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 friends’ and enemies’ children’s children—our our and our all.
The biblical cadences suggest a cross-temporal chorus, generation after generation praising and lamenting in hand-me-down terms, and a world that does not, itself, change; but the crises that threaten Earth also threaten such beautiful continuities. For a dying man, the certainty that he will be the only thing missing after his death is some comfort. Here the whole planet becomes a question mark.
Poets have always had an advantage over other mortals, in that their souls, verifiably present in language that predated them by years or centuries, could therefore be counted on to outlive them. If I got half of my mind and two thirds of my emotions from George Herbert, there’s something like an afterlife for George Herbert; maybe I can be, for some midcareer poet of the twenty-fifth century, proof of his own potential immortality in the hearts of poets of the twenty-ninth century. It’s sort of a crazy idea, until you realize that I’m writing about, and you’re reading about, George Herbert. This is the contrary of the idea that the planet won’t exist, or that human interiority will be devalued, or just that the fewer and fewer people who read poetry will dwindle to none. If the collective “our” recedes, individuals will be stranded, beached, with only their memories.
The late poems here mostly jettison the stately syntax, deployed elegantly across lines longer than anyone’s, that made Williams famous. Their tone is edgy, sometimes loony, caffeinated:
Da Da Freud, Ma Ma Marx, growly Uncle Sartre—what a theory zoo to do your adolescence in.
Everything’d been figured out, dialectic existential ego schemes—such fun, but then, oh my,
reality arrives—the sergeant at the draft board roaring if we ran away they’d bring us back in chains…
This is a midcentury American adolescence, trading the despotism of family for the thrall of Freud, Marx, and Sartre, and, finally, for the threat of the army: “oh my” is what we say about something we should have seen coming, but didn’t. Even a person’s era of radical freedom, seen from his seventies, seems, in retrospect, bound by the choices available to him:
Chant to me of ba ba bliss, choir to me your fee-fi-fo of fucking, your merry-go-round of disheveled beds.
The music stops, but the “drum” of the beating heart, louder than ever now, keeps time:
I close my eyes and there we are again—I can hear the music but who knows what any of it meant?
Gone the dancing, gone the bliss, just those errors and illusions that stud our ancient hearts like nails.
There’s plenty here to resist—the “dancing” and “bliss” and “ancient hearts” imply that some of the illusions have stubbornly clung to this speaker—but the overall experience of reading these late poems is, as Williams intended, powerfully sad.
Williams struck me as a courtly, old-fashioned person, whom the news of shame and the unconscious hit, when it hit him, in adolescence, hard; thereafter he was a divided soul, the chivalric side at war with desires deemed subhuman by a human stationed, after all, intentionally high. He is always the one on the stand, he and his shames; and he is always the one cross-examining, he and his conscience. The stand-off is often baldly expressed:
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 so long ago that thing I said?
If he who rakes me with such not trivial shame for minor sins now were there then,
shouldn’t he have warned me he’d even now devastate me for my unpardonable affront?
I’m a child then, yet already I’ve composed this conscience-beast, who harries me:
is there anything else I can say with certainty about who I was, except that I, that he,
could already draw from infinitesimal transgressions complex chords of remorse,
and orchestrate ever-undiminishing retribution from the hapless rest of myself?
Narrative anecdotes take, often in his work, a rather heavy frame. As “The Gaffe” continues, we learn that Williams, as a boy, said something unconscionable in front of another boy whose brother had died:
We’re joking around, and words come to my mind, which to my amazement are said.
How do you know when you can laugh when somebody dies, your brother dies?
is what’s said, and the others go quiet, the backyard goes quiet, everyone stares,
and I want to know now why that someone in me who’s me yet not me let me say it.
The world outside determines the rules, but not the content, for what’s inside; the “Gaffe” here isn’t wondering about whether one can laugh, but expressing it out loud. (Williams might have had Michael Kinsley’s oft-quoted definition of “gaffe” in mind: a true statement inadvertently made.) The “conscience-beast” and the “chords of remorse” appear in practically every successful poem Williams ever wrote.
