Feature > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems (NewSouth, 2010) and The Pilot House (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). His new collection, School of the Americas is due out in 2012, also from Black Lawrence Press. He is a Pushcart Prize winner for 2012.

David Rigsbee reviews "Wait" by C.K. Williams

by C.K. Williams

144 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Buy this book through our Amazon.com bookstore and support The Cortland Review.

Williams gained wide notice and admiration using the long line and publishing the wide book. It seemed quintessentially American, yet what that national adjective comes to stand for has never been for a moment uncontested. As proof of his bona fides, Williams sees to it that his claims on the modifier come complete with their own antitheses: what he affirms is undone in the unconscious, in the night, in the secrets of our dual natures, most especially in our idealism's clash with convention, the Imp of the Perverse's tussle with the Deathmaster from Germany at one moment, with the steely orthodoxy of a Dante at the other. But wait! Such dualisms are reserved for the old guys, aren't they? No, Williams seems to say: they are up-to-date as are the vexed contents of our psyches.

It's no accident that the poem "Shrapnel" and the poem "Assumptions," poems about, respectively, violence and religion, share a form: the long-limbed, Whitmanian line with its bills of lading, its whiplash, even its longeurs, grouped into stanzaic phalanxes. After all, it was this form that Williams used to reload after venting his spleen on all things Nixonian (did he make the "Enemies List"? he should have...) in the falling-down 'Seventies. In "Shrapnel," Williams adopts a straight face and clinician's language to lace up his outrage at the violence to which flesh in warfare is visited:

      In the case of insufficiently resistant materials, the shards of shrapnel can
           cause "significant damage";
      In human tissue, for instance, rupturing flesh and blood vessels and shat-
           tering and splintering bone.

Similarly, in "Assumptions," the poet rises to a dry, high-church register to hold religion's (and God's—known here as "the entity") grip on History up for ridicule and to reveal its necessary ties to violence:

      That inherent in these interpretations was the thesis that the now silent
           entity intended its legitimacy
      To be transferred to various social institutions, which, though in no obvi-
           ous relation to it itself
      would have the prerogative to enact its name anything necessary for      
           the perpetuation of their dominion.

      That what is often specified by the inheritors of those thrice-removed
           sanctifications, that certain other groups,
      By virtue of being in even potential disagreement with the entity's even
           tacit wishes, become offensive,
      And must be amputated, slaughtered, has been deduced correctly from
           these syllogistic tangles.

It's as though Williams has thrown in his lot with the "Brights," who don't need an inexplicable, transcendental loom to keep rainbows from unweaving. But Williams' beef with religion is not directed at spirituality as such, but at the clerical and political power freaks who invariably show up to co-opt its authority and bend it to nefarious ends. Ultimately he is more nearly a Kierkegaardian, for it is the struggle that yields art, and therefore we like, in some way, that struggle. The result is the scar carved upon the given smoothness, the figure on the ground, after the struggle abates to a ceasefire. If Emerson's term "alienated majesty" still has application, it applies to the poetry of Williams. As he writes in "Brain,"

      I began to wonder in dismay if the conclusion I'd long ago come to that
           there can be nothing
      That might reasonably be postulated as the soul apart from body and mind
           was entirely valid.

For him it's not a question about an external scheme that validates and underwrites the workings of consciousness. It's a realization that wonder (and it's flip side, cruelty) are both in some sense privatized in the process of our knowingness:

      this sensitive bit
      of cosmos that streams

      towards us, like filing
      to magnet, then shyness,

      timidity, then, sometimes,
      deep reasonless

      fear, a rankling,
      even, absurdly

      like anger, soon cooled,
      then knowing,

      knowing, without
      knowing how

                         —"The Glance"

As Iago says, "you know what you know." And that means our knowing—without wonder's Wonderbra-style ethical uplift—that evolution does not mete out goodness to tip the scale toward our ideals:


      One branch, I read, of a species of chimpanzees has something like terri-
           torial wars,
      And when the .... Army, I suppose you'd call it, of one tribe prevails and
           captures an enemy,

      "several males hold a hand or foot of the rival so the victim can be damaged at


Or as Eliot, who plays apogee to Williams' perigee in just about every other orbit, famously wrote, "with such knowledge, what forgiveness"? One wonders if even forgiveness quite gets Williams' mature dismay or helps ease the improvisational overtime of his own idealism. That very idealism is the issue that permeates Wait, and the obstacles looming in its way constitute the most interesting subject matter. I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn's self-representation as the rebel calf butting heads with the Soviet oak. In "Wasp," Williams has his own version:

      That invisible barrier between you and the world,
      between you and your truth... Stinger blunted,
      wings frayed, only the battering, battered brain,
      only the hammer, hammer, hammer gain.

