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C. K. Williams' poems have always been
characterized by a dark, almost voyeuristic perspective, usually on urban scenes of human
drama (whether or not his speaker stands in the middle of it). Williams' trademark long
lines are usually of two minds--either they try to gather in every detail, not pausing to
digest them, believing that the accretion will not overwhelm in the end, or they follow an
idea relentlessly, turning it over and over, until some sense can be shaken out. Once
called "garrulous and melancholic," he is an observer as much of the
machinations of the mind as of the disturbance out his window.
In our self-indulgent age, it is refreshing to read Williams'
memoir, despite its talk-show title. In Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself,
he attempts to make sense of his relationship with his parents and to come to grips with
their deaths but does so without offering the bloody details of their dysfunction. Indeed,
in a departure from his poems, he works hard to avoid them. This is not a confessional or
tell-all endeavor but a meditation on a child's access to his difficult parents over time.
Misgivings doesn't seem like a poet's book. Details are
sparse. We do not learn, for example, his parents' names or the towns where the family
lived or hear anecdotes richly described. Williams is interested extracting meaning from a
series of impressions, especially as he investigates the forces that have shaped him:
I've had great pleasure in my inflictions, if I can call them that.
Perhaps what I really mean to do is to endow my father in my memory with more
self-consciousness than he would himself have had in generating the formulae he and I
conspired in concocting, for after all, there had to have been something like a conspiracy
to have made me what I am.
A child's eternal question, after his parents' deaths, is to wonder how
conscious they were of the cruelties and inconsistencies that molded his childhood.
Williams knows that parents are as much creations of the child's mind as they are
flesh-and-blood beings. "I am speaking of my parents as though they were
emblematic of something," he writes. Relationships are constructs, fed as much
by will as by accident.
Misgivings is a series of short recollections, each
followed by a short meditation, rendered in italics. Williams ranges freely among his
memories and impressions, not following any sort of chronology. He was born into a
"frighteningly poor" Jewish family during the Depression. We learn that his
father was seller of business machines, known for his generosity and fairness in his
dealings. As a father he could be exacting and harsh. He was also quite tall, an immense
physical presence for Williams, then and now. His mother was conscious of the family's
social standing as they moved from poor to comparative comfort. These details really are
immaterial--in many ways Williams' family was no different from any other, despite their
milieu. What matters is how the fragments of his life coalesce in his mind, the literary
business far outweighing the need to chronicle a life and times. Maybe Misgivings
truly is a poet's book--memory stripped to its purest essence, rendered carefully and
thoughtfully. His prose is lucid, his extrapolations refreshing and clear.
Where Williams succeeds in Misgivings, he falls flat in Repair.
The collection, his eleventh, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was a finalist for the
National Book Award. Here, too, Williams is interested in impression and meditation, poems
that elucidate a situation like his mother's facial gestures as she drinks hot coffee in
the morning ("The Cup") and an elderly woman passing gas in a doctor's office
("Gas"). Other poems are removed from the here and now (or the there and then)
and rest in an ooze of sentimentality. "Lost Wax" begins, "My love gives me
some wax, / so for once instead of words / I work at something real." The
poet-sculptor fashions "a self" only to wonder, "Was ever truth so
malleable?" Likewise in "Archetypes," the poet in bed with his lover says,
"I waited, hoping you'd wake, turn, embrace me, but you stayed in yourself, / and I
felt again how separate we all are from one another." Such prosy pronouncements in
artlessly organized poems are really all Williams has to offer in Repair.
Avoiding terseness, compression of language, or suggestiveness of detail, the poems rely
on these tepid moments of revelation--but there are no surprises and no delights.
Two longer poems take up weightier subjects, Auschwitz and the
Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. "King" addresses a "tall, handsome
black man, bearded, an artist, in nineteen sixty-eight, in Philadelphia" two days
after the murder. The speaker sees him on the way to a memorial service when the man is
stopped by two white cops. The speaker ponders the symbolism of it all (now, thirty years
after the fact), believing that the cops would feel threatened by the presence of "an
uppity nigger." Williams' re-creation here, detached by its second-person stance and
commonplace sense of guilt, attempts to enter the minds of those involved:
But there would have been even more they'd have wanted to be sure you
were ready to break their fists on you, maim or kill you so that you'd
that their world would prevail, that authority, power, and absolute physical
with no ethical dimension whatsoever must and will precede all and resolve
and break everything down again and again into an unqualified dominion
This is really awful, especially for Williams, who rarely shies away from
plumbing the darker regions of consciousness. Indeed, what region is darker than the seat
of racial violence? Such an adolescent take on these events suggests that Williams has
bought into the English department's version of American history--that racial turmoil is a
simple matter of power relationships, that whites will protect their hegemony at all
costs. There is a moment later in the poem that serves to undercut some of his sanctimony;
the black man addresses Williams: "Don't tell me you know what I feel . . . And
please, please don't tell me again you can understand because you're a Jew." But
such gestures, indeed the sum of the poem, prove that these are not people but mere
rhetorical pegs on which Williams tries to hang a tired tale.
In "After Auschwitz," Williams visits the death camp
and finds "there was nothing / I hadn't imagined beforehand." The reader, too,
will not find anything new or trenchant in the poem. His declaration is that the Holocaust
will endure in us all, "a scar / a broken cry, within."
It's hard to know what Williams was after in these two poems.
They aren't really personal chronicles, though they try to be. They cover familiar
terrain, and Williams isn't an enriching guide. Indeed, throughout Repair,
Williams tries to force his way toward such simple conclusions. The flat, prosy lines and
casual, even simpleminded, linking of ideas produce only lightweight effects (in
"Dirt," he considers the soap his grandmother used to bathe him as a child:
"Might its bitter burning / have been what made me a poet?"). The poems are so
easy, anyone could have written them.