C. K. Williams, THE SINGING (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) 2003, 72 pages, $20.00.
IN THE INTRODUCTION TO HIS BREEZY, OFTEN insightful, sometimes brilliant collection of personal essays, Gerald Stern says, "'I didn't know I was so Jewish.' Jewish sensibility underlies my poetry in a very strong way. But it's Jewish subject matter that often informs the essays." In Stern's chapter on the Sabbath, his admittedly eccentric, self-selecting Jewishness stands as an emblem for what's at the heart of his art, sensual delight and contemplation as the sanctification of human life. "The Jewish Sabbath is a day of rest and abstention from work. It is also a day of study and taking delight in the sense, gustatory and sexual. It is a day of sanctification and holiness, and preempts all other holy days, and is a memorial of the creation of the world and of the exodus from Egypt" (p. 25).
It's always risky to globalize traditions, but Stern's What I Can't Bear Losing and C. K. Williams's new collection of poems, The Singing, bear clear resemblances to the work of other first and second-generation Jewish-American poets. Philip Levine, Stephen Berg, David Ignatow, and Allen Ginsberg, for example, all dramatize obsessions with the body and materiality; their secular passion for justice and their self-conscious identification with the victim or "underdog" underscores their attention to issues of social class. They're all skeptical about transcendence: Christianity's spiritualizing hierarchy devalues the body and the material world while serving the eternal instead of the historical. Like many other minority writers, these Jewish artists subvert the civilized because they see civility as laminating repression, self-interest and unjust hierarchies that bury passion and authenticity.
These Jewish artists remain exiles in their own country. They see themselves as anti-heroes: their identification with the victim co-exists with a willingness to explore their own complex, dark interiors. Prejudice and history play an obvious part in their alienation, but the workings of the mind also render them outsiders, triggering flirtations with moral superiority: "goodness" and "individuality." Said another way, the ego provides resistant rather than adaptive strategies. Both engage the Romantic Hero's longing for communion and illumination, but neither accepts the truth of momentary salvation for the individual. Stern says directly, "there would be no love without justice, they are identical" (p. 128).
Finally, their attention to consciousness itself becomes a secular mirror for the Talmudic tradition. But when Stern and Williams dramatize the mind at work, they brood, interpret, consider, and perpetually revise. Nothing is stable, no truth is fixed. Consciousness and expression play dual roles, heightening experience while creating distance. Simply put, to think is not to be. Expression may resemble Emerson's views in his essay on "The Poet," promising freedom from convention, and also isolating them from family, country, and the corruption of commerce.
He is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.
While Williams unabashedly yearns for expression and communication, Stern's more ambivalent and suspicious: he associates his "mysticism" with mystery. And while acknowledging he's sometimes resentful about his separateness, he also enjoys the feeling of being exceptional. This sentence by Emerson could almost have been written by Stern:
the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact.
But for Stern and Williams, the product of thinking also becomes endless possibility and infinite breakdown, Derrida's infinite chain of meaning. This fragmentation is configured as ambivalence, confusion, loneliness, and in Williams's case, chaos. Consciousness may "humanize" us, permitting us to see more deeply into experience, but in our attempts to identify and fix, we abstract ourselves with intellect from the moment, from "sensuous fact."
Stern and Williams both wrestle with the vehicles of expression, the materiality of language: speech authorizes Emerson's Romantic ideal, but also serves as a triggering subject. Memory, for Stern, becomes a principle of his artistry and a defense against disappearance (hence the title, "What I Can't Bear Losing"). Ultimately memory becomes one way of warding off mortality and contingency, while memorializing those whose stories will never be told without his artistry. Identifying the unjust, the predatory and the privileged, Stern believes, allows him not to "collaborate" with those who exploit and oppress.
One fascinating element of Stern's essay collection, then, is the way memory serves not only as overriding principle but also as a source of torment, tied to his unwillingness and/or inability to let go: to forgive or to forget. In his own tenuous childhood, where he intimately knew death too early, where he couldn't decode his parents' ambivalence to decipher if he were loved, the ghosts and burdens of pain and loss remain with him in the present. His honor is wrestling with these ghosts; his sadness and artistry: inscribing these deficits in his memory forever.
