Fuelled By Fear
A pessimistic meditation on the world brims with visual richness
By Cyril Wong
While reading various online reviews of C.K. Williams' latest poetry collection, I came across one on Bookslut.com that categorised the Pulitzer Prize winner as a "professional imagist". According to that particular review, professional imagism has been one of the dominant veins in American poetry. Here is a quick definition of a professional imagist poem, quoted from the review: "The professional imagist poem is committed to clear, compelling lines composed in service to easily visualised images, intended to extend to wider explorations of human emotions, behaviours and patterns. It depends on the execution of poetic techniques…usually without using codified poetic forms."
Definitions like this make me uncomfortable only because the reading of poetry can be — at least for this reader — such an intensely subjective, volatile — and even ineffable — affair.
Sure, the delineation of traditions and styles is necessary if you want to launch into an academic study. But there is something about a poem as an art form that is full "of answers to which there are no questions" — a quote by Marina Tsvetaeva that Williams uses and responds to in a poem elegising the Russian poet's tragic life in the face of constant persecution. I take Tsvetaeva's passionately hyperbolic description to mean that there is something stubbornly mysterious that nevertheless moves us to express ourselves, something inexpressible that stays inexpressible, even when it has been translated into art. Clichéd analogies about the layers of onions and never stepping into the same river twice come to mind when describing the experiencing of art or poetry. Countless analogies like these exist precisely because there will never be that fundamentally singular way of defining what impact a poem has on readers; or, more specifically, perhaps, on readers like me.
That said, I realise that I have put myself in a bind. How do I write about a book without falling into that trap of too-easy categorisation? Perhaps a few of my toes will get caught in the metal jaws of glib, academic summation that passes for critical objectivity—but such a risk is worth taking in the case of reviewing Wait, C. K. Williams' latest. So, to get a few toes out of the way, let me just state right off that I think C.K. Williams is in love with the long free-verse line. Just like the Bookslut reviewer wrote, I agree that Williams' expanded sentences are full of "easily visualised images" and "emotions, behaviours and patterns". But his poetic lines, when they do stretch beyond conventional lengths, are also graceful, flexing with a bravely moving desire to encapsulate a scene, a revelation and a feeling—usually of awe, doubt, despair, hope, or all of the above. Scenes in the poems are often distinctly American, and can be urban or located in nature. Nature and animals appear a great deal, especially in Wait — arguably more so than in the poet's previous collections.
Almost exploitatively, animals are used to reflect private, existential anxieties. But, on repeated reading, the juxtaposition between animals and humans can also suggest that the hierarchical divide between sentient creatures is potentially a fallacious one.
In "Thrush", for example, the poet compares a negligent female thrush with a young human mother who looks like she might discard her Down's Syndrome infant. The thrush is threatening to abandon her malformed offspring after failing to teach it to feed; the too-young, human mother, "with smudged eyeliner, scuffed shoes / and a cardboard valise" is rushing her infant in a pram like "a battering ram through the oncoming crush" of a crowded train station. After this comparison, Williams suddenly ends the poem with an observation of bats "who materialise, vanish, / and appear again, their own after-selves, their own ghosts."
There are always aspects of nature that our limited expectations prevent us from seeing, aspects that can shock us with their intimations of unexplained callousness and their impenetrable mysteries. Yet, nature has no issue about its mysteries—it bears them without a thought or sense of dread; unlike us, who tear psychologically into ourselves to explain and explain what they could possibly mean, so as to make sense of randomness, inherent cruelties, and the unifying inevitability of death. Abruptly, a poem like "Thrush" yanks us down to the level of amoral birds and bats to show that we, too, are not what we tell ourselves we are; we, too, can be composed of our own shady "after-selves", our frightening alter egos or Mr Hydes.
In another series of deflating parallels, a crying girl whom Williams passes on the street is compared to vulnerable cows, whispering, Save me! Save me! ("Cows"), whilst Tsvetaeva, who was exiled and later hanged herself in her homeland, is compared—for all her tragic experiences which ineluctably shaped her views on art—to a tiny, anonymous insect that "circumnavigates the table" and does not know "it's back where it began" ("Marina"). Since his 2003 collection, The Singing, Williams seems to have diminishing hope for history and the world at large, especially since 9/11 and the troubles in the Middle East. A persistent darkness haunts his poems and is barely contained by their tonal restraint and sparing imagery. It is a hopelessness that moves, nonetheless, taking this reader on a quick trip into the poet's internal chaos, before drawing me out again to perch on the cliff's edge of an elegantly extended sentence, the modest ledge of a swiftly crafted image.
As the poems progress, readers soon understand that their author's pessimism, projected relentlessly onto the natural world, is born of a sense of profound disillusionment with his cultural milieu. In "Rats", vermin "skulking / in cellars" become linked to "the president / and his energy-company cronies (who) still insist / global warming / isn't real"; these "rats", now politicians and business CEOs, are "shining and fat…devious, ruthless, / rapacious" and everyday the poet professes to "loathe / them more." The poems, at this point, segue smoothly into poems not only of people, but also the ideologies and institutions that rule over them, both in the past and the present. That presidential clown, George W. Bush, appears now and again in cursory, but also suitably unflattering, ways. In "Lies", for instance, a poem about how kids are taught by adults to lie, ends up being about the "politics of relation…or, more depressingly, / just politics: a president with features like a child, / so blankly guileful in his lying that one might half-believe / he half-believes himself."
