Alan Williamson, The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected Poems. University of Chicago Press, 2004. 245 pp.
As Reviewed By: James Rother
At your next party, try this on your poetry-loving guests. Ask if they can identify the trendy work in a foreign language from which the following, titled “Fallings from Us, Vanishings,” has been excerpted:
Sometimes you came home from the beach with a wasp-sting, or
a speck of sand that even the eye-cup wouldn’t wash out.
The day was troublingly larger for being spent
empty, among bodies—as if some great purpose
had been found or missed, looking out to the stationary
water-intake boat, the crib (did anyone live there?).
And when you got home, and the sun stayed insidiously
involved in your skin, all indoors seemed delicious
and temporary, like a glass of water. . . .
It’s unlikely anyone will see through the ruse that it is not a translation at all, but original verse written by one Alan Williamson, who, like his father George Williamson, noted expert on Renaissance and Baroque verse and responsible for such scholarly classics as The Donne Tradition (1930), The Senecan Amble (1951), Seventeenth-Century Contexts (1960), and The Proper Wit of Poetry (1961), is a professor of English with four books of criticism of his own to his credit, not to mention several volumes of verse, in line of which The Pattern More Complicated is fifth. No doubt there will be more books in his future and more party-game verse to play the poetry version of “Name That Tune” with, since its author looks neither particularly young nor startlingly old in the “after” photo gracing the back cover (a “before,” aged 11 or 12 is ranged above it). Indeed, he looks rather robust for being, as the lingua franca of the Catskills once had it, sixty years young.[private]
But damn it, it reads like a translation, of some postwar Italian (not French or German) Inferno resident—someone like Cesare Pavese, perhaps—who, started out as a poet but soon found himself (as did Pavese, circa 1935) drifting away from poetry toward a less constricting medium because dumbing ideas down to images had increasingly become for him a contrapasso to which no prior sin could be attached. (Oddly enough, the suicidal diarist of This Business of Living figures in the present volume’s “Deb’s Dream about Pavese,” joining Proust, Eliot, Rilke, Leonard Cohen, and others downloaded from High Culture as referential haunters of The Pattern More Complicated, for even whose title Williamson is indebted to one of the above—the author of “East Coker.” These debts are admittedly all annotated scrupulously at the back of the book, but the copiousness of the “Notes” section found there would make a better appendage to a scholarly study than a New and Selected Poems.)
Why is “Fallings from Us, Vanishings” so much like a translation? Well, for one thing, the meter through all four stanzas seems a thing imposed rather than one emerging naturally—though is it really possible to speak of meter when lines as ham-handed as “water-intake boat, the crib (did anyone live there?)” are in the in-basket? And for another, the cleverness of isolated phrases (e.g., “the sun stayed insidiously involved in your skin”) bears the marks of the small victory over refractory foreign idiom which any translator worth his salt can now and then pull off with a little help from the logopoeia at his command, and that heightens further the sense that what’s before us is something rendered rather than originally composed. And finally, the meaning of the poem as a whole (it goes on for another 22 lines) appears to hinge on some withheld nuance of the sort that evades even the best translation, capping the impression already conveyed that this little engine that almost could likely originates in parts where English is at best pidgin or the argot of diplomats.
It’s hard to put one’s finger precisely on what it is that produces that whiff of unachieved melopoeia wafting from so much American poetry these days, but one thing seems certain: it is as thick on and about the work of poets like Williamson as spoor on a tree rat. Nor does it always stand out as faux-translation or pastiche hugger-muggered into paraphrase. We lack an established term for the sort of remoteness from poetry in any familiar sense maintained by such as Williamson’s “Linda Does My Horoscope”:
“Let’s not talk about my life, but the Vikings won.
It’s a big deal here. In fact, I timed our call—”
“For after the game?” “And after the phone calls.
I’ve never seen a chart with so many retros.”
(Retrograde planets, that from earth’s perspective
seem to stop in their tracks, and then move backwards.
Ice-masses, recalcitrant, like the heavy atoms . . .)
