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Poems “dense with real living” from C.K. Williams.

By Beth Kephart

By C.K. Williams C’59
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. $20.00

When I read the poetry of C.K. Williams, I think of the man. Tall and graceful, his thick hair wonderfully wildly thick, his eyes no color I remember, because what I remember is his eyes’ intelligence. It is hard not to see him, if you have ever seen him, when you read his poems. It is hard not to read the words on the page the way you know he would lift his own words off the page, leaning into their complex rhythms, leaning in, hard. The poetry of C.K. Williams is inhabited poetry. It is dense with real living, scraped and nicked and scarified with the known and the unknowable of a complicated world.

There are nine books of poetry to his name, a Pulitzer, and, most recently and deservedly, a National Book Award (announced in November) for his new collection, which is called The Singing. Unlike some of those who keep winning the prizes, Williams is honored because he is that good, because he has invented a way of speaking through his poetry that startles, resonates, and teaches. He is known for long, jangling lines that turn in upon themselves, snaking in and out of a detail or a story in pursuit of some common, haunting truth. He is known for thinking his way straight through to despair and for falling out of despair back into life.

For myself, I love the way that C.K. Williams studies and upholds the un-adorned moment, the unpretentious gesture, the unexpected rub of one thing against another. I love the way that he, for instance, is stilled by “the smallest segment/of skin, so smooth, /though, so densely/ resilient, so present” that his wife reveals, not in a moment of seduction, but in a quick search for the sting of a bug. I love that he loves a shared instant with his grandson enough to make of that instant one whole poem. I love the words he chooses to honor a friend who has died and left Williams on his own to survive such a magnitude of grief. I love what he stops to notice about those with whom he’s shared his life:

… And to be able
to tell oneself that once
one knew a man wholly

to triviality,
bitterness or rancor,
who’d fashioned himself 
with such dedication
and integrity

that he’d been released 
from those resentments
and envies that can make 
the fullest life seem mean …

(From “Elegy for an Artist”)

I am not a poet, and I suppose that makes me unqualified to review a book of poems. I am not a scholar, so I will tell you little about the way Williams enjambs or calls upon tropes or seems to break the rules of grammar to give a collision of two moments meaning. But I am a woman who ponders memory and morality. I am a person who looks to be less alone with her thoughts. I am a reader who believes in the power of well-chosen words to distill the world, and to clarify it, and so I can say and I therefore will with self-assurance say that I find Williams’ poems a gift. I find this new book, in particular, a gift, as it reflects on self-portraits and terror and the past, as it reaches for love out of loss. 

Beth Kephart C’82’s new book, Seeing Past Z, is due out next June from W.W. Norton.

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