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The Singing                

By C.K. Williams

Original and Current  Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Saara Myrene Raappana writes:

At first, I was suspicious of C.K. Williams’ The Singing. When it comes to poetry, I’m a clean freak—I like my free verse in tidy stacks of wordplay. I love the symmetry created by rhyme, be it direct or slant; I brake for terza rima; give me a ghazal only if it’s metrically strict and restrained. So when I saw The Singing’s sprawling, gangly lines of conversational language, its sparse—and sparsely worded—images drawn along by trains of ethereal philosophy, I felt off-balance. Upset. These poems seemed to revel in disorganization, growing like vines in whatever direction offered the most room. I wanted to take a pair of gardening shears to them. At the very least a rake.

Why, then, did a stanza here, a line there tap on my cold, metrical heart? Why did those stripped-down images repeat through my head days later? Why, despite all my discomfort, did I end up loving these poems?

Here’s my theory: Williams is a magician—an adept one—and who doesn’t love a great magician? On first read, I was distracted by the smoke of Williams’ informal tone and then entranced by the flash powder of his relentlessly forthright statements. In “Dissections,” as the speaker inspects a skeleton at an anatomy exhibit, he says, “I felt embarrassed, as though I’d intruded on someone’s loneliness / or grief, and then, I don’t know why, it came to me to pray, / though I don’t pray, I’ve unlearned how, to whom, or what.” The poems feel direct, unedited, effortlessly musical. Williams’ elliptical, syntactically befuddling sentences carry a metrical and emotional cadence that belies their apparent plainness. At the conclusion of “Dissections,” Williams ends a seemingly meandering journey from anatomy models to sorrow, to empathy, to faith and lack thereof with: “Flint and fire, science and song, and all of it coming to this, / this unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” The magician has dropped two eggs, a feather duster, and a pair of gardening shears into a hat and, with a wave of his wand, pulled out a sharp-beaked bird of paradise.

The Singing is a book of doubt, lament, and elegy, but, as is characteristic for Williams, genially so. These poems struggle with identity, perception, and the weight of both. In “This Happened,” he chants, “Weightfully upon me was the world. / Weightfully this self which graced the world yet never wholly itself. / Weightfully this self which weighed upon me . . .” Whether a doe, a piano teacher, an anatomy skeleton, or the death of a cherished friend, Williams’ subjects are heavy with fear and sorrow, but granted a kind of buoyancy by their connection with the speaker, the “I” of the poem that is Williams’ poetic persona. That’s the deftest of Williams’ magic tricks—the creation of intimacy with his subjects that spills over onto the reader.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s final section, which contains poems about 9/11. Here, Williams tackles the despair and fright of that event and its aftermath. “Fear” reveals Williams as a despondent idealist: “I still want to believe that we’ll cure the human heart . . . / . . . but hasn’t the metaphorical heart been slashed?” In the final stanza, a “half-chorus of grackles” —a ubiquitous bird that returns again and again to ransack dumpsters and parking lots—as “negative celestials, risen from some counter-realm to rescue us. / But now, scattering towards the deepening shadows, they go, too.” 

The book’s third section, an extended elegy, spans from the month of illness before his painter friend’s death to a year afterward, each segment carrying its own type of heartache. Williams interlaces tender particulars like “the sheet of Arches / paper tacked to its board . . . the wash, the cottonwoods / I helped you plant” with long strings of internal monologue that transmit, through their candor, both the heft of Williams’ own anguish and the unavoidable human experience of grief:

Never so much absence,
so many longings ash,
as you are ash. Never
so cruel the cry within,
Will I never again
be with you?
Ash. Ash.

The poem ends with an oboe repeating scales (“descending the stairway it itself / unfurls before itself”), as if the speaker has realized that his grief, rather than finding resolution, will continue to echo like a lovely, sad song drifting in through his window.

Saara Myrene Raappana
has new poems in 32 Poems, Cave Wall, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review Online, and Southern Poetry Review and has been featured on Verse Daily. She is a managing editor for Cellpoems.

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Carol Muske-Dukes for Sparrow: Poems
  • Charles Simic for The Voice at 3:00 AM: Selected Late and New Poems
  • Louis Simpson for The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001
  • Kevin Young for Jelly Roll: A Blues

Poetry Judges that Year: Bruce Weigl, David Baker, Kate Daniels, Kwame Dawes, Jane Hirshfield

The Year in Literature:  

  • Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Louise Gluck was named Poet Laureate of the United States

Other Information:

  • C.K. Williams (1936- ) was born in Newark, NJ.
  • In addition to the National Book Award for The Singing, Williams won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Repair, and in 2005 he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

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