“Retros mean . . . challenges. They can be opportunities.
You don’t get things done the way people think they should be.”
That last observation is true as well of Williamson’s approach to poetic realization, which on the rudimentary level of technique seems to favor proximate versions of the Virgilian hexameter (quantitative verse’s rough approximation of “so many words,” so many pedes, or feet). Not even the Mantuan weaver of eclogues (and spinner-off of Odyssean tales) managed to conversationalize his prosody quite so elliptically as the present infrequenter of the periodic. Where, one might ask, are the compensating elocution, eloquence and elegance that so memorably triangulated themselves to conjure the defining quality of the first (and—pace Pope and Johnson—only) Augustan verse? With a dozen centuries having elapsed since Virgil’s demise, Dante could appear similarly golden-tongued; but his mellifluence was always ballasted by a reverence for those spheres (and their Unmoved Mover) whose music he was bent on making audible. What appear in his grand poem merely stairs hellishly, purgatorially, or paradisally climbed were in fact the gradations of a reality-altering experience of whose teachings he was himself the most receptive ephebe. With The Pattern More Complicated, for all the ramifications of design that might be discovered therein, few poetic occasions arise that would provide warrant for the patterned complications Williamson’s verse titularly touts.
Don’t get me wrong: poetry, if of a slim sort, does flit in and out of the room Williamson poetically stores his duffle in. It’s just that the verse he tends to write doesn’t have much of a half-life beyond seeming to be the stuff of which his poetry happens to be made. Much the same might, of course, be said about the single-subject obsessing of the late Harold Brodkey, but he was a specialist in distilling attar of superbly alembicated, poetically drenched prose, the franchise to generate which gave him license to rear (by dint of supersensuous tectonics of whose paradigm shiftiness he was grand master) whole cotton-candy Sierras of family pathology and Atridean intramurals that, over a lengthy career, crystallized into a confectioner’s Pietà of perfidy. There surely are Brodkeyan resonances in passages like this, from “Red Cloud”—
Upstairs was ours, the children said. No grown-up
ever came up there—the unplaned beams and rafters,
the siblings’ cots, and then the nook she finally
made wholly her own, with the red-and-brown-rose wallpaper . . .
She dragged her bed to the window, hot summer nights
she’d rather have been out walking—as if her heart were spreading
all over the desert . . . vibrating with
excitement, as a machine vibrates with speed. . . .
Or maybe Brodkey rushes to mind here because of the marriage (morganatic, to be sure) insisted upon in doorstops by that author such as The Runaway Soul (1991) between ellipses and italics, the one bedding the other to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to tell which fakes orgasm less convincingly or shills most grubbily for its mate’s cupidity of affect. (Rother’s Law #116, or thereabouts: A novelist will commit italics when, like William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom, immortality beckons but true Innigkeit is not to be summoned. A poet will resort to italics when on the rare occasion of inspiration gripping him momentarily, the restroom beckons and there is no time or opportunity later to revise or fill in the blanks.)
I digress at Williamson’s expense, which isn’t entirely fair since in lemon-squeezing such tangents I am avoiding coming to terms with what keeps reconnoiters of the sort he favors from definitively crossing over into poetry’s principality. So let me get down to cases, the most salient of which is that Williamson’s verse sprawls without even appearing for courtesy’s sake dipodic, as, say, C. K. Williams’s does. I quote again from “Red Cloud”:
The streets themselves cobbled with brick. In the background, always,
the flat hot sky . . . as if it were a law that the soul
has to feed on what is most unlike it; that creation
begins in erasure—not just this place, but all Being
slipping past the horizon a block away.
