May 2010

Josh Cook

poetry

Wait by C. K. Williams

There are three dominant veins in contemporary American poetry: the hyper-minimalist with short lines, short stanzas, and microscopic focus; the post-surrealist with strange images and incongruous lines; and the professional imagist. The professional imagist poem is committed to clear, compelling lines composed in service to easily visualized images, intended to extend to wider explorations of human emotions, behaviors and patterns. It depends on the execution of poetic techniques such as enjambment, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhyme and meter, usually without using codified poetic forms. These poems tend to be subtle or simple. The simple poem can be understood on the first reading, revealing less and less upon subsequent study. Though they are not my preference, there is undeniable value in simple poems; they give readers a language for thinking about life by setting the phenomenon of existence in literature. The subtle poem describes more than what is is about; using its diction, structure, and image to explore wide swaths of existence; an exploration that deepens with each reading. Wait, Pulitzer Prize winner C. K. Williams's seventeenth collection of poetry, is in the professional imagist vein, containing both subtle poems and simple poems.

The best poem in the collection is “The United States.”  It opens with:

The rusting, decomposing hulk of the United States
is moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea,
rearing weirdly over the old municipal pier
on the mostly derelict docks in Philadelphia.

A lyrical map of a specific place that encompasses the international (“Ikea”), national (“United States”), and local (“municipal”) mesh of contemporary nationhood with the decaying remnants of our nation's past identity (“Columbus Boulevard” and “Philadelphia”) in four perfectly composed lines. The narrator then relates his ride on the United States when on “that first time I ran away to France / ...We were told we were the fastest thing afloat,” and brilliantly pictures the United States's post-war relationship with Europe: “At Le Havre we were out of scale with everything; / ...all the continent of Europe looked small.” But the poem is more than just an exploration of American gigantism; Williams' constant qualifying of terms, “mostly derelict docks,” “that first time I ran away to France,” “seemed a violation of some natural law,” “Europe looked small,” and “to be auctioned I suppose,” (emphasis mine) shows the poem is not about an unchanging monolith, but about the complexities and uncertainties of any identity and the changes all identities go through over time. Dramatically, we see Whitman, our great poet of individuality and inclusion, turned into a thoroughfare to conformity and exclusion: “...the bridge named after Whitman / hums with traffic towards the suburbs past his grave;” “past his grave,” in the sense of geography and in the sense of over his dead body. The poem closes with a complex image of our new globalized world that incorporates our attitude towards objects that have lost their use:

and 'America's mighty flagship' waits here,
to be auctioned I suppose, stripped of anything
it might still have of worth, and towed away
and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh. 

“Blackbird” has moments of both subtlety and simplicity. The narrator accidentally runs over a blackbird with his car and sees:

...him behind on the roadbed,
the shadowless sail of a wing
lifted vainly from the clumsy
bundle of matter he'd become.

The “clumsy/bundle” enjambment is jarringly charming, given the grisly image, and yet this adds to the visceralness of the lines around it; “shadowless sail of a wing,” and “bundle of matter he'd become.” The third stanza changes the perspective of the image showing us a farmer on a tractor, and then:

Out in the harvested fields,
already disked and raw,
more blackbirds, uncountable
clouds of them, rose, held
for an instant, then broke,
scattered as though by a gale.

Combined, the two images show the paradox of death; its simultaneous banality and uniqueness. But the second stanza in between is a NPR-caller critique of the Iraq war. I appreciate the idea of exploring death in Iraq with the images of the blackbird and the blackbirds, but it expresses mundane ideas endlessly repeated by the timid critics of the war. While the blackbird says more about death with each reading, the critique of Iraq says only one thing.

Unfortunately, there are more simple poems than subtle poems in the collection. Many of them seem to be narrations of Williams working things out; things I'm surprised a 74-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet hasn't worked out. “Assumptions” won't change anyone's mind about the logical absurdities of religion. “Light” is cutely lyrical. “Fish” rehashes “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” In “Mouse Fur,” Williams writes, “those meager, measly, alliterative scrabblings mincing along on metrical paws--” inadvertently describing much of this collection. Though the poems are well-structured compositions of artfully placed lines rich with the beauty of craftsmanship, the ideas are often “meager.” The best use for these poems is a quick read for the simple pleasure of well placed words.

However, there are three poems that stand out from the rest of the collection as being far more postmodern than Williams himself probably realizes. “Saddening,” “Shrapnel,” and “Jew on the Bridge” are “arrangements,” taking extant creative entities; the life and work of Coleridge in “Saddening,” a passage from Ian McEwan's Atonement and photos from a bombing in “Shrapnel,” and a passage from Crime and Punishment in “Jew on the Bridge,” and arranging them into new ideas, the way a DJ takes existing songs and creates a new entity, a “playlist” from them. In all three poems, Williams juxtaposes, riffs, wanders, and explores his sources, finding new ideas and new images in the old material.

In “Saddening,” Williams uses the story of Coleridge's relationship with his son to create an archetype for the creative genius who demonstrates a difference from society in addition to the substance of his genius. Williams arranges the story so that it acts as a parable without losing the appeal of a particular narrative. However, in “Shrapnel,” Williams falls to one of the challenges of arrangement; McEwan's passages are the most compelling aspects of the poem. Williams does well to juxtapose them with technical language, creating a tension between the science of wounding and the science of healing. And, “In the case of insufficiently resistant materials,” is a brilliant inversion of perspective; blaming the flesh for being pierced instead of the shrapnel for piercing. But McEwan's images are still the most compelling in the poem; the soldier weeping at the end packs a bigger emotional punch than the image of the father running with his dying son in his arms. For an arrangement to succeed, value must be added to all components through the arrangement.

The collection ends with “Jew on Bridge,” a long poem that is accorded its own section in the collection. That it concludes the collection and is the only poem with its own section grants it heavy critical weight in reading the collection. The poem explores a line in Crime and Punishment, where Rashkolnikov sees “Jew” on the bridge. Williams follows this moment to Paul Celan's suicide by throwing himself off a bridge, to Walter Benjamin's suicide, to convergences in his own life with the names “Paul” and “Benjamin.” At its core the poem is about profound otherness, about being other to Rashkolnikov, who is himself other to almost everyone else. In a way, this explains the tone of complaint in many of the preceding poems; Williams, whether as a poet, a political liberal, an intellectual, an aging man, or a Jew, feels his ideas are other, despite their rationality. There are some beautiful passages in the poem, “Then, on the bridge, hanging out of the plot like an arm from a car,” for example, and his frustration at Dostoevsky's objectifying of “Jew” (though I would argue Rashkolnikov is doing the objectifying) illuminates better than any other work in this collection our dehumanized system: “...Dostoevsky instead, whom I esteemed / beyond almost all who ever scraped with a pen, but who won't give the Jew, / miserable Jew, the right to be short, tall, thin or fat Jew: just Jew.” But even as “Jew on Bridge” explains the simplicity of much of the collection, it does not redeem that simplicity.

Sometimes collections like this are the hardest to review. I want more from Williams; I want him to start productive dialogues about war and religion and identity. I want some of my assumptions proved wrong. I want new eyes to see old problems. But at the same time hasn't Williams earned the right to create simple poems? And isn't there value in poems one can pick up, read, enjoy, and then set down?  But at the same time, in this hyper-comfortable over-entertained America, if our poets don't challenge us, who will? It might be best to call this a kindred spirit book; a book people will come to not because it leads them anywhere new or important, but because it tells the story of their own thoughts and legitimizes their frustrations by setting them in literature.

Wait by C. K. Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374285918
144 Pages