Review: You Know Who You Are by Ian Williams

Monday 27 June 2011
Kristen den Hartog and Ian Williams will read from their new novels at Bryan Prince Bookseller (Hamilton) on Tuesday, June 28 at 7:00 p.m. In anticipation, I'm posting a review from 2010, which was originally published in H Mag.

Even before cracking the spine of Ian Williams’ debut book of poetry, You Know Who You Are, a reader can conjure up images of what the collection might be about. Two letters on the front cover, highlighted in red, stand out from the others, “U” and “I.”

As predicted, many of the poems in You Know Who You Are explore relationships, but not in the flowery voice of many poets who idealize them as two people becoming unified as one. Williams’ poems on the subject are often about the way relationships divide or polarize two distinct beings. “If you won’t say, I won’t say,” writes Williams.

Williams excels at using poetry to express the often-unspoken conversations that exist between two people as they resist saying the things that they need or want to say. “Just your throat moves as you drink back everything left to say,” he writes in a poem called “Notwithstanding.” At times, sentences in You Know Who You Are trail off, unfinished, as though Williams himself has more to say.

While Williams has been published in many literary magazines, such as Fiddlehead, Arc, The Antigonish Review, and Descant, You Know Who You Are is his first collection of poetry. It has been published by Hamilton’s Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. In 2011, he will release his first collection of short stories, called Not Anyone’s Anything. Ian Williams divides his time between Ontario and Massachusetts, where he is a professor at Fitchburg State College.

While romantic relationships are common in the pages of You Know Who You Are, they are not the only theme Williams explores in depth. He also dissects and challenges stereotypes, in particularly those involving young, black men in urban settings, and the societal expectations of masculinity placed upon them.

“Folks like us, we don’t get assassinated, we get shot,” writes Williams in one of his grittiest poems, called “Code Blue: Medical Emergency (Adult).” Readers can’t help but be drawn in by William’s abrupt, stark language, laced with words that make readers uncomfortable: punk, visceral, machete, gansta. Luckily, for readers, these grim tales are infused with humour, spotlighting Williams’ obvious wit.

Williams’ ability to easily transition between scenes of gloom and pessimism to scenes of hope, makes You Know Who You Are a diverse collection, rooted in authenticity and powerful words. It is an especially good read for those living in Ontario, as many of Williams’ settings are familiar, from the shores of Lake Ontario to the Don Valley Parkway.

Ian Williams read from You Know Who You Are on Sunday, November 7 as part of the Lit Live Reading Series at The Sky Dragon Centre.


  1. I don't know if you heard, but Williams didn't make it to the reading as his house in the US apparently burnt down. Hartog was there, and I really enjoyed her reading. The folks at Bryan Prince were wonderful too. And there was wine!

  2. Oh, I hadn't heard that! That's terrible. I ended up stuck at work late that night, and couldn't make it to the event. Hopefully he will be back soon. (And hopefully everyone involved in the fire was okay!) Sounds like you had a great night despite it. Wish I could have made it out.


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