Vanities & Regrets

Oliver Morris/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
C.K. Williams, Princeton, New Jersey, 2009


C.K. Williams died in 2015, just before the publication of his Selected Later Poems, and before his moving final volume, Falling Ill: Last Poems, saw the light of day. Williams was known as an unsparing chronicler of shames, a tender observer of human misery, a man of refinement somewhat ambivalent about the comforts and adventures available to him. His long lines and his flaneurish gambol made him a latter-day Whitman, but Williams lingered on his subjects almost uncomfortably, his gaze a form of dissection. He was very, very tall, 6’5″—a fact you can deduce from his poems, many of them based on long views, views out of windows, unobstructed views down avenues and lanes. He was also a basketball recruit at Bucknell who transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Paris.

The poems of Falling Ill are some of the most irritated ever written by a dying man, the humiliations of Williams’s diagnosis and treatment anatomized with exasperation. Williams was always a poet of impatience and pique, welling up suddenly in poems ostensibly composed, mellow, civil, or celebratory. In the first of his “New Poems” collected with his “Selected Later” work, Williams addresses subject 1.0, the sun, in a key of dangerous, careening praise:

O sun, bright star, our star, dearest, nearest, how solacing you remain, how consoling your illuminations,
What relief on a day in our epoch of dire planet anguish to have you flinging your reliable light.

Oh, cosmological fast-baller, underwhelming only to the demented, like that saint who conceived you
“groaning for deliverance,” which he promised in the end you’d “trade your shining carapace for.”

The poem, “The Sun, the Saint, the Sot,” is improvised, or feels so: the word “sun” giving us (via the Latin root sol) both “solacing” and “consoling,” the Frisbee’s “flinging” become a “fast-baller”’s pitch. The utterly characteristic moment, though, is that wonderful “demented,” which makes the subject of the poem not the unknowable sun but all-too-knowable, frolicsome, flippant humans, some “saints” and some “sots,” who provide Williams, here as everywhere, with such reliable grist for his irritability machine.

The italicized “our” suggests a late fixation of Williams, whose poems about twenty-first-century planet peril rank among the best of that now-crowded genre. From “Tears”:

Not sweet my own crying-not-crying, not hungry or angry these tears that keep rising then stopping,
tremblingly shimmering higher inside me than ever but never spilling, never releasing—

this silent sob, this unuttered wail, this dolorous weeping for our our that sends its bitterest burning
from my conscience to its fountain of tears to the arid well of my eyes with their taps ever shut.

Our our, meaning our land, our oceans, our sky, our trees, animals, insects—who else’s are they?—
And our children, their children, our…

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