The Poet’s Prose

Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself by C. K. Williams. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. 170 pp. $21 hardback.

Repair by C. K. Williams. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999. 69 pp. $21 hardback.

As Reviewed By: Preston Merchant

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.[private]

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:

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.[/private]

About PMerchant

Preston Merchant has worked as a documentary photographer; he is at work on a project on the worldwide Indian diaspora. A preview, and other galleries, are available at his website. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Tameme, and Verse. He also edited the special feature of Verse on poets from India. He lives in New York City.
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