The game of perspectival pushpin is here played accurately enough, but how is the use of poetry as a medium for conveying Pound’s “gists and piths” made justifiable by such slipshod prosiness thrust so distractingly to the fore? One wonders how contemporary poetry arrived at the not-so-pretty pass whereby sense, having filed for divorce from sound and rhythm and won almost unlimited alimony (despite their having run a ménage-à-trois), did not sue for custody of melopoeia and logopoeia, their twins from an earlier marriage. We are awash in poets who, though adequately endowed in the IQ department, are equipped with a hearing apparatus that couldn’t detect a syllabic clog if it set off a three-alarm contusion in their ears. “But after all this time put in with the W. C. Williamses and the Charles Olsons, does it really matter that they can’t?” I hear echoing from the back of the hall. “Aren’t immediacy, conversationally direct diction, and relationality to real things more important to contemporary poetry than the tradition-bound Kermess of rounds-and-rhyme?” If they are, one feels obliged to respond, then what is to keep poetry from capitulating completely to the sleekness, suppleness, and downright serviceability of prose whose sole reason for existing is, as Paul Valéry declared a century ago, to get its meaning across and, having done that, quietly disappear?
“Well”—to continue this colloquy (for not too much longer, I hope)—“what if poetry has, as some have long been suggesting, finally outlived its usefulness? What if book-bound typography in general (except, of course, soft-gel cybercopy) has outlived its usefulness and is hanging on by its fingernails in a world that is rapidly declaring its services no longer cost-effective (think of all those cross-cut trees)?” One’s answer to all such green-mile apocalyptisms has to be: Why pick poetry as the candidate most up for extinction when man himself is currently staring down a gun barrel of much more encompassing finality than what might or might not soon afflict clever enshroudings of verbal flies-in-amber? “But isn’t that precisely,” the questioner will likely retort, “what Alan Williamson and a lot of other poets writing today are most concerned with and that drive them in their work to pursue that one-on-one relationality, immediacy, and prose-like directness you’ve just been blaming them for?” A cogent response: I’ll ignore your having compromised your argument by painting yourself into the illogical corner of “If we’re all bound to die soon anyway, why should so much concern be expended on how many unmelodious poems get published?” sort of reasoning. The fact is that poetry is no more up for grabs in the apocalypse sweepstakes than are breathing and the consumption of food and drink. Prose may be functionally immersed in psy- and other ops, but poetry most certainly is not. At least, genuine poetry—by which I mean poetry of the melodiously insidious kind of which greatness and not just an engagement of the ear-pricking reflex is achieved—is not.
Now I’ve gone and digressed even further from my original objective, which was to nail down, so far as they are susceptible to being nailed down, those qualities defining Williamson’s otherwise engaging forays into origami that keep them from rising to poetry in the sense that ought by now to be accepted but hardly ever is. First, I should point out that true lilt and summoner’s magic are not missing from Williamson’s work from lack of effort or even inventiveness on his part. He tries—Lord knows, he tries, as below, in the opening of the far from unreadable “Dinosaurs”:
At the far end of an upstairs wing, and scarier
for the way the long hall darkened toward its midpoint,
just where the ribcage rounded overhead
and the neckbones began their climb. Of course he couldn’t
come alive; but if he did? On the high walls
strange waters, limber palms, filled out his world,
and the huge haunches, gray and thick as Sinclair
motor oil, crunched them down. Surfacing through time,
more bones, and dioramas. By the exit
a sabertooth has trapped itself
chasing a glyptodont into a tar-pit. . . .
To his not infrequent detriment as a poet, Williamson, hard-wired to be always looking ahead, is forever peering into the concavity of his own emerging articulations to obtain a fix on where it must all go next. In verse as hopelessly hamstrung by pre-nescience as this, the parade of significant and defining details always takes precedence over reason for arriving wherever the verse, by either hook or thematic crook, is ultimately headed. With “Dinosaurs,” the vehicle of choice is a video game-styled tour of a natural history museum as slick in its deployment of pop-ups and lyings-in-wait as—well, a video game’s. While the production values of Williamson’s high-def might pass muster with contemporary poetry’s enhanced virtuality crowd, his score for coordinating aperçus with suitable prestos and andantes is low enough to identify an ear better put to use bullet-listing glyptodo’s and don’t’s than snatching at Orphic plangencies with thumbs all a-twitter. One would think that when poems so often transgress the tentative in separating talkative verse from that which is merely talky, there would be no shortage of talking points to give coherence to what is being talked about in their earshot. To make such demands of Williamson’s pullulating discursiveness is, however, to misconstrue what he and his poems are about as they do the autumnals of Eden-in-receivership the way Debbie did Dallas (or one truncated to Deb, Pavese) in a version more explicit of that fall.
