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Incongruous Light

Two poets illuminate their separate worlds.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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The poems in C. K. Williams’s Wait are written in the long conversational lines we now expect from this poet. Like Simic, Williams reports upon childhood during World War II and the Cold War. But for Williams, meaning is more affective than ironic. He, too, has an eye for oblique and isolating situations, but he stands closer to his subjects. Wait opens with a poem, “The Gaffe,” that is about a child’s innocent mistake. Out in the yard of a house where a boy’s brother has just died, the speaker, a young Williams, asks without thinking first, How do you know when you can laugh when somebody dies, your brother, dies? The rest of the children go quiet, the backyard goes quiet. And the speaker wonders why that someone in me who’s me yet not me let me say it. And, he adds, Shouldn’t he have told me the contrition cycle would from then be ever upon me, / it didn’t matter that I’d really only wanted to know how grief ends, and when? There is a gentle insistence to Williams, a kind of wised-up hope—a cast of mind that Henry James might summarize as “American,” especially were James contrasting this with Charles Simic’s understanding.

In “Thrush,” Williams reports such things as the mothering by a thrush who takes care of one healthy baby but also cares for the one that will not make it. Or he describes the anxiety of a young mother hurrying by with her Down’s syndrome infant in a stroller. For Williams, these situations are alike in terms of the care they demonstrate. In a poem entitled “Cows,” Williams sees a related situation in the coincidence that occurs between a girl / on the road from the village who stands brokenheartedly crying and some heifers, / each with a numbered tag. The cattle are destined for market, one assumes, but for now they stand bawling over “the fence,” expressing what Williams imagines to be “Feed me!” but also “Save me!” / Save me! Save me! Save me!

 The girl cries and the cows bawl from alien universes, but Williams lends a sympathetic ear that places everything in one location, where the reader is to “wait,” in the sense that a poem requires we stop to consider, start to care. As the title poem puts it, we are to “wait” for the “Chop, hack, slash; chop, hack, slash” of time but also, mysteriously and generously, for the happiness of being alive. Or as Williams says, I should tell you too how happy I am, / how I love it so much, all of it, chopping and slashing and all.

“The Gaffe,” “Thrush,” and “Crows” open Wait. Each describes a situation requiring that we pause. Williams is keenly aware of the evil humans can do to each other, but he also acknowledges the good. Williams is the product of modernism’s refashioning, but he is of romantic stock, too, in that the power of experience derives from something at once external and internal, objective and subjective.

The half-line quoted above comes from “Jew on Bridge,” the last piece in Wait. This is a poem that ranges from Dostoyevsky to Chekhov to Celan to understanding today, especially as we review the troubled 20th century. How does one respond to our recent history, cross the bridge or jump from it? Where is the good to be found here? The answer, in part, is that one waits.

"Teachers,” “Steen,” “Rash,” and “Clay” are poems that report their worlds as follows. “Teachers” catalogs “Sleeping halls” populated by those like shades of lives never to be lived. “Steen” describes predation / inherent in .  .  . vehement need. “Rash” cites generalizations that clog one’s heart, foliating / from I dare not entertain what stony, nettled soil. But then there is another aspect to all this, as the poem “Clay” argues. What continues, we are told, is the need to stay / in the fire, and wait, not knowing if the waiting will end, if you might / waste what you have. The positive outcome, when it occurs, results thanks to the fire of a kiln in which two / figures in terra-cotta have been hardened, and thanks also to the maker’s ability to wait for the fire to do its work. The good end here results from patience.

In “Among the Exiles” Charles Simic says that On the use of murder to improve the world, / They had many vivid memories. And in “The Invisible” he tells us of vast terrors concealed / By this costume party, such a party being made of things vulnerable and beautiful, Of flowers and birds / And children playing in the garden. Or in “The Toad” Simic concludes:

God never made a day as beautiful as today,

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