All of Stern's essays spin out, like many of his best poems, from the concrete, particular and personal; chapters begin with a sense impression, an opinion, a narrative event, then decipher, self-analyze, and most ambitiously contextualize the event in its historical or social framework. Many passages serve as sources for Stern's best poems about family, lovers and locale. "The Bull-Roarer," "The Dancing," "Behaving Like a Jew," and "At Bickfords's," all have their sources in these narratives.
In "The Beacon," an essay about violent anti-Semitism in his childhood, Stern takes us through a tour of his neighborhood, authenticating the past with his love of the senses and a penchant for entwining the sensual surface with the dark underbelly of every experience.
I walked up the main street of my neighborhood, sometimes ending up at my favorite pharmacy where I sat at the counter with a cup of coffee and maybe a Western magazine, the pages new, thick, with a certain pulpy smell that was my drug of choice back then.... There were already little crowds at the two or three bakeries--Rosenbloom's --smelling of fresh roll in front and rats in the back where the dirty work was done in garbage cans. (p. 22)
With characteristic passion and intensity, as if the event had occurred yesterday, Stern writes in his accruing clauses:
It was literally an invasion of our streets, our living space, by outsiders from other parts of the city to intimidate and assault the Jews.... They--their families--brought their hatred and contempt for the Jews over with them--from the Ukraine, from Poland, Lithuania, Romania ..., and combined this with the frustration and resentment they felt for their economic plight--which they also blamed on the Jews. (p. 37)
Stern accounts for this enmity with some compassion, by acknowledging the origins of such anti-Semitism as based in class resentment as well as ethnicity.
The Jews and non-Jews were both first and second generation, but the Jews were shopkeepers, salesmen, store managers, artisans, electricians, plumbers and a few pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, doctors and accountants; whereas the Easterri and Southern Europeans mostly worked in the mills or on the railroads. The children of one were at least half college-bound or readied for some "adventure," the children of the other were more doomed, as it were, to work the same jobs as their parents and half of them left school when they reached the compulsory age, often after the tenth grade. (p. 37)
Stern saw and felt the way class privilege and deprivation shapes individuals; his allegiance to that knowledge is far from utopian:
You could see the classes in terms of the clothes we wore, the kind of air we breathed, where our houses were perched, our proximity to the three rivers, our accents, our food, the degree of anxiety and helplessness we had, where we shopped, where we worshipped. (p. 255)
Stern's passion about America's invisible class-wars and false patriarchal authority are complicated and intensified by his own father's never having received the dignity, the decency and justice he deserved. Some of the book's most touching and idealizing passages reflect both Sterns' battle for principle, directness, and dignity in the social world. Gerald's feelings about his father radiate outward and inform many of Stern's social and emotional perspectives, from stances toward false authority, to the hypocrisy of the Protestant ethic, to the deprivation of being silenced or ignored. He describes his parents as being "desperate for listeners and in the wringing of their hands and in the grimaces and sneers and appeals to unseen witnesses, they expressed, in grotesquerie, their limitations" (p. 18).
My father was a Truman democrat. He was a manager but he loved unions and always respected men and women. I never heard him express words of bigotry or racial or religious hatred. He treated his female colleagues with equality, though no one told him to do so. He never belittled anyone. Moreover he was the best pool player at Shuster's Pool Hall.... I learned a great deal from him.
And what was his father's fate? In all the essays Stern reveals his love of leisure and respect for the cost of labor, but close to home his heart clearly breaks. When Stern reads Dickens and considers "the denial of liberty" (the way) "Modern Times pit the human dream of liberation against greed and exploitation, I think of my father."
Stern doesn't only romanticize his connections with his father. In a moving paragraph, Stern shows that, as an artist, he understands he's removed from his father's world of commerce and salesmanship. Here language and expression create distance between father and son.
My father--watched his son drift away and encase himself in a strange shell but had no words to penetrate it and was fearful of that cultured tongue, who made a little money, retired to Florida, adored his grandchildren, beat everyone in shuffleboard, and died obediently on his way to the hospital in an ambulance, no one to close his eyes. (p. 236)
In his chapter on the Sabbath, Stern's wrath at Calvinist repression and prejudice is palpable and immediate, spoken with the bitterness that comes from a passion for justice and a distaste for the myth of the fall, but most of all for its lack of faith in human goodness and action.
