New work from the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Repair
. . . Reality has put itself so solidly before me
there's little need for mystery . . . Except for us, for how we take the world
to us, and make it more, more than we are, more even than itself.
--from "The World"
The awards given to C.K. Williams' two most recent books--a National Book Award for The Singing and a Pulitzer Prize for Repair--complete the process by which Williams, long admired for the intensity and formal daring of his work, has come to be recognized as one of the few truly great living American poets. Williams treats the characteristic subjects of a poet's maturity--the loss of friends, the love of grandchildren, the receding memories of childhood, the baffling illogic of current events--with an intensity and drive that recall not only his recent work but also his early books, published forty years ago. The Singing is a direct and resonant book: searing, hearfelt, permanent. The Singing is the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Poetry.
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C. K. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Repair in 1999. His most recent work is Misgivings (2000), a memoir. He teaches at Princeton University and lives part of the year in Paris, France.
Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.
All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I'd only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.
Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.
The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth
When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was
black speaking black
It didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over
We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big"; and I thought how droll to have my height
incorporated in his song
So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person" he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"
No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it
That's all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on
the porch that was all
No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune
Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to
which we were condemned
Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor
heard no one was there
Bialystok, or Lvov
A squalid wayside inn, reeking barn-brewed vodka,
cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense
in a village church, kegs of rotten, watered wine,
but then a prayer book's worn-thin pages,
and over them, as though afloat in all that fetidness,
my great-grandfather's disembodied head.
Cacophonous drunkenness, lakes of vomit
and oceans of obscenities; the smallpox pocked
salacious peasant faces whose carious breath
clots one's own; and violence, the scorpion --
brutal violence of nothing else, to do, to have,
then the prayers again, that tormented face,
its shattered gaze, and that's all I have,
of whence I came, of where the blood came from
that made my blood, and the tale's not even mine,
I have it from a poet, the Russian-Jewish then
Israeli Bialik, and from my father speaking of
his father's father dying in his miserable tavern,
in a fight, my father said, with berserk Cossacks,
but my father fabulated, so I omit all that,
and share the poet's forebears, because mine
only wanted to forget their past of poverty
and pogrom, so said nothing, or perhaps
where someone came from, a lost name,
otherwise nothing, leaving me less
history than a dog, just the poet's father's
and my great-grandfather's inn, that sty,
the poet called it, that abyss of silence, I'd say,
and that soul, like snow, the poet wrote,
with tears of blood, I'd add, for me and mine.
Copyright © 2003 C. K. Williams
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