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C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams

C. K. Williams has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. His most recent book of poems, Wait, was published in 2010, as was a prose study, On Whitman. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.


Does it really all come down to the woman in the dry-cleaner's who by her

     vociferous silence
and the way she flings them down let's me know she's espied the indelible

     yellow driblets

on the lining of my pants and hates me for them, thrusting them with loathing

     into their plastic
and not looking for an instant at my eyes, my face?—And for this that she

     won't accept money

directly from my hand, making clear I'm to leave my filthy bill in the dent of

     the plastic tray,
that the change will be deposited there for my polluted, contagious fingers to


Was it for this, this, becoming a patient, transformed to a shivering sack of

     blood to be spilled?
And the dark night tracing of malevolent lymph tracks, fear scaling the ice-

     rungs of my spine?

For this the surgeon's blade slicing the fat of my gut, leaving that dismal shelf

     over my groin?
And the pain, the shuddering post-operative chill, the potassium burningly

     blown into my veins?

...But listen to me, complaining: who cares if some snob-bitch turns up her

     nose at my crotch?
And you, cancer-fiend, still maybe spitting cells out into my bones and my

     brain, fuck you:

fuck you for Zweig, fuck you for Fagles, fuck you for McGrew and Minghella

     and the poets—
Cavafy and both Hughes, and Ginsberg and Clifton and Jane Kenyon and even

     John Donne,

plus all the big public deals like Bogart and Marley and that Beatle, and also

     the beautiful starlet
who wouldn't let them cut off her perfect breasts and so died of the fear of

     losing her beauty.

Too late for me to be frightened of losing my pot-bellied unbeauty, or anything

     else except maybe things
like remembering when Erv Goffman was dying and I said, "What will I do

     with only one super-ego?"

and he laughed, and I laughed, and what can you do, with everyone plucked

     out of your life except laugh?
Or not laugh, not every day, but not cry either, or maybe a little, maybe cry

     just a little, a little.


I live on prose, I devour prose, I gorge on prose till I'm ready to puke, but it's

     keeping me sane:
these are the miserable months in that miserable Paris hotel in the wretched blot

     of being nineteen

when I want to write poems but don't know how to begin, so I stuff prose into

     the empty hours
like one of those screaming chipping machines that turn matter to mass, and I

     stay more or less sane.

I also read, try to read poems, Eliot, say: I rattle around in The Wasteland and

     fall on the floor.
Forget tabula rasa, I'm tabula nothing. How could anyone know this little? What

     else then but prose?

Sometimes I give up even on it and drag myself out to the streets like Wyatt in

     Gaddis's Recognitions,
or find myself on a bridge like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury but at least

     I don't jump.

So maybe the novelists do save me, maybe Lawrence and Mann, Dickens and

     Melville and Greene,
even the landslides of Thomas Wolfe that go through me like castor oil release

     me from myself.

And Hemingway—Papa!—I slug down every word, and imagine I might be

     one of his heroes, or him,
the him who could make being impotent or having your lover die sound like

     the best thing in the world.

I had no idea it was his prose, the damned prose, those soldered declarative

     phrases, that stoical syntax
you rode like a long-distance bus, nor that he was a shit to his friends, and

     would soon do himself in.

How know either, crouched haplessly in myself like an ape in a cage and all

     but tearing to pieces,
that in a blink, two blinks, I'd be all the way here, looking back—and it'll be

     gone, really gone,

the miles of novels, the tens of thousands of poems, read, written, not

     written...Not written...
Weren’t the books not written what Hemingway died of? And that prose he

     could never outgrow?

What have I left unwritten? Never outgrown? One of my grandsons when he

     was four said to his mother,
“Next time Baba is little,”—Baba is me— “I’m going to read this book to him,


Nice thought, to do it again. Maybe this time the ignorance will seem more

     innocence and less curse,
and finding my way less like climbing Kilimanjaro, and more like starting your

     life, sensitive, avid—all that.

Lonely Crow

My depression thank goodness isn't yet in the internet age
but still works from notebooks file cards post-its
so when Vivaldi's "Seasons" blossoms from the stereo

it doesn't know how to google junk from my drop-box
of failures and funks but blinks herky jerky like a quasar
suspending albeit accidentally the beyond myself miseries

with which it usually inflicts me—you know: war, poverty,
planet murder, power-mad politicians, the insatiable rich—
chomp, crunch, they're eating us up—but as soon as I cut off

go up to my study my woe's back in business—envy, greed,
absurd unquenchable ambitions, and still is at my desk—sigh—
where I'm scrounging for poems to shake me out of myself—

Who've I been reading lately? Neruda? No way, too rich.
Lowell and Larkin, good god, we're already in the pits...
Maybe the ancient Chinese?—Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Po—

the whole team whose neat poetry packets once brought solace
but that now forgive me seem off the point: plum blossoms,
boring; drunkenness, blah; nada even for poems in a lake...