I didn't yet know about such things as double predetermination and the outrage in the garden. I just suffered their effects. Nor did I know much about the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century religious justification of murderous economic profit and endless economic abuse by the panderers of wealth unlimited, who built their system on greed, hypocrisy, exploitation, and self-congratulation. Calvinism ... taught that mankind was essentially doomed because of Adam's disobedience and is by itself incapable of goodness, nor could any of its "works" have merit--as far as the election to eternal life. (p. 26)
Stern's stereotyping of the Protestant other is intensified further by his knowledge of its exclusivity: Jews were refused admission into the privileged social world. For Stern, exclusion and repression corrupts even the transcendental beauty of art. Talking about walking past the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Hall, he notes:
It (the classical concert) was an activity that the privileged enjoyed, so it was more permissible on Sunday, for the privileged were allowed their golf and tennis and even--God save us--their martinis and gin and tonics in their country clubs, which were not, God save us again, in the country not counting Jews, who were excluded, and African-Americans--who weren't even considered--and Hunkies, our Pittsburgh word for East Europeans of all sorts. (p. 23)
Given this knowledge, Stern's dilemma--here and elsewhere--expressed in terms of Jewish tradition, is whether to seek justice or compassion. He can't synthesize these values into a harmonious rendering of experience. Using the episode from his childhood as a mirror to examine the greater horror of the Holocaust, he says,
In Judaism, where forgiveness requires both atonement and restitution, there are two sins that can never be forgiven: murder and destroying someone's reputation. (p. 243) Yet to deny or excuse the German government's debased inhuman behavior is in itself an act of complicity, as so many witnesses in Weisenthal's book affirm. (p. 244)
Quoting Mathew Fox, among others, he adds,
"This story--the entire Nazi story--lays bare the sins of complicity and denial that render our participation in evil so profound." He goes on to write about other sins of complicity and denial, including most especially those in Western countries and, particularly, America.
This hits close to home. Unless I, as a privileged American, a male, a Caucasian--and a Jew--come to terms with these, intellectually, politically, personally, I have not paid my own debt. (p. 245)
Elsewhere, judging his mother's bourgeois need for an expensive wedding ring that she wanted his father to purchase at a pricey Pittsburgh department store, he says,
Nor could I imagine any love of mine lusting after that ring. It summed up all that was banal, glitzy, conspicuous, and absurd about my mother and father's life.... The ring--made me fifteen years old again. It turned me into an unforgiving child. It made me a monster. (p. 209)
This willingness, indeed this capacity, to refuse exemption from judgments about justice and truth punctuates the book over and over again. For the most part he refuses the bane of memoirs, to render its subject idealized hero or victim, or more often, reformed victim or reformed predator. That kind of formulaic narcissism Stern spares us. And on those rare occasions where he becomes self-important or "heroic," the narrative usually takes the form of serving an example of idealism, seeking out (or failing to seek out) honor or social justice. Speaking with pride, he tells the story of how he refused a lucrative job from his father's partners. His refusal is costly. "My wife and I were living on fifty or sixty dollars a week ... and if I accepted the job ... I'd be rich in a few years.... Nor could I tell them I was refusing the offer to save my life, that I was on a different journey and I couldn't explain" (p. 218).
Of course, his decision to become an artist during a time of great economic and social insecurity was brave. Never does Stern regret that decision, which he sees as soul-making. The freedom, dignity and pure pleasure the art of poetry has given him shines everywhere through the book. His passionate commitment to art, his faith in art as fiercely independent thinking (which he explains as a "natural" need to refuse compromise), is as evident in the book as it is in his poems. In a passage where he and his friends travel to hear Casals break his silence after the fall of Franco, reflecting his own ethic, extending his own Jewish sensibility, he says of the cellist:
The argument for and against ideological art are absolutely beside the point in his case. He was not adopting a cause and "rearranging his art to accommodate it. The cause was natural as a tree is natural, or a dead man lying under a tree with a bullet in his pack.... Only that the fire is there at all times."
