Now in his seventh decade, C. K. Williams has published many books and won the big prizes, but the poems in Wait are fresh—he does not merely rely on old blueprints, but continues the struggles that have preoccupied him throughout his career.
The poems in C. K. Williams’s new collection Wait include all the elements that his fans expect and cherish: Bawdy lines—”A basset hound with balls/so heavy they hang/a harrowing half/inch from the pavement”; Compulsive self-analysis—”Ten times an hour, it feels like, I arrive in my brooding/my fretting, my grumbling, at enormous generalizations, ideations, intellections, speculations, which before/they’re even wholly here I know I’ll soon disprove.” Also moral scrutiny, lust, and wit; long lines and big thoughts; poems that are complex but accessible.
Williams is frequently compared to Walt Whitman, and his poems do often evoke the Whitmanesque sense of a headlong rush, of trying to say it all. However, Williams’s lines are more tightly controlled than Whitman’s. They evince the discipline of Auden, the lyricism of Yeats, the anguish of the Russians, and occasionally the extra dimension of Rilke and Blake. His poems frequently contain contradictions, both stylistic and linguistic. They are impulsive and restrained, intellectual and everyman. “The Gaffe,” the first poem in Wait, opens with a koan-like question:
If that someone who’s me yet not me yet who judges me is always with me,
as he is, shouldn’t he have been there when I said that thing so long ago that thing I
That riddle-ish line requires parsing, it slows us down, it is not what we expect from the opening line in a volume of poetry. Convoluted syntax continues in the next line:
If he who rakes me with such not trivial shame for minor sins now were there,
and through the first section, which exposes the heart of the poem, and of Williams’s oeuvre: “the conscience-beast”.
I’m a child then, yet already I’ve composed this conscience-beast, who har-
Then, immediately, in the second part of the poem, the language relaxes. Then comes the gaffe of the title.
We’re joking around and words come to my mind, which to my amaze-
ment are said.
How do you know when you can laugh, when somebody dies, your brother dies
which leads him to the inquiry that will stay with him for life:
and I want to know now why that someone who’s me yet not me let
me say it.
I started reading Wait during an unseasonably hot spring day that sent me to the shade of a thick-branched oak tree. Several poems in, I noted that it there was an animal in almost every one, but that they were not soft pastoral poems; they were both meditative and gritty. I was wondering how Williams does that so well when a green creature, the size of a grain of rice, inched over the top of the book. Inchworm, I instantly thought, then paused, unsure. It was a lovely shade of green—apple green, spring green—and so delicate. Weren’t inchworms more brown and hefty, like a centipede? I flipped back a few pages to the poem Marina, which begins,
As I’m reading Tsvetaeva’s essays,
“Art in the Light of Conscience”,
stunning—”Art, a series of answers
to which there are no questions”—
a tiny insect I don’t recognize
is making its way across my table.”
And so I was reading Williams’s writing about a tiny insect he didn’t recognize making its way across his table while he’s reading Tsvetaeva, when a tiny insect I didn’t recognize made its way across my (his) book. I started scribbling a poem in response, right there on the inside cover of the book, but it quickly became all too meta, and another inchworm/rice-grain/apple green/ critter was crawling down my blouse, so I turned back to the poems.
Wait is filled with animals, especially in the first section, whose titles include “Cows,” “Thrush,” “Wasp,” “Fish” and “Blackbird.” Upon reading them, you may anticipate nice haikuish nature poems, but you can bet the house that C. K. Williams will interrupt beauty with a blunt instrument. “Plums” addresses that head-on:
All the beautiful poems
about plum trees in flower
gold in the moonlight
silver in the silvery starlight
Lovely, right? Flowers, gold, silver, moonlight, starlight. Wrong.
None of the poems mentions
either that when the hiding
fruit falls, the same flies
that invade to inhabit
fresh dog shit are all at once
there in the muck of the plums
Many of the poems are like short stories or essays, but with the music, language and shapeliness of poetry—there is a narrative arc and unique characters. In “On the Metro” the narrator has to ask a young woman to move her packages to make room for him—
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in from of her,
and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptations to Exist—and no-
tice her glancing up from hers
to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms
herself physically,” that is,
becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before
How much we learn in those eight lines! It is easy to picture the scene—the book the glance, his awareness of her presence—that phrase, “becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before” succinctly characterizes something I too have experienced but never captured conceptually. That is perhaps my favorite thing about the poems of C.K. Williams, dating back to Tar—his ability to paint a very particular moment that can blossom into something personal and meaningful. James Joyce described epiphany as when a piece of art reveals “its soul, its whatness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.” Williams’s poems have an abundance of soul, of whatness.
Williams pays homage to other writers and thinkers in several poems. In “The Foundation,” he runs through the wreckage of the building he used to live in, a building filled with intellectuals, until he finds his poets, his Rilke, Yeats, Keats, Herbert, Donne, and many more, “which is why I can whirl through the rubble of everything else.” In “Jew on a Bridge” he rewrites a scene from Crime and Punishment, imagining the poet Paul Celan as the Jew Raskolnikov sees on the bridge. The majestic, musical, mournful “Still, Again: Martin Luther King, April 4, 2008, is seven heart-crushing pages in which he imagines what King would see if he were to return to earth.
Now in his seventh decade, C.K.Williams has published many books and won the big prizes, but the poems in Wait are fresh—he does not merely rely on old blueprints, but continues the struggles that have preoccupied him throughout his career. His age and experience deepen the poems—every one evokes both beauty and melancholy. He gives you plums in one hand, dog shit in the other, and makes something extraordinary from them.