It was Yeats who nailed it, in “The Choice”: the residue of living amounts to “the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.” A poem can unite vanity and regret, since it holds onto multiple frames of experience. But not every poet writes well in both modes at the same time, in the same poem. Williams came after a generation of American poets, Lowell and Sexton and Plath and Berryman, famous for polar swings between the two states of being; it must have been very weird to feel that these swings of emotion were somehow necessary, a requirement of the art.
In his contests between civility and shame, Williams can sometimes chase himself in circles: often the poems are composed of considerations reconsidered and second guesses second-guessed. We miss the urgency of lyric, its imperative to say what must be said before the anvil falls. But we get, in Williams’s poems, a wonderfully complete arc of emotion that most poets only violently bisect. A sly Ovidian poem, “Wood,” builds several stages of awareness into its opening lines:
That girl I didn’t love, then because she was going to leave me, loved,
that girl, that Sunday when I stopped by and she was in bed in her nightgown
(it only came to me later that somebody else had just, good god, been with her),
that girl, when my hand touched her belly, under her plush mesh nightgown,
began turning her belly to wood….
The poem begins with the end, the last time “the girl” and Williams make love; that “wood” (and, later, “steel”) represent the tendency of real things to stiffen and freeze when we remember them. This one last visit is already part of the work of art into which it will eventually be turned. The two senses of “love,” and the very carefully placed comma before “then,” give the “girl,” though rendered passively, all the power; after all, it is she who “was going to leave me.”
“Wood,” like so many other poems of Williams’s, is about his need to turn flesh-and-blood experience into art, the costs of that need for both experience and art; the artificial passivity of the entirely-too-active “girl” stands in for Williams’s narcissism, his ability, loathsome for him to behold, to turn anything into the wood and steel of art, of a Williams poem. We go to him for this conflict, and to see how the lyric art can make sense of its own limitations.
He is less successful when he turns to public themes, mostly because his inveterate inwardness, his filigrees of concentration and attention, seem at odds with the situation. The page after “Wood” there occurs another poem about a “girl,” this one called “Cassandra, Iraq.” Cassandra is an Iraqi girl who, like her namesake, can “foresee and foretell” the future; this is around 2006, when the rest of us were grappling with our own inabilities to prophesy the depths of the Iraqi disaster.
At the beginning of the poem, Cassandra is “magnificent, as we imagine women must be/who foresee and foretell and are right and disdained.” By the end, she’s abducted and killed in a way even she can’t predict. The poem can’t decide whether to keep Cassandra a myth, and thus a legitimate symbol for our own complicity in the Iraq war, or to acknowledge that many women like her were abducted and killed. The two impulses, one driving him toward myth, the other toward documentary grit, can’t be coordinated, and the poem fails.
Williams’s poems relied more than they should have on demonstrations of his goodness and sympathy; we don’t usually take people at their word who claim such virtues. It makes for sometimes repetitive reading, with poem after poem demonstrating the essential decency of its author, usually by outing him as indecent or contemptuous. The finest things in his work are flashes of dreams and surreal spectacles, nightmares beyond the nervous patrol of his guilty conscience, like the marvelous numbered sequence “Symbols,” published in Williams’s excellent 1997 book, The Vigil. Here is section 4, a terrifying poem, “Dog”:
Howl after pitiful, aching howl: an enormous, efficiently muscular doberman pinscher
has trapped itself in an old-fashioned phone booth, the door closed firmly upon it,
but when someone approaches to try to release it, the howl quickens and descends,
and if someone in pity dares anyway lean on and crack open an inch the obstinate hinge,
the quickened howl is a snarl, the snarl a blade lathed in the scarlet gape of the gullet,
and the creature powers itself towards that sinister slit, ears flattened, fangs flashing,
the way, caught in the deepest, most unknowing cell of itself, heart’s secret, heart’s wound,
decorous usually, seemly, though starving now, desperate, will turn nonetheless, raging,
ready to kill, or die, to stay where it is, to maintain itself just as it is, decorous, seemly.
Williams usually had an easier time than this remaining decorous and seemly, whatever the announcements to the contrary. The poems in Falling Ill join dozens in his Selected Later Poems that will last, since they show us, deeper, perhaps, than he intended, the trapped dog inside the booth.