As all of Modernism has taught, you don't do this with the expectation of knocking over the tree. Nor is it all the empty heroism of Sisyphus. As Williams tells us in 'The Foundation" (and as has been the case with other poets), his pantheon consists of agonists like himself ("Watch me again now, because I'm not alone in my dancing"):

      But Vallejo was there all along, and my Sidney and Shelley,
      my Coleridge and Hopkins, there all along with their music,
      which is why I can whirl through the rubble of everything else,
      the philosophizing and theories, the thesis and anti- and syn-,
      all I believed must be what meanings were made of,
      when really it was the singing, the choiring, the cadence,
      the lull of the vowels, the chromatical consonant clatter...

     Watch me again, I haven't landed, I'm hovering here
      over the fragments...

But the wages of improvisation are often either zealotry or a too-facile equanimity. Williams acknowledges both, but succumbs to neither. Perhaps of all the poets I have reviewed in the last few years who exhibit signs of a lingering duality (and while philosophers are keen to do away with it, it remains in just about every poet's kit bag) as an enabling ambivalence, none surpasses Williams for in his uncanny characterization of the B-side: the shiny ambivalence that papers over a lack of commitment, a lack of empathy—often of non-human beings, our biological others:

      On the sidewalk in front
      of a hairdresser's supply store
      lay the head of a fish,
      largish, pointy, perhaps a pike's.

      It must recently have been left there;
      its scales shone and its visible eye
      had enough light left in it
      so it looked as they will for a while

      astonished and disconsolate
      to have been brought to such a pass.


Such mental travel makes skepticism raise its head. The classic version for poets is the one told by Issa, whose emperor dreamed he was a butterfly who woke up and couldn't decide if he was really an emperor—or a butterfly. In Williams' version, he asks,

      Will I be myself again
      now. Must I always
      forever and ever
      be me? Without wings?
      O butterfly, without Issa?
      Without wings?


That the here-not-here of skeptical wondering might not be available one day is a question for this poet. As the poem suggests, it might leave him wingless, and no poet is down with that. There's that big alienation Emerson spoke of again in the "Must I..." of self-inquisition, which we can also translate as "why can't I be a poet of a better age"?

But it would not do for Williams to succumb to ordinary skeptical moves, finally, for, as Jordan Smith neatly put it, poetry is "a believer's art." It's just that that belief needn't connect up with orthodoxies, for, as Coleridge knew, poetry was a further—possibly the furthest—emanation of belief's program: it conditions consciousness itself. Williams is a poet of the complication of consciousness (and its look-alike conscience) chief among which is the issue self-consciousness. It's that split-focus and the dualism inhering thereto that feeds the skeptical muse. We have Baudelaire to thank for that (Williams mentions him as a master), but no poetic antecedent is necessary to account for the battle royale between the minatory I whose bluster is a dead giveaway for trouble and his scofflaw counterpart, the Other. In fact, Williams practically bangs the gong for his subject in "Gaffe," which also happens to open the volume. In this poem, the poet recalls a faux pas that occurred in his childhood and finds it emblematic of his later career's chief themes:

      I'm a child then, yet already I've composed this conscience-beast, who har-
           ries me:
      is there anything else I can say with certainty about who I was, except that I,
           that he,

      could already draw from infinitesimal transgressions complex chords of

      and orchestrate every-undiminishing retribution from the hapless rest of

The gently rolling polysyllables of these Latinate lines run aground at the realization that the ego is not in control:

      We're joking around, and words come to mind, which to my amaze-
           ment are said.
      How do you know when you can laugh when somebody dies, when your          

           brother dies?

      is what's said, and the others go quiet, everyone
      and I want to know why that someone in me who's me yet not me let
           me say it.