Quoting Casals, he adds,
"Alone," he said, "I possess a moral independence which I would not have if I acted differently. I am not a politician.... I am an artist who wishes to keep his faith with human principles." (pp. 92-3)
I found most amusing the many turns on Stern's being confused with Allen Ginsberg. This essay is multi-layered, filled with indignation, envy, moral superiority, but at its heart, loneliness and separateness. Stern begins the essay by complaining, "How weary I used to get, and resentful and impatient, when people mistook me for Allen Ginsberg. Part of the problem was the old bromide, "All Jews look alike." And Stern doesn't mind pridefully demonstrating the differences.
I was beefier, he had a beard, I wasn't gay, I didn't have a programme, I wasn't trying to shock the bourgeoisie, our voices-- pitch, tone, accent--were different. His singing voice was nothing, tinny, I thought, whereas I had a lovely second tenor. (p. 148)
But shortly thereafter he qualifies his judgment. "We saw through shit, we made unaccommodating judgments, we simplified. We liked the more severe prophets" (p. 149). And Stern's not afraid to expose the poet's most obvious frailty, envy. "He had the famous puss and I was a latecomer, so it would always be the same, if anything" (p. 151).
Surprisingly, and happily, the chapter turns to the artist's fears and inadequacies, his struggles to write good poems in isolation, in the face of many obstacles, including his own stubborn sensibility.
I have always admired the relationship between younger artists and older ones.... When I am questioned about my origins and find myself stammering or overbearing, trying desperately to account for myself, longing to be a branch of some tree, a leaf somewhere with clear veins and a regular shape. (p. 59)
Here and elsewhere, parenthetically, Stern acknowledges, though he's sometimes described as a nature poet, like Emerson, he's really interested in nature as metaphor. "I see I emphasized my attraction to weeds and waste places ... staking out a place no one else wanted because it was abandoned or overlooked.... I think I found in them a perfect location for my own emotions" (p. 71).
His ambivalent desire about being "fathered" or mentored by another poet doesn't escape his scrutiny, nor does he fail to examine his part in his isolation. It's impossible not to seek out the origins of his double-bind in his family history.
Probably my 'separateness' had a great deal to do with my own biology and my own history, with a certain shyness and a certain secrecy, coupled with a kind of arrogance ... that made me unwilling to submit at the same time as I was too distant, too modest even, to do so. (p. 60)
He makes the connection between his isolation and his long, unacknowledged journey to be an ambitious poet. "And a few years later, when I turned to writing, I had no one to turn to, although by that time I knew it was a good idea to have someone" (p. 63). In his long journey to becoming an accomplished poet, Stern emphasizes his costly early failures; and shows how embracing that failure became his authenticating first subject.
I was a practicing poet for almost two decades and had nothing to show. I suddenly was nowhere; I had reached bottom.... That my protracted youth was over, that I wouldn't live forever.... It was my own loss and failure that were my subject matter, as if I could only start building in the ruins. (pp. 69-70)
And movingly, Stern traces his need for artistic attention back to his sister's death, which shaped both his need for respect and acceptance and his aggrieved defiance of others' opinions.
But my sister's death, when she was nine and I was eight, is the one exception.... Also because it affected my parents so strongly and thus changed their behavior toward me, causing them, among other things, to overprotect and overnourish me--the one child left--and at the same time, in a subtle way, reject me and even accuse me ... because I was the survivor in the visit of death. (p. 63)
His mother's own grief and depression unconsciously created both his neediness and his feeling of being unique, spared, and even adored. But although he was the one embraced, held, truth was, as the instrument of his mother's grief, he was far from adored.
She (his mother) took me to bed and held me while she wept, "Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia," over and over again while I tried to console her.... Clearly I was being loved and rejected. Clearly, I was uncomfortable living in two places at once, with two debts to bear, my mother's and my own. (p. 63)
Stern's love of art, the way in which it saved his life, but also in the way it creates a community and relationship, the way it honors history itself, informs every essay, as does his love of language. That he chooses to dwell in Plato's cave serves as an emblem of his love of dreaming, interpreting, speaking, singing, and recollecting.
