Tuesday, May 24, 2005

C. K. Williams

I never pay much attention to prizes, etc., in the poetry world or elsewhere, so I missed the news that C. K. Williams had won this year's $100,000 Ruth Lily poetry prize. My mother, reading this little piece in the Chicago Tribune, brought it to my attention yesterday.

Williams is a fine Jewish American poet, in the first-person free-verse mainstream division. He appears in my anthology of Jewish American poets, and also in my own essay, in that book, on "Shekhinah in America." Here's part of my discussion of Williams's poem "Wig," from that essay:

In his wonderful recent poem “Wig,” C. K. Williams shows what even an implicit identificaiton of America with the meeting place of nations, presided over by the Mother of Exiles, can do for one's poetry.

"Wig" is the fifth poem in a sequence called “Symbols,” and indeed, Williams begins by looking out at a dreary winter afternoon and attributing symbolic resonance, however playfully, to the figures he sees:

The bus that won’t arrive this freezing, bleak, pre‑Sabbath afternoon must be Messiah;
the bewigged woman, pacing the sidewalk, furious, seething, can be only the mystic Shekinah,
the presence of God torn from Godhead, chagrined, abandoned, longing to rejoin, reunite.

Although he draws on two Jewish myths of absence or loss—the long-awaited Messiah who keeps not coming and the exiled Shekhinah—Williams clearly takes pleasure in making these attributions, delighting in the sudden twist his poem takes from a bus to Messiah and from a fully human woman, “furious, seething” and “bewigged” (and thus quite observant, but it’s funny word) to the mystic pathos of the Shekhinah. (That he calls the Shekhinah “chagrinned” in the last line above gives Her a fully human attribute as well—and the “grinned” of “chagrinned” echoes the hard “g” and short “i” of “bewigged” to give it, too, a slightly comic touch.)

Now, since the (gramatically feminine) Shekhinah traditionally longs to reunite with the (masculine) Holy One Blessed be He, the logic of the myth suggests that this woman’s husband, if she has one, will be assigned the latter role. Instead, Williams shifts the focus of the poem from the fine romance Above to the more earthly cares of marriage Below—and, in the process, changes the myth itself:

The husband in his beard and black hat, pushing a stroller a step behind her as she stalks?
The human spirit, which must slog through such degrading tracts of slush and street‑filth,
bound forever to its other, no matter how incensed she may be, how obliviously self‑absorbed.

After the serenity, even (say it) the piety of other poets' versions of the Shekhinah, Williams’s “incensed” and “obliviously self-absorbed” figure is a delight. And however politically chancy it may be to figure “the human spirit” as male, Williams uses his heterosexual figures to reframe the relationships both between Shekhinah and the Godhead and between human beings and the divine in a fascinating way. Here the Shekhinah’s anger at and longing to be reunited with the Godhead takes her away from, well, us, the human spirits who long for some holy Presence to redeem our passage through “degrading tracts of slush and street-filth.”

Having given us a wife and husband who pushes a stroller, Williams ends the poem with their child—and with one more twist. “And the child,” he writes, “asleep, serene, uncaring in the crank and roar of traffic, his cheeks afire, / ladders of snowy light leaping and swirling about him….” Yes? Yes? For the first time we have to wait nearly two full lines for a symbolic attribution, as though the poet were so captivated by what he sees that he hasn’t decided yet. When it comes at last, the poem can close, for the child

…is what else but psyche, holy psyche,
always only now just born, always now just waking, to the ancient truths of knowledge, suffering, loss.

The tenderness of these lines, their ease with abstraction and benediction, is typical of Williams’s work. Their willingness to link “knowledge” to “suffering, loss” is characteristic as well—and it suggests that “Wig” lives up to Allen Grossman’s proviso that the Jewish poet who invokes the Shekhinah must construct a metaphorical “place” where “the intelligibility of experience” can be affirmed: a “place of holiness…where loss is given back as meaning.” To Grossman, the poet’s “place” must be a meeting place of the nations [the goyim] and that singular Nation, the Jews, a site where “the People and the peoples are equally at home" (166). And when Williams names the child in the poem "psyche, holy psyche," he allows for this, too.

Who, after all, is “psyche”? Etymologically, the word means “soul”—but in classical mythology, as you may recall, Psyche is also a god--or, rather, a goddess (this poem has changed his / her sex), and divine not by birth but by her much‑vexed marriage with Cupid, the son of Venus, a godling of Love. Forbidden by her mother-in-law from ever seeing her husband, Psyche, too, lives out a tale of loss. But although Psyche loses her beloved at first--spurred by the jealously of her sisters, she takes a lamp to see her husband as he sleeps, and he must flee--after many trials, she regains him, wins the approval of Venus, and eventually gives birth to a child.

Williams's poem doesn’t strut or fret about this slip from Jewish to classical mythology. Rather, it simply assumes that in the mind of its speaker, both resources are equally present, equally possible, ready and willing to meet. Williams’s poem turns out to be just the sort of “meeting place of the nations” that Rothenberg dreamed and despaired of in Poland / 1931, that the epigraphs to Eleanor Wilner’s Shekhinah embody, and that Robert Duncan (another poet of Cupid and Psyche) described as a “symposium of the whole” where “all things have come into their comparisons” (“Rites,” 327). Indeed, the mythological logic of “Wig” leads us to a rather surprising conclusion. The thoroughly Orthodox “presence of God torn from Godhead” turns out, in this poem, destined to be not only the mother‑in‑law of the Roman god of Love, but also the grandmother of a new character, a daughter named Pleasure.

As my own grandmother would say: "Only in America!"

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