C.K. Williams — Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet — will turn 74 this year, but he clearly retains traces of the young man for whom "everything always was going too slowly, too slowly."
This spring, he has two new books out: "On Whitman" ( Princeton University Press; 208 pp., $19.95), a highly personal response to the self-singing colossus of American poetry, and "Wait" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 144 pp., $25), a new collection of verse.
Walking through Lower Manhattan toward ground zero — a site he's referenced in key poems over the last few years — Williams describes the title of "Wait" as an aging poet's mortal plea: "Just publishing a book at this stage in my career, I'm saying, 'Wait, I'm not finished! I'm not done yet!' "
On the surface, "Wait" appears to be a particularly dark book. Many poems hang on death as a touchstone, sometimes with black humor. In "The Coffin Store," Williams pictures himself dashing all over the world — "from Kampala to Krakow / Death, what a ridiculous load you can be" — with his coffin on his back.
The various mortalities he explores include those of animals — in "Cows," he imagines bovines begging, "Save me! Save me!" — as well as friends, soldiers at war, even America. (In one poem, he meditates bleakly upon a derelict ocean liner called the United States.) But the bloodiest death is reserved for the poet himself, in the title poem, which compares time to a butcher.
This is not the first time Williams has used a butcher as a metaphor; such a figure was also a symbol of galvanizing trauma in a decisive, untitled poem from the 1970s in which he dramatically shifted styles from compactly lyrical, often surreal bursts of words to intricately sustained linkages of long lines. His newer poems navigate between those extremes. In "Wait," the butcher's violence again suggests destruction, memory and creativity:
Chop, hack, slash; chop, hack, slash; cleaver, boning knife, ax —
not even the clumsiest clod of a butcher could do this so crudely,
time, as do you, dismember me, render me, leave me slop in a pail,
one part of my body a hundred years old, one not even there anymore …
"I guess there is a lot about mortality in the book," Williams acknowledges. "But I don't think of reflection on dark things as necessarily dark."
Asked to elaborate, he says, "I'm not trying to convey darkness. I'm trying to account for darkness. A dark poem is meant to redeem the dark part. I don't like denial. I don't like repression." He says that transcending repression, as part of making art, became basic to his development when he helped run psychotherapy workshops years ago.
Was he thinking, writing these new poems, of his successful battle a few years ago with prostate cancer? "Maybe an echo of it, surely," he says, "but I never address it directly. I also had two knees replaced. I'm running around on two metal knees."
At ground zero, the sky is the same pure blue as it was on the September morning that transformed this place into a sanctuary of grief. Tourists are everywhere. Workmen sit on a concrete barrier, eating sandwiches. "I think it must be a great thing, being a construction worker, building something up," Williams observes.
The vast pit, from which a new building is now rising, is sealed off by blue plastic material, giving narrow slices of view. "I think what happened is still unreal for many Americans," Williams says. "We stayed outside the earthly swirl of violence for so long, in terms of what actually happened on American soil. Not since the Civil War, really."
The historical shock of an attack on American ground may not rank as a special insight, but Williams' words —
the earthly swirl of violence
— make it stick. They renew memory, render it palpable and personal. It's what admirers praise in his work, though critics say he sometimes gets self-indulgent in making his inner life a mirror to external events.
Yet his spontaneous remark bears the tone of poems that sifted the post-Sept. 11 landscape, poems such as "War," which describes how "those columns of nothingness rise from their own ruins," and "The Hearth," where he expresses his feeling of implication in violence far away, in Iraq.
In "Wait," the fallout of the last eight years haunts a poem called "Shrapnel," about a soldier who is turned "rag-limp, chest and abdomen speckled with deep / dark gashes and smears of blood."
As he slowly walks a circle around ground zero, Williams gets quiet. Then, a single word slides from his lips: "Reprehensible."
He stares at the chasm between ground and sky. "I think that the Iraq war was the most reprehensible American act, even more than Hiroshima," he says, the stark statement hanging for a moment. "The Europeans didn't understand the use of fear the Bush administration made after 9/11." Williams grew up in and around Newark, N.J., but since the 1970s, he's been married to a Frenchwoman. They divide their time between Princeton and a home outside Paris.
"The Europeans lived for long stretches with terrorism," he continues, "bombing in the streets, in the subways. But they didn't say, 'Stop! Be terrified! Be hysterical.' Bush did."
Eventually, Williams' thoughts turn to Claude Monet. There's a new exhibit of the painter's work in Chelsea that he wants to see. The show, when he gets there, offers a stunning array of paintings Monet made in his Giverny gardens. Looking at them, Williams gives a glimpse into the daily, single-minded devotion to making poems. "I got up the other day," he says, "and wrote a poem, and thought, 'Is this the rest of my life? Get up every morning and write a poem? Can I keep doing this?' But that's what he did, isn't it? Got up every day and worked on one more beautiful painting. Back to the lily pond!"
How does Williams reconcile two opposite experiences such as ground zero and a show of Monet's art?
How can such horror and beauty be related?
"There is no reconciling them," he says. "They are just two things, two aspects, two facts of human existence. When you are looking at one, you are in one, and when you are looking at the other, you are in the other. What else can you do?"
He rides an elevator to pick up his wife's eyeglasses. In a small shop tucked into a high floor, Williams greets the counter man warmly and says he's in a hurry. He laughs when the man kids: "I'll throw the glasses out the window, and when you hit the street, you can catch them on the run."
Later, on a busy sidewalk, Williams returns to the question about horror and beauty. "There is despair," he says, "contemplating humanity, if you're looking at all the violence and unnecessary death. Then, you see that human being after human being is living life. And there is joy in it, because in existence there is also great joy. If you spend your whole life being depressed about life, you're wasting it.
"That's the wisdom of my old age," declares the poet, rushing for his train.