I lost my best friend in the world of writing, Dennis Williamson. You might have known him as Dennis Villelmi, the pen name that he usually favored. And if you did know him, you know how haunting and intricate his work was. Poets are often a despondent lot. I don’t think many of my peers would disagree with that statement. And I don’t think that Dennis would object to me saying that his writing projected a unique darkness.
Also unique was his poetic voice. It was baroque and arcane both. Dennis studied philosophy as a young man at Old Dominion University in Virginia, but that was only the starting point for a life of independent classical study. He grew to learn so much about antiquity that he could pass for a university professor. He certainly loved all things Roman. In my review of his superb 2014 book of poetry, Fretensis: In the Image of a Blind God, I wrote that he employed an “encyclopedic knowledge of ancient history, myth and religion.”
A poem by Dennis could begin along a country road as familiar as the one just beyond your yard at twilight. And you could become so mesmerized by the scenery that he’d painted that you wouldn’t notice the road changing beneath you, until the moment you looked down to realize you’d arrived along a midnight Appian Way — or some darker thoroughfare. Dennis was called a “horror poet,” a term that never sat well with me, as I thought it understated the depth of his work. He wrote of unpredictable highways and infernal termini. Never were his visions for the timid.
But the man stood in contrast with his art. Dennis was a good and kind and unwavering friend, with whom it was easy to laugh and pass the time. We’d become colleagues about a decade ago, when we started submitting work to publishers at about the same time, and we’d supported each other since as fellow scribblers. We later became co-editors of a dystopian literature journal with a dear and mutual friend in Britain. We used to joke that we were each the other’s “wingman” — referencing the cheesy 1980’s fighter pilot movie at which everyone in our generation looks back and laughs.
We spoke to each other as men only can when they trust each other entirely – about women, ambition, screwball acquaintances, weird readers, the ghosts of our boyhoods. He put me at ease in a way that no one else could. I told him shortly before he died that he was “the only one who really gets me.”
He was righteous — in an age when the distinctions between right and wrong often take a back seat to tribalism and mudslinging. His sense of justice held a kind of … revulsion at the unjust. He abhorred a bully and despised a demagogue. You could hear it in his voice when the subject of those men arose in conversation. He didn’t suffer the unkind kindly.
“Why is he always so dark?” a reader once asked me about him. She was referring to the shadowy and Lovecraftian vistas of “Fretensis” and all of his writing, along with the Stoic philosophy and Gothic art that he found and shared online. Dennis explained it to me once. (He’d fielded the question himself often enough.) I will probably do a poor job of paraphrasing him here, but I will try.
His motifs were never meant to glorify death. Like the memento mori that he loved, they were only meant to remind us of our own mortality – and our existential need to live a life that was good and purposeful. He was preoccupied with hardship and longing — but only because of how we might become better people despite their effects on us.
Dennis was sharp. There was wisdom to be found along the complicated byways of his heart — and an enduring goodness.
There is a funny thing about darkness — a portion of it is always your own. It is not the dim of the distant wood, but the shadow that ever arranges unannounced, faithfully, at your feet. You needn’t fear it — it is yours. After all, you are the one who made it. And its silhouette will inform you of precisely where you are in the world. You can think about how you got there. You can think about where you would like to go next.
I don’t know where Dennis is now. I think of the other worlds, beyond this one, that he imagined in his art. I do not know if they exist, or if they are as lightless as he often envisioned them.
I hope not. When I someday leave this place for another, as he has now, I hope there is light enough where I arrive.
I hope it will not be too dark for me to find my friend again.