Just how operatic it gets may be gauged by the diva-gational pavannes Williamson sets in motion in “Puccini Dying,” whose “skeeky-Gianinni” persona confers little that is grata on the shade it purports to re-enliven. Still, in portraying the creator of Turandot and Madama Butterfly caught up in fending off moribundity as an artist and mortality as a man stricken with a tumor requiring him to embark for Brussels to have seven radium needles sunk into his throat, Williamson at least manages to capture a mover-and-shaker of audiences who suffered additionally from being a rag-doll for a gaggle of diversely deconstructive (and bottom-liningly farraginous) biographers. In the meantime between Puccinian downtimes providing the poem with its temporal frame, this remnant of a once over-darlinged virtuoso is being conducted to Firenze in his new Lancia to hear the work of a new composer whose music is the very antithesis of his own, one “who says/ you must not repeat a note/ until every note in the whole scale has been sounded.” (The young turk in question, as who could fail to guess, is Arnold Schönberg.) While mastering verismo shortcuts to the conveying of longing beyond even those perfected by Verdi, Williamson’s Erinye-ed protagonist has chalked up a sex life whose depredations are in every way done justice to by the mustachioed dandy who has been meeting the record-buyer’s gaze in liner-note photographs ever since the electrola emerged as a parlor necessity. In a final irony he might have seen fit to operatize had he lived longer, the one nubile and available female within reach who didn’t become his mistress was driven to suicide after having had “whore” screamed at her by Elvira, the composer’s wife—and all with the deus ex machina of cancer dominating the stage like the bat out of Cain’s hell (James M.’s, not the Old Testament’s) that marginalizes all other things of a feather in Puccini’s one blue-collar melodrama, Il Tabarro.
No trouble here (apart from the same old—and still troubling—absence of singing quality in Williamson’s verse): the subject is caught in headlights at least partially deserved, as the poem’s persona squirms between unconvergeable extremities (“I could not find the music / that would marry / the hero to the ice-princess in this life”). This self-pitying elegy-cum-confession then slams on the brakes to end with an italicized envoi which reminds us—as though we needed to be so reminded—that the man was never free of opera’s grip for a moment. What remains obscure, however, is why we were dropkicked into this scenario in the first place. The pretext for it all, while ostensibly Richard Howard-esque, pans out as rather less so, given the artificiality, even contrivedness, of the mise-en-scène. Determined apparently not to add another “Circus Animals’ Desertion” to the Anglo-American canon, Williamson was obviously pressed to find a vehicle for a Kodak moment of anguished innerness rather less hackneyed than recycled Yeats, and so what emerges is talk with no talking points to speak of.
Talk, then, is the ether as well as the phlogiston of Williamson’s voluble universe, advancing to primum mobile when certain recursive themes, like the bolus casually interpolated in “Highway Restaurant”—
You can’t quite say it: the joy comes from somewhere,
and while that doesn’t prove we’ll ever
wake up in a different river, in the sky,
it might just prove there’s an object equal to joy,
and if we don’t hold it in any one place, it’s only because it needs
so much to be everywhere . . .
—parade in dress blues. As an instrument of communication it is but a slender reed owing much to allusiveness and the boarding-house reach of its referentiality, a search engine with broad powers of attorney but no attorney-client privilege to float its divulgences useful cover. Hence unrestricted by scale of applicability it reaches (depending on one’s bearings) all the way up to Kafka up or down to C. S. Lewis; from the uncircumnavigable fire-ring of divorce to having to jump back, Walkyrie-less, onto a horse whose ride is as jarring and bumpy as the Executive Special rides at Disneyland or Universal Studios. True, a slew of confessional and post-confessional poets have harped endlessly on the theme that poetry is always the effluent of someone’s open mouth. But on those rare occasions when poetry really does earn its name, the voice whose cantoring sails above pricksong and descant makes threnody even of bedlams hoist on their own cacophonous petards. What poetry can’t sink its teeth into is the gallimaufry stirred up by figura battling disfigura for pride of place, and at too many junctures in The Pattern More Complicated the harmonium of poetics is totally swamped by an orchestral din of contending accidentals. Among these—and “Highway Restaurant” is as rich a source of exemplary instances as any—is the simple dimensionless talkiness objected to earlier. Its opening lines, amiably setting a course for shore-hugging rather than open-sea exploration—
We all have places we step out of time and are perfectly happy.