We live in caves; we do so because it is the only way we can decipher the words assigned to us, and stray as we have to. For those who don't, or can't, there is no shame; there is merely no sacred life, and no language. I feel like saying the poet's job is to remember (and not only the poet's)--that is to keep the past.... It's more to the point to say that he can't help doing that, ... the cave that he remembers.... Remembering is the art of the cave dweller. (p. 168)
Stern acknowledges his identification with being a Jew is partly sentimental and contingent--"my Judaism has always been an influence on me, but there too my connection has been a little tenuous and sometimes nostalgic" (p. 62)--but his sensibility, his conscience, his pleasure in the senses, his dedication to history and memory, his sense of himself as an outsider, are all informed by a little Pittsburgh apartment of fiercely principled and passionate Jews.
It's wonderful to see C. K. Williams writing at the height of his powers. The Singing brings him back to some of his most densely textured and confident writing in Tar and Flesh and Blood. Perhaps because of the difference in generations as well as temperament, Williams is a more subjective thinker than Stern, and his sensibility is more implicitly than explicitly Jewish. It would distort his work to portray his concerns as exclusively, or even predominantly Jewish. But he does share most of Stern's concerns, including the power of consciousness, identification with the victim, worry over the impact of history, and being torn between justice and compassion. Williams's quest for a truth is made more difficult--dramatized in his qualifying syntax--by his mistrust of absolutes: knowledge and memory are tempered by the frailty of perception, which is always under threat of revision, distortion, even annihilation. One's own motives are as suspect as the motives of those we judge. Williams's ambivalence is also drawn from his extreme self-consciousness (as the outsider or "watcher"); like Stern, his process underlines the necessity for meditation and analyzing (the way to make sense of experience), which ironically leads to wrenching one-self from immediate experience.
One poem in the collection, "Bialystok, or Lvov," addresses simultaneously the intersection of history, expression, memory and Jewishness. The narrator in this poem refuses to sentimentalize or idealize the immigrant generation (more removed and aesthetically assimilationist poets, like Robert Pinsky, can appropriate and project their own 'penetrating sensitivity' to that ancestral experience);* Williams recognizes the past is not his. Imaginative language serves more as a medium of distortion and distance than creating illumination or a stable identity. Talking of the visage of his great-grandfather,
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.
Thrice removed from the narrative events--here's a story inside a story--the narrator's left with a shattered gaze that metaphorizes the failed attempt to embrace or "own" that history. Time, distance, and the father's "fabulated" words all translate the desire for origins, connections, and blood ties in a "lost name."
The project of the wonderful title poem, "The Singing," brings together Williams's romantic longing for connection with his self-conscious recognition of an indecipherable universe. Cultural alienation and psychological drives overrun our capacity to know ourselves or one another. The impulse here, as in many of Williams's best poems, intertwines the personal and the social. While the narrator looks for signs of reciprocity between him and a Black stranger he encounters on a walk, he's forced to acknowledge his tangled motives, a web of self-interest and self-deception. Williams recognizes the desire to identify and be accepted is entwined with an infantile desire to be seen as a "good person." The poem ultimately satirizes the liberal humanist's blurring of difference (we are all one). Williams uses his signature syntactical strategy, the impulse to qualify, contradict, to undermine the easy transcendence. As with Stern, Williams stays with the material and secular world, a world that survives--as he says in a later poem, "Chaos"--our rage for order.
At the beginning of the poem, he listens to the young man's "cadenced shouting/most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was black speaking black." To ease his own discomfort, the speaker finds kinship with the young black man by projecting on to him "it didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased me he was nice looking." For a moment, the speaker's desire to be included leads him to believe the young man is addressing him with "song":
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
The diction of "droll," set against the "Black talk," helps us understand why the speaker can't decipher the song: the poem's encoded with class and racial misunderstandings that mirror, not incidentally, recent American history between Jews and Blacks. Some liberal Jews, such as those portrayed almost stereotypically in Alice Walker's Meridian, want to be liked, want to assuage the guilt of privilege at the same time they want to be considered "special" individuals. After the narrator hears the young Black man say "I am not a nice person" (even though he's 'nice looking,' it turns out he's not bourgeois), the narrator must ultimately reject the Romantic "lyrical spilling over." The cadenced shouting is indecipherable, the speaker catches a fragment or two (which he first assumes is spoken to him) but comes to understand "That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord between us I should forget it ... // nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to me again." By the end of the poem, the drama teaches "That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord between us I should forget it." The final meditation of the poem tentatively eulogizes the separation between our need to be heard and attended to by some spiritualizing song.