As Williams is a Jewish writer, the Holocaust inevitably haunts the poet's consciousness and memories, blending into a broader, contemporary sense of political and social malaise. In "Prisoners", a memory of a German prisoner-of-war shaving with "a long straight razor, glinting, slicing down", provides the analogy for the violence we can commit not only upon each other but also—and, just as importantly to the poet—to one's individual humanity.
The godlessness exhibited by the enduring horrors of violence and oppression throughout recent history is re-stated as undergirding present-day America, a superpower founded ironically upon supposed Christian values. Such values, used both as justification for political oppression overseas and self-affirmation, come under attack in "Assumptions". This poem is one of the best examples of how Williams' flexible, long lines work to carry and thrust ahead dramatically elaborated arguments: "That there is an entity, vast, omnipotent but immaterial…intended its legitimacy / to be transferred to various social institutions, which…would have the prerogative to enact in its name anything necessary for the perpetuation of their dominion…that all this will continue…these binomial mental knots we suffer and destroy for…on and on and on." The poet has no faith in a divine creator whose name is invoked repeatedly to condone acts of war and subjugation. The lines pulsate with impassioned philosophical debate and righteous condemnation, riding on wave after wave of despair.
But such long lines can sometimes threaten to careen out of control from the earnestness of ceaseless elaboration. This happens already in the first poem of the collection, "The Gaffe", in which the poet regrets something he said at a funeral when he was only a child, and laments that the human conscience has no sense of good timing: "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?" Later in "Vertigo", the poet—who has fallen ill—feels as if he is being thrown off the world for real, and uses lines with too many double negatives to express an ever deeper and surreal sense of being riven: "the world is torn…from itself…you are not to lie down, / you are not not to think. // The whirling is yours, / but also the world's: / you are not not to think."
The world can be lost, not just through literal sickness, but also through the sickness of immorality. It is a world that continues to be morally sick even in the 21st century, a fact that Williams laments rigorously through the resurrected figure of Martin Luther King. In "Still, Again", one of the most famous human-rights activists of all time is forced to return from the dead. This is because the bloodied wheels of injustice are still turning in the present. Williams' long lines now eschew punctuation, becoming reminiscent of W.S. Merwin's, even Ginsberg's, with their rhetorical figures of excess, such as repetition, zeugma and the run-on cataloguing of scenes seriatim.
The movement from underground is nightmarishly captured with King rising to surface where living inhabitants are infected with both literal diseases like AIDS and a moral corruption: "through the darkness under their wilfully unseeing country country wilfully deaf to the death / pouring through it groaning and sighing beneath it its weapons and wars its moral obtuseness". Then, later, in the multi-sectioned poem: "Underneath everything money under the government under the waste he still senses the money…congressmen and their lobbyists all driven by greed mindless heartless…money with its infinite sinkholes of infinite greed Oh still Oh again". The last two exclamations fused at the end of Williams' sprawling rant are repeated with mounting despair and horror throughout the sections, indicating that nothing has changed for the United States, such that King must rise up again like a raging, Christ-like hero to finish what can never, at least not in the poet's mind, be finished.
This apocalyptic vision of the world is reminiscent of the war-stricken writings of Walter Benjamin ("Theses on the Philosophy of History") and ("Death Fugue"). These essentially Jewish figures merge on a bridge in the book's final poem, "Jew On Bridge". The poet recalls a scene in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, where the protagonist, the progressively insane ex-student, Raskolnikov, spots a random Jew on a bridge and expresses anti-Semitic loathing for him. Williams' poetic lines have, by now, retrieved all their punctuation, but a general, hypnotic effect is not lost, as the central figure of loathing on a bridge on Neva fuses gradually with these dead literary heroes who have reacted — at the expense of their own lives — against the social injustices of their time. Williams himself becomes part of the symbolic amalgamation: "His parents had died in the camps. Of typhus the father. Mama probably gun. / Celan-Antschel…stood on the bridge over the Seine, looked into the black milk of dying, / Jew on bridge…As in Celan. His father's name: Benjamin. / As in Walter. Who flung himself from life, too, with vials of morphine."
By aligning with Benjamin and Celan, Williams is acknowledging, with great reverence, humility and conviction, a literary lineage and his own responsibilities in the present as a critic of historical violence. Benjamin's notion that society is built on acts of barbarism, and Celan's "black milk of daybreak" ("milk" as life contaminated by the "black" of violence in a German concentration camp; "daybreak" referring to a sky stained by the ash of cremated Jews) in his Todesfuge, are evoked in a poem that expresses the poet's inability to live with a world that is still wrong ("Oh still Oh again") in so many ways; so wrong that writers like Benjamin and Celan retreated by committing suicide (Benjamin by morphine; Celan off a bridge) in their own century: "Celan on his bridge…Jew on bridge. Raskolnikov-Dostoevsky still in my breath. Under my breath. / Black milk of daybreak. Aschenes Haar. Antschel-Celan. Ash. Breath."
Those, like Williams, who have not died from all that "shame for the humans, / what humans can do to each other" continue to carve breathless, grief-stricken responses against the grain of an ever-darkening present, its darkness too readily hidden by the glare of celebratory, hegemonic accounts of history.
Wait casts its critical eye far and wide, critiquing both natural and social spheres to expose their shared core of moral emptiness, denial of which is manifested through meta-narratives of spiritual destiny and cultural progress in countries like the United States. Williams has no delusions about the actual godlessness that fuels our contemporary world. His occasionally stuttering, mostly urgent and expansive poems do far more than collect and interweave ideas, images and moments for aesthetic or intellectual ends, or to further a literary career. The poet's desire to write is surely founded on panic and the fear that our world could very well be spinning ruthlessly out of control.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010