick apart my cornrows
as our teacher recites Slavery in the Americas
from a textbook ISSUED:NEW that day (Social Studies)

Our tiny hands pick up cotton balls and glue them to thick blue
paper, constructing fields

Their teacher does not instruct but “recites” an account of slavery, still “NEW that day,” and guides the class through repetition in place of analysis. Summarizing institutional support through texts “ISSUED:NEW” and limited support for the arts, “CONDITION:USED,” Williams lays the groundwork for a collection that tackles individual and institutional credibility. 

When Williams introduces their younger self as “a 12-year-old science / geek,” they align the younger self with impartial knowledge within a poem where scientific debate has already been made inaccessible. The poem describes how the speaker’s father’s credibility is dismissed, even as he cites “evidence / recorded in elite journals of medicine and science.” In the style of the researcher, the speaker offers reproducible science:

I flushed my Paxil
after reading the evidence:
Men in white coats electrocuted mice until the animals suffered
convulsions at the scent of cherry blossoms         this scent traumatized
offspring who never experienced electric current     Men in white coats prescribe

Williams attenuates the line, allowing for the diffusion of “the scent of cherry blossoms,” a scent so subtle it is unlikely to be detected by someone unfamiliar with it. I love how the poem excavates the relation between sensation and knowledge so that Williams can bring into doubt the validity of the men in white. If they cannot recognize the scent of inherited trauma themselves, are they not reliant on their subjects who are given no byline? The poem becomes a logical dismantling of institutional impartiality, an argument that lived experience affects the quality of research. 

I’m interested in how care is nonlinear in these poems—that by defending their father’s credibility, the speaker frees the younger self from questions of credibility. Because Williams engages multiple versions of the self, their poems become a coordinated disruption of institutional authority across a nonlinear timeline. They simultaneously engage as the student entrusted to institutions and as the teacher who must conform to state standards.  

With “Spells For Black Wizards,” Williams offers this kind of actionable care for Black readers confronted with headlines that bring credibility and safety into question. From these headlines, Williams generates directives that will manifest a change in whomever shall perceive the speaker, where “your rental or mortgage application will fall / under gentler eyes” and sympathetic “Pangs of pain will inflame / your doctor’s heart.” For Williams, the “spell” safeguards the credibility of the Black body. And it’s important that the spell is specific, not only because we have learned that magic is a form with limitations, but because Williams’s spells describe a body which neither seeks nor needs transformation but must instead alter those who would undermine them. When so much self-care advertises itself as a way to change the body, to purchase relief through alteration, Williams offers a counterargument.

Much as Walter Benjamin defines the politicization of aesthetics (in which art becomes a tool for perpetuating institutional power), self-care (a practice meant to recognize individual value) has become a means of further identifying the individual as the consumer. Our health, like our art, is at risk of becoming a reproduction of the systems that put our bodies at risk. Perhaps, more than before, we are in an age of mechanical reproduction in which AI manufacturers market an ability to produce creative work. But because AI chatbots function through assumptions and through the reproduction of patterns that already exist, these new works never challenge the canon. Instead, they perpetuate institutional flaws. If new technology functions by predicting the word most likely to come next in a sentence based on what has come before, how then, might the poem function as a foil to technology-generated writing?

In their workshop, Poet Against Empire: a Generative Erasure Workshop, Williams teaches erasure as a form with the possibility of “disrupting the integrity of a word”—the possibility of taking language syllable by syllable, letter by letter. Rather than trusting its source material, the erasure interrogates the linguistic limits of a text. It’s a form that can question the reproduction of statutory and institutional language as in Willams’s “WHREN v. UNITED STATES,” which is an erasure of the unanimous Supreme Court decision that has allowed for pretextual stops since 1996. 

In plain terms, WHREN v. UNITED STATES sets the precedent that, given legal grounds, the court is uninterested in a police officer’s motivations, biases, and subjective use of power. William’s erasure brings attention to the court’s disinterest in “private interest in avoiding police contact,” and excavates recognition of the stakes in question for “private interest” who must consider:

stead of asking whether the individual officer had the proper
state of mind                                                  ask
whether                                                           it is plausible to
believe that

f                           e               a


When Williams revisits the text of WHREN v. UNITED STATES in “Black, Body,” it is to offer a quantitative analysis of the court’s own linguistic emphasis by rearranging the text in order of word frequency (a technique borrowed from Franny Choi). In a document that enables and condones racial profiling, “black” [sic] and “body” appear once. “Police” appears 29 times. Likewise, “subjectiv[ity]” is outnumbered by “reasonableness” and “probable” justification.  Faced with the decision to minimize the validity of the Black body, Williams wields impartial parameters to clarify the root of institutional failings. 

But impartiality is not the limit of William’s poetics of erasure. Their poetry asks readers to divest from nostalgia and to confront how our comfort with what’s familiar may not be in our best interests. Working with publicly accessible texts, Williams rehabilitates a semblance of their own voice out of a hateful lexicon. In “The Dark Diary,” an erasure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary, Williams recenters a work regarding (and replicating) colonialism so that the lyric “I” becomes both Black and queer and able to engage the reader in the work of erasure:

silenced between whiles    I had to look                            for the queer
patterns: witchcraft           full knowledge                         transparent thirst

this was unexpected          I found faded pencil-writing  when deciphered
it was illegible—                  a much longer word                for warning

At points, we find a reprisal to Williams’ earlier poems, the way “I dwell / upon their broken vertebrae and mouth / a gentle tribute” from “Nostrand Avenue Dirge” is echoed in “I saw a man’s backbone running / down / the middle passage.” I’m interested in what it means to craft our own observations through the observations of a colonizing force. (The Congo Diary is composed of excerpts from Conrad’s employment with the Société Anonyme pour le Commerce de Haut-Congo). 

Confined by the erasure’s original text, Williams has less freedom than the chatbot’s predictive algorithm, and yet their work offers much more surprise. The erasure becomes a contemplation of the source material and the self as Williams wrestles back control of the authorial gaze. While these poems are conscious of their sources and their audience, they are most aware of the power and difficulty of speaking. I Am the Most Dangerous Thing is a debut collection that confronts violent structures, especially those that perpetuate misogyny, antiblackness and homophobia, by amplifying and complicating a lyric “I” capable of supposition, disruption and becoming. 


Asa Drake

Asa Drake is a Filipina American poet and writer in Central Florida. She has received fellowships and awards from the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest, Tin House and Idyllwild Arts. Her chapbook, One Way to Listen, was selected by Taneum Bambrick as the winner of Gold Line Press’s 2021 Poetry Chapbook Contest.

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