-For Nick and Arlene de Credico
The men working on the building going up here have got these great,
little motorized wheelbarrows that're supposed to be for lugging bricks and mortar
but that they seem to spend most of their time barrel-assing up the street in,
racing each other or trying to con the local secretaries into taking rides in the bucket.
I used to work on jobs like that and now when I pass by the skeleton of the girders
and the tangled heaps of translucent brick wrappings, I remember the guys I was with then
and how hard they were to know. Some of them would be so good to be with at work,
slamming things around, playing practical jokes, laughing all the time, but they could be miserable,
touchy and sullen, always ready to imagine an insult or get into a fight anywhere else.
If something went wrong, if a compressor blew or a truck backed over somebody,
they'd be the first ones to risk their lives dragging you out
but later you'd see them and they'd be drunk, looking for trouble, almost murderous,
and it would be frightening trying to figure out which person they really were.
Once I went home to dinner with a carpenter who'd taken me under his wing
and was keeping everyone off my back while he helped me. He was beautiful but at his house, he sulked.
After dinner, he and the kids and I were watching television while his wife washed the dishes
and his mother, who lived with them, sat at the table holding a big cantaloupe in her lap,
fondling it and staring at it with the kind of intensity people usually only look into fires with.
The wife kept trying to take it away from her but the old lady squawked
and my friend said, "Leave her alone, will you?" "But she's doing it on purpose," the wife said.
I was watching. The mother put both her hands on it then, with her thumbs spread
as though the melon were a head and her thumbs were covering the eyes and she was aiming it like a gun
or a camera.
Suddenly the wife muttered, "You bitch!" ran over to the bookshelf, took a book down -
A History of Revolutions - rattled through the pages and triumphantly handed it to her husband.
A photograph: someone who's been garroted and the executioner, standing behind him in a business hat,
has his thumbs just like that over the person's eyes, straightening the head,
so that you thought the thumbs were going to move away because they were only pointing
the person at something they wanted him to see and the one with the hands was going to say, "Look!
"I told you," the wife said. "I swear to god she's trying to drive me crazy."
I didn't know what it all meant but my friend went wild, started breaking things, I went home
and when I saw him the next morning at breakfast he acted as though nothing had happened.
We used to eat at the Westfield truck stop, but I remember Fritz's, The Victory, The Eagle,
and I think I've never had as much contentment as I did then, before work, the light just up,
everyone sipping their coffee out of the heavy white cups and teasing the middle-aged waitresses
who always acted vaguely in love with whoever was on jobs around there right then
besides the regular farmers on their way back from the markets and the long-haul truckers.
Listen: sometimes when you go to speak about life it's as though your mouth's full of nails
but other times it's so easy that it's ridiculous to even bother.
The eggs and the toast could fly out of the plates and it wouldn't matter
and the bubbles in the level could blow sky high and it still wouldn't.
Listen to the back-hoes gearing up and the shouts and somebody cracking his sledge into the mortar pan.
Listen again. He'll do it all day if you want him to. Listen again.
...then the son of the "superior race" began to spit into the Rabbi's mouth so that the Rabbi could continue to spit on the Torah...
THE BLACK BOOK
After this much time, it's still impossible. The SS man with his stiff hair and his uniform;
the Rabbi, probably in a torn overcoat, probably with a stained beard the other would be clutching;
the Torah, God's word, on the altar, the letters blurring under the blended phlegm;
the Rabbi's parched mouth, the SS man perfectly absorbed, obsessed with perfect humiliation.
So many years and what is there to say still about the soldiers waiting impatiently in the snow,
about the one stamping his feet, thinking, "Kill him! Get it over with!"
while back there the lips of the Rabbi and the other would have brushed
and if time had stopped you would have thought they were lovers,
so lightly kissing, the sharp, luger hand under the dear chin,
the eyes furled slightly and then when it started again the eyelashes of both of them
shyly fluttering as wonderfully as the pulse of a baby.
Maybe we don't have to speak of it at all, it's still the same.
War, that happens and stops happening but is always somehow right there, twisting and hardening us;
then what we make of God - words, spit, degradation, murder, shame; every conceivable torment.
All these ways to live that have something to do with how we live
and that we're almost ashamed to use as metaphors for what goes on in us
but that we do anyway, so that love is battle and we watch ourselves in love
become maddened with pride and incompletion, and God is what it is when we're alone
wrestling with solitude and everything speaking in our souls turns against us like His fury
and just facing another person, there is so much terror and hatred that yes,
spitting in someone's mouth, trying to make him defile his own meaning,
would signify the struggle to survive each other and what we'll enact to accomplish it.
There's another legend.
It's about Moses, that when they first brought him as a child before Pharaoh,
the king tested him by putting a diamond and a live coal in front of him
and Moses picked up the red ember and popped it into his mouth
so for the rest of his life he was tongue-tied and Aaron had to speak for him.
What must his scarred tongue have felt like in his mouth?
