Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sunday Poet: C.K. Williams

The Doe

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I'd only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.


Bialystok, or Lvov

A squalid wayside inn, reeking barn-brewed vodka,
cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense
in a village church, kegs of rotten, watered wine,
but then a prayer book's worn-thin pages,
and over them, as though afloat in all that fetidness,
my great-grandfather's disembodied head.

Cacophonous drunkenness, lakes of vomit
and oceans of obscenities; the smallpox pocked
salacious peasant faces whose carious breath
clots one's own; and violence, the scorpion-
brutal violence of nothing else, to do, to have,
then the prayers again, that tormented face,

its shattered gaze, and that's all I have,
of whence I came, of where the blood came from
that made my blood, and the tale's not even mine,
I have it from a poet, the Russian-Jewish then
Israeli Bialik, and from my father speaking of
his father's father dying in his miserable tavern,

in a fight, my father said, with berserk Cossacks,
but my father fabulated, so I omit all that,
and share the poet's forebears, because mine
only wanted to forget their past of poverty
and pogrom, so said nothing, or perhaps
where someone came from, a lost name,

otherwise nothing, leaving me less
history than a dog, just the poet's father's
and my great-grandfather's inn, that sty,
the poet called it, that abyss of silence, I'd say,
and that soul, like snow, the poet wrote,
with tears of blood, I'd add, for me and mine.


The Inn
by Emmanuel Moses
Translated by C. K. Williams

A little wine
on this deep wound
that opens in the evening
when outside the cars honk
and passerbys laugh
shouting to one another
animated by a gaity
incomprehensible to the one
who watches from behind the shutters.

He daydreams, suddenly absent-minded,
of that woman he met two days before
and murmurs her limpid name
to hear it spread through the bedroom.

Suffering comes from elsewhere,
what matter if is reflected
in each word
he has learned a certain number of
helped by aging,
noteably that it’s necessary to love
who’s with us, who goes before
and awaits us,
seated at the nocturnal inn.



I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll to have my height incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person" he chanted "I'm not I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice person either" but I couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed it both of us knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor heard no one was there
Some biographical information from the author's website:

C. K. Williams is the author of nine books of poetry, the most recent of which, The Singing, won the National Book Award for 2003. His previous book, Repair, was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and his collection Flesh and Blood received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He published a memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself, in 2000, and has published translations of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Euripides’ Bacchae, and poems of Francis Ponge, among others. A book of essays, Poetry and Consciousness, appeared in 1998. Recently he was awarded the Twentieth Annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, an honor given to an American poet in recognition of extraordinary accomplishement. Among his honors are awards in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Voelcker Career Achievement Award, and fellowships from the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003, and teaches in the Writing Program at Princeton University.

The elegance of Williams' long poetic lines does not translate well to the internet -- you'll need to truly experience his work on the page. Perhaps that is why so few of his poems are available on the web.

He is one of the most recognized poets in America if you simply look at his awards, but he is seldom read and does not even appear on the Modern American Poetry website. That lack of acknowledgement is strange. Perhaps he is a challenging poet, one who makes the reader think too much? I don't think that can explain it.

Williams is one of my all-time favorite poets, one of the few that I come back to first when I have not read poetry in a long time. I love his lines, his imagery, the way he embeds phrases within phrases, deepening the language, building associations, making visible what is only felt. He sees behind the surfaces in his verse, and offers us an understanding of ourselves we do not always welcome, but are often glad to have.

On the Metro

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me;
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptation to Exist—and notice 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: though she hasn’t moved, she’s allowed herself
to come more sharply into focus, be more accessible to my sensual perception, so I can’t help but remark
her strong figure and very tan skin—(how literally golden young women can look at the end of summer.)
She leans back now, and as the train rocks and her arm brushes mine she doesn’t pull it away;
she seems to be allowing our surfaces to unite: the fine hairs on both our forearms, sensitive, alive,
achingly alive, bring news of someone touched, someone sensed, and thus acknowledged, known.

I understand that in no way is she offering more than this, and in truth I have no desire for more,
but it’s still enough for me to be taken by a surge, first of warmth then of something like its opposite:
a memory—a girl I’d mooned for from afar, across the table from me in the library in school now,
our feet I thought touching, touching even again, and then, with all I craved that touch to mean,
my having to realize it wasn’t her flesh my flesh for that gleaming time had pressed, but a table leg.
The young woman today removes her arm now, stands, swaying against the lurch of the slowing train,
and crossing before me brushes my knee and does that thing again, asserts her bodily being again,
(Gombrowicz again), then quickly moves to the door of the car and descends, not once looking back,
(to my relief not looking back), and I allow myself the thought that though I must be to her again
as senseless as that table of my youth, as wooden, as unfeeling, perhaps there was a moment I was not.

C. K. Williams on the web:
National Book Award Foundation
Threepenny Review
Poetry Magazine
Academy of American Poets
C. K. Williams page at Blue Flower Arts

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