Curiously unboring though their biographical sketches—
paupers they were zillionaires shits right and left—
comforting they'd be afflicted with madness not unlike ours...

I skim anyway through them again, and find, in Tu Fu,
Song wearing thoughts thin...Wow...Dragon in hibernation
Yes, exactly—no dragons sleeping near here but, look,

there's a crow, who with two wingbeats and a glide
like that passage in the Hammerklavier I call a tango
though it's not crosses the sky and about whom I think,

"Poor, lonely crow," then realize he's not lonely at all,
more likely on his way home from work or the store,
hardly poor either with all that road kill to scarf down...  

So maybe for once I've nailed you, my misery...
Short swoop from one hill to the next, and maybe a tango it is...
Forget gurgle in dragon, forget Vivaldi...Go with the crow!


My friend Dave—Markson—with whom I once started a poem, "My friend

     Dave"—has died.
I was away, damn it: "This number is no longer in service," sends me on-line

     to the Times,
and there's his obit: avant-garde novelist, once-denizen of The Lion's Head,

     generous friend.

"My friend Dave knew a famous writer who used to have screwdrivers for

that older poem—about Malcolm Lowry, alcohol, love—went on; it brought a

"Anyone who writes a poem with their friend Dave in it and doesn't send it to

     him is..."

I've forgotten the rest: I was embarrassed, but those were the worst years of

     Dave's drinking,
and it was too painful to hear him repeat a story he'd told you five minutes

often about other self-maulers, Lowry, or Dylan Thomas—Dave's heroes and


Another David, Dafydd ap Gwilym, is one of my own heroes: "Fair seagull on

    the seething tide..."
He reputedly drank, too, but his  metrical system—the cynghanedd—was

     gloriously complex.
"Nythod ddwyn, cyd nithud ddail...Ni'th dditia neb, ni'th..."  Sad not to

     correctly pronounce it.

Dave Markson and I fell out of contact, then connected again when he'd gone

     on the wagon
and began writing those late, splendid, singular books: a quote in the paper

     about one,
Wittgenstein's Mistress, called it, "...the high point of experimental fiction in

     this country."

Another David—Foster Wallace—said that.  I can't get through his books, so

     wouldn't cite him
except Dave would have liked it—I mean Markson, whose stories, told twice

     or not, are done now.
That's what a friend's mother said as she was dying:  "Well, that's the end of

     my story."

Markson's last novel was called, as you'd guess, The Last Novel. He must have

     been tired;
he was lonely, and had several bad cancers.  Wallace for his own reasons was

     weary as well.
Dear Dafydd ap Gwilyn would die of love, he always swore. Don't we all,

     though? Don't we all?



Auden awed, Auden actually awed, by another poet's intelligence, in an essay

     on Marianne Moore,
and as much by her skill, as, in a poem about a pelican, the "elaborate reversed

     epic simile" he notes
she devises, in which, sliding a part-rhyme from Hänsel, she reveals details of

     the life of Handel.

What would Moore have written—assembled and welded might be the term—

     about the pelican,
slimed in gulf oil, helpless as a just born mammal but hideously unlicked, I

     watch on the news, dying,
then dead, whose corpse a volunteer holds before her like the Virgin her Christ

     child, and cries?


Hopkins—Auden admired him, too—threatened his own eye made with a

     "prick...no eye at all"
to have to behold "only ten or twelve" Binsey poplars felled: what would he

     wreak to witness
shores slathered with pitch, creatures small and large smothered, the sea with a

     crust of black scab?

Battling despair, Hopkins perhaps spoke of ours, and of us: "...Their packs

    infest the age."
"After-comers," he called us, who'd never guess "the beauty been," and will our

     own afters believe
how we hid our eyes like Masaccio's miserable Adam as we slunk from our

     Eden, for this was our Eden?


Auden mourned the vanishing "mass and majesty of this world," and Moore

     foresaw the "...tired
moment of danger that lays on the heart and lungs the//weight of the python

    that crushes to powder..."
"Manwolf," Hopkins calls us, and "mortal trash," "...whose strokes of havoc


On the screen, in her befouled industrial gloves, the young woman still sobs.

     "If I do well"
Moore once more—"I am blessed//whether any bless me or not, and if I do

    ill//I am cursed."
And if I do naught?...Moore's pelican "wastes the moon"—"O pity and

    indignation"—we waste world.


Robert Bly
Climbing into Bed


Susan Wheeler
From "The Split"


Poets in Person:
C.K. Williams