Back to Issue Sixteen.

On Phillip B. Williams’ thief in the interior



Mighty, visceral, courageous, smashing, subversive, lyric, brutal, insurgent, passionate, blunt, and heartbreaking—the adjectival could continue on Philip B. William’s poetry debut collection Thief in the Interior but, perhaps, the effect is more important to describe:

1) I’m in a city park in Austin on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Everyone is white and walking a dog.
2) Trump incites racial violence in Chicago.
3) Over my morning coffee, I watch Charlie Rose interview Toni Morrison: “Will you ever not write about race?” Rose’s southern accent thickens. Morrison calls his question illegitimate. “As though our lives have no meaning without the white gaze.”
4) I’m not American. I understand more than ever why American writers need to move to Paris.

And Williams’ knife-sharp thoughts come slicing through skin: “Can I only be one thing at once?” “Did aesthetes go blind when the myth looked back?” “Will I, too/ forget my dead brother and turn my head like a page?”

Thief in the Interior is not light reading, thankfully. Rage and pure passion jump off the page. Formal structure is imposed—effectively disarming the enemy and using a weapon of theirs against them; these structures are used with both skill and force, creating evocative images that writhe with their own simultaneous beauty and strength. Through these pages, the invisible war unfolding is brought to a new light, a necessary confrontational gesture for Americans who only see their latest app and their Wal-Mart carts. The poems of Thief in the Interior are written, it seems, with a chisel. His “shape” poems overlap and leap from verse with desire, uncontainable, like music into the head.

In the second section of the collection, “Witness,” we are pulled into the POV of a duffel bag carrying body parts: “…my zipper mouth dangles a miniature lock. With what would you test/ the dark belly of the fissure, unlock skin till it clicks and slides from itself a lit/ candle? Tell me, what would be the point, then, to see?” In fact, the word “mouth” appears frequently throughout the section, and ultimately calls attention to another of the collection’s explored themes: the relationship between the physical and the body. Hands, throats, bones, “severed penises in jars/ strangely priced.” Williams writes, “I can’t stand my own body. My body can’t stand itself,” and even, “My body don’t/ give a damn about me like my mind do.” “There is rage in the chicken fried so hard/ the bones edible.” In these moments it is most clear that Williams is not writing to shock, but rather is writing from desire, a desire to transcend.

The concluding tercet of “Of Contour, Of Cadence,” show another side of Williams, one more delicate and fine:

But I believe we are, inside, all blue, you said.
Listen, neither we nor the blue make sky.
The earth spins and we, utterly, are spun.

Williams’ ardor shines through his vulnerability, and in these moments, magic sparks: “Look how a lilt of dust is built to serve/sits on the lips like a song with no verse.”

From ““INHERITANCE: The Force of Aperture,” Williams writes:

Our dead, once forced to reject the ground
for rope and air—sky hued erotic there
in the leaves—now forced to the ground, backed
into morning headlines, their minced codas
between weather and traffic, a jarring revision:
white writhing over black, the American aesthetic.

Thief in the Interior does what a collection of poems should do. It draws its reader in and forces its reader to think, to admire, to observe, to question and to whip out the notebook and go nuts on the adjectives—dynamic, robust, dominant, vigorous, inventive, vigorous, original, musical, original, and adroit. Yes, I could go on, but I think I need to do what Williams is asking a reader to do, and take a deep look at this country and wonder if it could ever be a home.


Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the Co-Editor in Chief of the online journal Vinyl.


Thief in the Interior
by Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books, 2016
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-938-58417-6
100 pp.


David Morgan O’Connor is from a small village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he is based in Albuquerque, where a short story collection progresses. He contributors monthly to The Review Review and New Pages. His writing has appeared in Barcelona Metropolitan, Collective Exiles, Across the Margin, Headland, Cecile’s Writers, The Great American Lit Mag, Bohemia, Beechwood, Fiction MagazineAfter the Pause, and The Guardian, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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