This is one of mine. Perhaps because it’s a place
where I can be grown-up yet have my childhood,
or because it took me so long to feel good in public alone,
without self-consciousness, chattering in my head,
that even looking at the bad mural with the mileages
to the cities, even lifting my water glass, is fun.
—tack on aimlessly, narrowly avoiding being beached by its own tide of trivia:
it might just prove there’s an object equal to joy,
and if we don’t hold it any one place, it’s only because it needs
so much to be everywhere . . .
Like the waitress. How I’m too shy to say more to her
(“More coffee?” “Please.” A good sunset’s over,
the long, flimsy curtains drawn . . .)
but when I go up with the check the girl at the cash register
sees her scrawl on the back and says, “Lisa Ann. She’s fun!”
This isn’t poetry. It’s George schmoozing with Elaine on Seinfeld.
Is Larry David vs. Goliath, or far-descrying Bathsheba, all there is to Alan Williamson? Of course not. Does it, however, indicate a weak sphincter past which much—ah, uselessly processed—material is allowed to course in poem after garrulous poem? That, I’m afraid, must be ruled on by the reader—which is to say he must either endure it flopping in his lap like a dropped trout or make creative sushi of it on his own. How this contemporary is struck by the sluice of doggerel continuing to deluge books and magazines of verse is to confess mourning the remoteness we all feel from such hat-tricks of modernism as Eliot’s “Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “Preludes,” or even more remotely (because in deeper code), Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I hate to sound like the proverbial stick-in-the-mud about this, but isn’t it time we declared a moratorium on “elegies” on the pattern of Williamson’s “Dream Without End”—
I have dreamed it again, the day that you came back,
Bruce, Dick, Charlie, all of us gathered somewhere in Ohio,
Bolt upright all night in a hotel room furnished only
With a square walnut table, then filing downstairs at dawn
As your Rolls Royce pulls up like an exiled Ukrainian Count’s, a hand
Sticks out, a Pope’s, with rings; then . . . Joel, death has been good to
You’re so fat you can’t stand, and wrinkles cover your eyes.
—and on Proustian somnolences whose engines are perhaps best left to doze on their own pages, being jumpstartable only by such terminal cranking of The Red and the Black as his “Fantasia on some sentences from Combray” can jar into motion:
I enjoyed watching the glass jars which the village boys used to lower into
the Vivonne to catch minnows, and which, filled by the stream, in which
they in their turn were enclosed, at once “containers” whose transparent
sides were like solidified water and “contents” plunged into a still larger
container of fluid, flowing crystal
After the horror, it was the first thing I could let myself do that wasn’t
looking at the horror. I chose a moment when I felt a little calm, and
made myself sit on the sofa until I had finished Combray. The book
itself made a container, gentle and crystalline, that permitted time to
flow. . . .
The first, on a very good day, might be rendered salvageable by a John Ashbery’s death-defying wit, but only because he and precious few others versifying today grasp the extent of the damage wrought by the termites of postmodernism on such fine old pilings as the traditional elegy. With the second, we are well into the post-pilings stages of poetic decomposition and must accept being at the mercy of the “prose poem” crowd thoughtlessly unleashed 150 years ago by Baudelaire and now morphed into a Hydra-headed pit-bull in our own pusillanimous post-contemporaneity.
