Wait: Poems

Image of Wait: Poems
Release Date: 
April 26, 2010
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

 At the outset of this review this reviewer should confess his prejudices: he is a fan of C. K. Williams. This reviewer’s mentor and Williams’ friend, the late William Matthews, first introduced this reviewer to the poet and his work; Bill spoke of “Chuck” fondly and with admiration and brought him to our graduate poetry-writing workshop to read his poems. This reviewer also recalls chatting with Williams after a reading or talk at Poets House in the early to mid 1990s, but doubts Williams remembers the conversation or his interlocutor. Wait is Williams first new book of poems in seven years, and further enriches a five-decade-long oeuvre; its length is equal to the combined lengths of its two immediate predecessors (not counting his Collected Poems), Repair (1999) and The Singing (2003), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award respectively. With Wait, Williams’ oeuvre should place him with fellow Newark native and age peer Phillip Roth on the short list of candidates for a Nobel Prize in literature. In Wait Williams continues to display the prosodic variety and versatility he demonstrated in his two previous volumes. In the two decades preceding Repair for the most part he only employs lines whose length exceed the page margin and that embody a kind of insistent energy—but whose exclusive use struck some readers as obsessive. Poems with those long lines are also present in Wait but not to the exclusion of others that use different forms. Williams is often spoken of as a poet of conscience, and he certainly seems self-conscious about his own and our collective shortcomings. In “The Gaffe,” the first poem in Wait, he refers to his conscience as “. . . that someone who’s me yet not me yet who judges me is always with me . . . he who rakes me with such not trivial shame for minor sins. . . .” Even as a child “. . . already I’ve composed this conscience-beast, who harries me. . . .” In “Wasp” watching a wasp repeatedly bang its head against a window makes him think about his own mind, “. . . so why does it hurtso much to keep thinking—hammer, hammer—the same things again and, hammer, again? That invisible barrier between you and the world,between you and your truth . . .” In “I” he describes himself as one “. . . who for the greater part of my life/have been involved in an adversarial relation to myself, berating, accusing/demanding I be someone I’m not, . . .” Behind all the self-berating what are Williams’ ethics? In “Ethics” he answers, “yet it might be my most sincere and abiding desire—/that I live without contrivance, scheming or forethought.” This, however, “I’ve never found a shred of evidence for in myself,/yet I observe it constantly, every day, in Catherine;” his wife. Apparently the lesbian aphorism about wanting to become the woman one desires sometimes also applies to straight men. In “Blackbird” Williams regrets running over a blackbird while driving and recalls that at the time he was listening to news on the radio of the Iraq war, “hearing that what we’d suspectedwere lies had proved to be lies,that many were dying for those lies,” And he regrets too his consequent loss of trust. In “Rats” he refers to the greed of those same liars in reference to energy policy and climate change; note the pun on the name of a White House official: “and the president and his energy-companycronies still insistglobal warmingisn’t real. The rats rove where they willnow; shining and fat,they’ve appropriatedthe whole lawn. From this close,they look justlike their cousinsanywhere else, devious, ruthless,rapacious, and everyday I loathethem more.” These wonderful line and stanza breaks make me glad Williams no longer limits himself to one verse form. He returns to the theme of political mendacity in “Lies:” “just politics: a president with features like a child,so blankly guileful in his lying that one might half-believehe half-believes himself, though not, never not, for long.” In some of the poems what Williams is self-conscious of is his own sexuality and lust. In “We” watching an attractive woman talk on her cell-phone and then mount her bicycle and ride off he compares himself to a nearby basset hound with large testicles. In “Steen” he asks, “. . . is predationinherent in such vehementneed? Did I, do I still,need forgiveness formy vehemence, my need, for my believing,though I lurked and stalked,moaned my rutting songand stank of scent and sweat,that I was blamelessuntouched, unsullied,still pure as a child?” And in “Blackstone” Williams recalls as a child seeing a magician saw in half a woman with a bare midriff and silvery garlanded bra: “That must be when we learned that real men were supposed to hurt women,/make them cry and leave them, . . .” But in several poems of which new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would approve, Williams makes clear that there is no supernatural being to forgive him. In unrhymed tercets comprised of the long lines to which I referred earlier “Assumptions” deconstructs the mythologies and dogmas of organized religions in which he sees the origins of genocide. Here is the opening stanza: “That there is an entity, vast, omnipotent but immaterial, inaccessible to     all human sense save hearing;that this entity has a voice with which it can, or at least could once, speak,     and in a possibly historicalbut credible even if mythic past it did speak, to a small group of human     beings, always male.”  In “Halo:” “I still do, sometimes, wish I could believe. More often,I’d like the whole holiness business gone once and for all,the reflexive referencing to what I know isn’t there, the craving for retribution for the unjust at the end of the chain.” But despite his scientific rationalism in “Either/Or” he imagines there are devils that reside in people’s brains and angels in the form of bees out in the world. As one might expect of a poet in his seventh decade, in several poems Williams ruminates about the shortening of his days and his mortality. The title poem “Wait” is about his relationship with time. In a powerful sequence of seven poems, “Still, Again, Martin Luther King, April 4, 2008,” Williams imagines Dr. King returning to our time, surveying our country and saying, “Not again, not still.” The book concludes with “Jew on Bridge,” a long poem comprising thirty tercets on the theme of anti-Semitism and Williams’ own Jewishness. The poem takes its title from the scene in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov sees a Jew on a bridge over the Neva River and immediately hates him. Williams free-associates the Jew on the bridge with Paul Celan, who committed suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Seine; with Walter Benjamin, an earlier suicide (Williams associates both deaths with the Holocaust); with his father Paul; and with his grandfather, Walter. Williams grew up in a thoroughly assimilated secular Jewish family, and at one point in the poem he guesses that how Jewish he is amounts to 22% or maybe as little as 6%. In view of his well-developed conscience, this reviewer’s guess is that the number is somewhat higher. Reviewer David Cooper is the author of two poetry ebooks, Glued to the Sky and JFK: Lines of Fire (PulpBits 2003), and the translator of Little Promises by Rachel Eshed (Mayapple Press, 2006). He also covers the New York Jewish culture beat for examiner.com