It must have been like always carrying something there that weighed too much,
something leathery and dead whose greatest gravity was to loll out like an ox's,
and when it moved, it must have been like a thick embryo slowly coming alive,
butting itself against the inner sides of his teeth and cheeks.
And when God burned in the bush, how could he not cleave to him?
How could he not know that all of us were on fire and that every word we said would burn forever,
in pain, unquenchably, and that God knew it, too, and would say nothing Himself ever again beyond this,
ever, but would only live in the flesh that we use like firewood,
in all the caves of the body, the gut cave, the speech cave:
He would slobber and howl like something just barely a man that beats itself again and again onto the
moist walls away from the light, away from whatever would be light for this last eternity.
"Now therefore go," He said, "and I will be with thy mouth."
-For James Havard
It stinks. It stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.
It stinks in the mansions and it stinks in the shacks and the carpeted offices,
in the beds and the classrooms and out in the fields where there's no one.
It just stinks. Sniff and feel it come up: it's like death coming up.
Take one foot, ignore it long enough, leave it on the ground long enough
because you're afraid to stop, even to love, even to be loved,
it'll stink worse than you can imagine, as though the whole air was meat pressing your eyelids,
as though you'd been caught, hung up from the earth
and all the stinks of the fear drain down and your toes are the valves dripping
the giant stinks of the pain and the death and the radiance.
Old people stink, with their teeth and their hot rooms, and the kiss,
the age-kiss, the death-kiss, it comes like a wave and you want to fall down and be over.
And money stinks: the little threads that go through it like veins through an eye,
each stinks - if you hold it onto your lip it goes bad, it stinks like a vein going bad.
And Christ stank: he knew how the slaves would be stacked into the holds and he took it -
the stink of the vomit and shit and of somebody just rolling over and plunging in with his miserable seed.
And the seed stinks. And the fish carrying it upstream and the bird eating the fish
and you the bird's egg, the dribbles of yolk, the cycle: the whole thing stinks.
The intellect stinks and the moral faculty, like things burning, like the cave under justice,
and the good quiet men, like oceans of tears squeezed into one handful, they stink,
and the whole consciousness, like something plugged up, stinks, like something cut off.
Life stinks and death stinks and god and your hand touching your face
and every breath, daring to turn, daring to come back from the stop: the turn stinks
and the last breath, the real one, the one where everyone troops into your bed
and piles on - oh, that one stinks best! It stays on your mouth
and who you kiss now knows life and knows death, knows how it would be to fume in a nostril
and the thousand desires that stink like the stars and the voice heard through the stars
and each time - milk sour, egg sour, sperm sour - each time - dirt, friend, father -
each time - mother, tree, breath, - each time, breath and breath and breath -
each time the same stink, the amazement, the wonder to do this and it flares,
this, and it stinks, this: it stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.
-from With Ignorance (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), selected by Guest Editor T.R. Hummer
PROMPT: In "The Sanctity," C.K. Williams travels back in time to an experience that shaped him: working construction and the people he worked with.
Pull out a piece of paper and write a list of experiences that shaped you, those marker moments you will never forget. It might be a car accident. It might be a moment in a classroom. It might be the first time you realized you will eventually die. For me, it's working with kurdish refugees at a small, independent grocer when I was fourteen: my first job and my first experience with a displaced and (at the time) mysterious people.
Pull out on of those marker moments that haunts you and mine it for images, sounds, smells, tastes, textures...any sensations that jump out of you or worm their way up through your consciousness the more you look back into memory.
Do not summarize. Instead, compose a scene, as Williams has here, in which the specifics of the memory interact with each other. Like Williams' "little motorized wheelbarrows that're supposed to be for lugging bricks and mortar," be as specific as possible. That is your gold: the specifics. The rest we already know. Write a list of these specifics and, using long lines, narrate this life-shaping scene.
Toward the end, if you want to bang your head against a wall all day, try to come up with a line as good as "Listen: sometimes when you go to speak about life it's as though your mouth's full of nails."
BIO: Hailed by poet Paul Muldoon in the Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most distinguished poets of his generation,” C.K. Williams created a highly respected body of work, including several collections of original poems, volumes of translations and criticism, and a memoir. Williams was especially known as an original stylist; his characteristic line is extraordinarily long, almost prose-like, and emphasizes characterization and dramatic development. His early work focused on overtly political issues such as the Vietnam War and social injustice. In his later work, Williams shifted from a documentary style toward a more introspective approach, writing descriptive poems that revealed the states of alienation, deception, and occasional enlightenment that exist between public and private lives in modern urban America.
Williams was born in Newark, New Jersey and educated at Bucknell College and the University of Pennsylvania. Though he was encouraged by his father to read and memorize poems, Williams didn’t begin to write poetry until his late teens. He soon found success, however, and Williams’s early poetry was often promoted by other poets. His first book, Lies (1969), was published upon the recommendation of Anne Sexton who, according to Allan M. Jalon in the Los Angeles Times, called Williams “the Fellini of the written word.” The book was widely acclaimed: M.L. Rosenthal in Poetry described it as a collection of poems that portrays “psychic paralysis despite the need to make contact with someone.” The book’s final poem, “A Day for Anne Frank,” which had been published separately a year earlier, was praised by Alan Williamson in Shenandoah as “a surprisingly moving poem, one of the best in the book.”