To peruse The Pattern More Complicated is to sense how far we have fallen from the plinths of genius thrown up by modernism only to have declined into formlessness and fascist dyspepsia of the sort that triggers a cringe reflex whenever the Scylla of The Cantos and the Charybdis of “Burbank with a Baedeker” or After Strange Gods recall themselves to mind. Indeed, the current critical mind still has trouble wrapping itself around the fact that circa 1909 (!) the undergraduate Eliot was tinkering at Harvard not with the Tom Swift outriggers of his Crimson confrères but with Suprematist constructions, like the Malevich-out-of-Laforgue “Spleen”:
Sunday: this satisfied procession
Of definite Sunday faces;
Bonnets, silk hats, and conscious graces
In repetition that displaces
Your mental self-possession
By this unwarranted digression.
Evening, light, and tea!
Children and cats in the alley;
Dejection unable to rally
Against this dull conspiracy.
And Life, a little bald and gray,
Languid, fastidious, and bland,
Waits, hat and gloves in hand,
Punctilious of tie and suit
(Somewhat impatient of delay)
on the doorstep of the Absolute.
I know, I know—that was then and this is now. None the less, one can’t help marveling not at how close the above exercise is to the “Prufrock” we remain in awe of, or at how blithely it skips ahead, past Eliot’s own Gilbert & Sullivan-esque adjudications of spiritual horror, to W. H. Auden’s capitalized but decapitated personifications (Life, the Absolute), but at the already—or in this poet’s case, always already—supple musicality ever apparent in not just its lines but its spaces as well. A stich like Williamson’s “I háve dreamed it agáin, the dáy that yóu came báck” may meet the minimal requirements laid down for iambic hexameters, but where in its twelve syllables is so much as the merest trace maigre of a singing quality to be found? Not even from the alliterative bounce day reaps from dreamed is any verbal magic gleaned, leaving one to wonder further at the ham-handed dearth of assonance discernible in the line’s sound tracking of vowels. To quote the imprecation-spraying Daffy Duck, how downright depressing—not to mention pedestrian and predictable—such verse sounds. And how unlike the manner of “Prufrock,” the shock of which lay, according to J. Isaacs, “in irony, the lunatic incoherencies and disconnectedness, the unrelated asides, the unpoetic language, the colloquialisms intermingled with romantic and Shakespearean lines, the sharp juxtapositions, the persistent irrelevances. . . .” As unfair as it might now seem to pit Williamson’s cruise-ship risklessness against Eliot’s daring voyage beyond the Hebrides, to gauge what is truly problematic about the declination from the one to the other it is necessary to admit up front that, as a poet, Williamson is as destabilization-prone as the relatively youthful launcher of “Prufrock.” But note how dull and void of effulgence such devices seem in, for example, “The Light’s Reading”:
This poem, dedicated to the painter Edward Hopper, attempts to limn in spoken language that artist’s graphings of loneliness, of solitude cross-sectioned by medians and standard deviations from who knows which American pipedreams of alienation. It fails of its aim because, though managing to call forth from painterly memory (and unpainterly desire) any number of Hopper-like black holes, it verbally conjures little more than a grand lacuna into which whole museums of American sentimental realism topple and vanish. To find Williamson at the top of his bent, one must turn to those poems in which he labors in some better poet’s light, as in the quite remarkable Dantean pastiche “Speakers from the Ice,” or the diptych made up of “MLA Notes (1988)” and “MLA Notes (1998).” In the last of these (beginning with a quote from—you guessed it—Cesare Pavese), Williamson for once doesn’t duck the swirling crosswinds of his own freed-up metric and actually sounds like a poet might sound, if only for a moment or two, his beaten breast could be separated from its security hairshirt of the prosaic. To judge how much further as verse “MLA Notes (1998)” rises from the run of Williamson’s mill, it is necessary to reproduce it at full stretch:
This, despite the persistent Objectivist tic of short lines ticking off prepositional phrases, is about as good as Williamson gets. Though by no means poetry to die for, it at least isn’t verse dead on its feet and too lazy to drop. These days, even a fleeting taste of the not so fleeting can seem nurturing, if not nutritious enough to put real flesh back on poetry’s bones[/private]