In "Light," the poet reprocesses the duality of self-perception, combining that with a test involving another species:

      I think of a troop of the blissful blessed approaching Dante,
      a hundred spheres shining," he rhapsodizes, "the purest pearls..."

      then of the frightening, brilliant, myriad gleam in my lamp
      of the eyes of the vast swarm of bats I found once in a cave..."

                                                              Dante again,
      this time the way hell refer to a figure he meets as "the life of...,"

      not the soul, or person, the life, and once more the bat, and I,
      our lives in that moment together, our lives, our lives,

      his with no vision of celestial splendor, no poem
      mine with no flight, no unblundering dash through the dark,

      his without realizing it would, so soon, no longer exist,
      mine having to know for us both that everything ends,

      world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away
      like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.

The question of competing narratives is not only a hallmark of the skeptic, it's key to understanding what we mean by authenticity—a quality to which poetry has traditionally clung and one which underwrites the art's claims to prestige. It used to be that philosophers and poets parted company over the question of what constituted the truth of content—was it words verbatim or words generally? In other words, is truth subject to paraphrase? For the philosophers, meaning was capable of being translated whole, while for the poets, there was nothing that passed for paraphrase. It was an early argument for measuring worth and what's what:

      Ten times an hour, it feels like, I arrive in my brooding,
      my fretting, my grumbling , at enormous generalizations,
      ideations, intellections, speculations, which before
      they're even wholly here I know I'll soon disprove.
      Yet knowing I'll refute them, knowing I'm not qualified
      to judge them, still I need them, still forgive me, cherish them.


Death and memory also bring up these considerations: is memory a kind of presence, or does death disqualify presence altogether? Are we left only with images, representations, and symbols? This was, again, Yeats' subject: how does representation intersect with presence? It's another variation on the old, "is that all there is?" In "Peggy" we find,

      But now, the false-mullioned windows,
      the developer's scrawny maples, the lawns—
      I don't know what to do with it all,
      it just ached, like forgetting someone
      you love is dead, and wanting to call them,
      and then you remember, and they're dead again.

But regardless of his forays and probings, he circles back in a motion whose recursive loops enact and reenact the doublings of consciousness, often verging on paralysis, the avatar of Prufrock and his Edwardian curlicues:

      I want to act not because I've coerced myself to,
      but because I'll have responded from the part of myself
      that precedes will, residing in intrinsic not projected virtue.

      I have no wish to be good, or pure—inconceivable that—
      but I wish not to have to consider who I am or might be
      before I project myself into quandaries or conflicts.

      All this that I crave, which I know my craving impedes,
      the absurdity of which might diminish further who I am
      and what I stand for, if that's the term, to myself—

      (can one stand for something to oneself? can one not?)
      I've never found a shred of evidence for in myself . . .


Williams rightly turns to the example of Paul Celan, for if there is one way to entertain a modern notion of authenticity it is to consider the centrality of the margins, and what more marginally emblematic person can there be than a Jew in the Holocaust?

      Celan was so sick of the Deathfugue he'd no longer let it be printed.
      In the tape of him reading, his voice is songful and fervent, like a cantor's.
      When he presented his poem to some artists, they hated the way he recited.

                         —"Jew on Bridge"

But artists find a way to take such loathing as approbation, and Williams was long ago admitted to their crew. After all, he's one of those guys who will say anything. For all that, we also know and feel that what sets his art apart is not his Baudelairian mental scouring, his political and moral outrages, nor his philosophical plate-spinning, but his capacity for tenderness, which is the real measure of his—of anyone's—humanity. I say this with the realization that I risk turning an omnivorous poet into a quiet vegetarian. The title meanwhile directs our attention in two directions. There is the sense of wanting to stay ("Stay, thou art so fair!"), of the times, the poet's age and mortality, and of our—the reader's—time. There is also the sense of expectation and eventuality, of hope that somehow, as none other than Yeats fantasied, it might still be otherwise—and we be souls rising in spite of ourselves to some heaven of our imagining that rises in turn to meet us. And we might be, even though we aren't. And it might be, even though it isn't.


Robert Bly
Climbing into Bed


Susan Wheeler
From "The Split"


Ellen Hinsey
Notes On The Progress Of History