Williams’s next three books were also critical successes. I Am the Bitter Name (1972; reprinted 1992) is largely a collection of protest poems about the fear and hatred nurtured by America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It is Williams’s next book, With Ignorance (1977; reprinted 1997), however, that first shows the development of the poet’s trademark style; as James Atlas explained in the Nation, “the lines are so long that the book had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue,” giving the poetry “an eerie incantatory power.” Tar (1983) employs the same expansive line, which allows for philosophical investigation and qualification. The title poem circles the nuclear reactor disaster at Three Mile Island in characteristically Williams fashion, finding dangerous equivalences in as mundane an endeavor as roofing.
In Flesh and Blood (1987) Williams changed format, but not subject matter. The book is a collection of eight-line poems, each line of twenty or twenty-five syllables and printed two poems to a page. Michael Hofmann, in the Times Literary Supplement, pointed out the poems’ subjects are “the by-now familiar gallery of hobos and winos, children and old people, lovers and invalids; the settings, typically, public places, on holidays, in parks, on pavements and metro-stations.” Edward Hirsch, writing in the New York Times Book Review,described Williams’s poetry as having a “notational, ethnographic quality” that presents “single extended moments intently observed.” Even though these poems sometimes read “like miniature short stories, sudden fictions,” Hirsch continued, they always present people in situations where they are “vulnerable, exposed, on the edge.” The book won Williams the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987.
Williams’s first volume of selected poems, Poems 1963-1983 (1988), collects selections from Lies and I Am the Bitter Name, and reproduces both With Ignorance and Tar in their entirety. Muldoon called it “the book of poems I most enjoyed this year,” finding Williams to have “an enviable range of tone” and to be “by turns tender and troubling.” Hofmann claimed that the book “has as much scope and truthfulness as any American poet since Lowell and Berryman.” Williams himself, in a Los Angeles Times interview with Allan Jalon, stated that he believes “the drama of American poetry is based very much on experience. It’s coming out of all the different cultures. We’re an enormous nation and we have an enormous poetry.” The Vigil (1997) and Repair (1999) both feature the long, prose-like lines that were Williams’s signature. Richard Howard, reviewing The Vigil for the Boston Review found that “The lines [in The Vigil] have to array some of the most garish and clunky language assayed in recent poetry,” but he appreciated their suitability for narration and description. “So vivid are Williams’s successes with immediacy of sensation and of narration, so overwhelming his virtuosity...in revving up his chosen, his imposed machine,” Howard concluded, “that I am most of the time transfixed by his gift.”
Williams’s later work, particularly in Repair, developed an increasingly intimate tone. Repair, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, is often personal and introspective. The poems consider such subjects as the birth of the poet’s grandson, the death of a friend’s child, love, and the flowered house dresses worn by his mother and the women of her generation. Yet Williams also includes reminders of his earlier, more socially aware material, including the title poem, which points a righteous finger at a tyrant whose “henchmen had disposed of enemies ... by hammering nails into their skulls.” Critic Brian Phillips, in the New Republic, acknowledged Willliams’s skills at observation and description, concluding that “[Williams’s] work reflects the moral self-questioning of Herbert, the plain-spokenness and the yearning toward nature of Wordsworth, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart of the later Yeats.”
Williams’s collection The Singing (2003) won the National Book Award in 2003. Three years later, Williams’s Collected Poems (2006) was published. Over 600 pages long, the book received major critical attention and provided an opportunity for readers to follow the arc of Williams’s long career. In the International Herald Tribune, Dan Chiasson reviewed Williams’s major achievement: his ability to get the “ratio of sympathy to detachment…just right” so that “documentary precision and the wide-angle embellishments of ‘art’ find perfect balance.” In 2012 Williams published his nineteenth book of poetry, Writers Writing Dying. A collection of his later poems, Selected Later Poems, was published posthumously in 2015.
In addition to his acclaimed memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (2000), Williams also wrote works of critical prose, including Poetry and Consciousness (1998), which included Williams’s meditations on psychology, the relation of poetry to history and the novel, as well as reflections on his own creative process, and the book of essays, In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (2012). Williams was also a noted translator. His translation of The Bacchae of Euripides (1990) received widespread praise for its plain, vigorous language and attention to the possibilities of the stage. He also translated the poetry of Adam Zagajewski and Francis Ponge.
C.K. Williams received many honors and awards over his long career, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Pushcart Prize, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award. Averill Curdy, commenting on The Singing in a Poetry magazine round table discussion, noted that Williams “is one of the poets of his generation who is still singing, who hasn’t retreated into a pokey nostalgia or silence. His poems remain vital to me in their attempt to address the contemporary world, and I find the attempt itself moving.” Williams taught at Princeton University from 1996 until just before his death, in fall 2015.