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
Williams's desire to imagine a world that's sanctified by language or expression (the Modernist dream) is undermined not only by racial projection, but by estranged and irrational urban life. Expression fails to render him individual, nor can it make the world cohere by signification. Williams uses verbs that continually blur and qualify, which dramatizes how self-deception corrupts our longing for concordance, correspondence, equality, our faith in imagination or a designing higher power. It may feel as if "someone is there" (the Black man, God, an open, welcoming human being), but nothing will "re-do" or "rectify" history.
In the surprising poem "Gravel," the narrator also looks for signification, and again the world will not provide it.
It's not, "Look what I found!" but the gravel itself, which is what puzzles adults, that nothing's there, even beneath, but it's just what Catherine most likes, that there's no purpose to it, no meaning.
But this innocent play (reminiscent of figures in Blake's "Songs of Innocence") becomes complicated and darkened when a stranger spits at Catherine on the subway. The narrator can't account for, justify, or give meaning to this "crook, the creep, the slime." But as he'd been told the story from a distance (again the narrator has only the words), he's speechless, he can only shudder:
as I, now, not in a park or playground, not watching a child sift through her shining fingers those bits of shattered granite which might be our lives, shudder again.
In "The Clause," the desire to pursue an integrated self, to create meaning and order by acts of mind, ironically generates a self-perpetuating labyrinth of instability and uncertainty:
This entity I call my mind, this hive of restlessness, this wedge of want my mind calls self, this self which doubts so much and which keeps teaching, keeps referring, keeps aspiring, longing, towards some state from which ambiguity would be banished, uncertainty expunged; this implement my mind and self imagine they might make together, which would have everything accessible to it, all our doings and undoings all at once before it, so it would have at last the right to bless, or blame, for without everything before you, all at once, how bless, how blame?
The last few lines echo Stern's dilemma choosing between justice and compassion. Here subjectivity, the impossibility of knowing all that's required, renders that choice impossible.
In the beautiful closing stanza of "The World," though, the narrator chides his desire to signify, to judge and create symbol, thereby leaving the material world.
Each sprig of lavender lifting jauntily as its sated butterfly departs, Catherine beneath the beech tree with her father and sisters, me watching, everything and everyone might stand for something else, be something else. Though in truth I can't imagine what; 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.
On the one hand, Williams's secular materialism critiques the project of making more of the world, for trying to find fictive correspondence (metaphor in art), spiritual meaning, and coherence, because the interjection distorts the actual world. On the other, as an artist driven to express, to seek justice, to create a vision, Williams conversely worries that utterance has insufficient power to communicate and transform. In one of the darkest historical poems in the collection, the voices of civilization only veil self-interest and helplessness:
They'd been speaking of their absurd sentences, and of the cruelty of so-called civilization, And the listeners imagine the old man is going to share his innocent rapture, But No, he says, No, the trees and their seeds and flowers are at war just as we are, .... each species of tree relentlessly seeks its own ends; Does it matter what words are spoken? That the evidence proves one thing or another? Isn't the ultimate hope just that we'll still be addressed, and I know others are, too, That meanings will still be devised and evidence offered of lives having been lived? "In the North, the trees ..." and the wretched page turns, and we listen, and listen. (from "In the Forest")
In other poems, Williams can't resist the urge to reconcile truth and justice with compassion. Resolution is corrupted less by "complicity" than our need to self-justify, to externalize with rage or blame. Reminiscent in some of its diction's turns ("It's pleasant to think of you," and "some Harold Brodkey wandering into your mind") of Ashbery's "Mixed Feelings," "Oh," a poem for and about Brodkey, is wide-ranging in its associations and tonal shifts. "Oh," like "My Mother's Lips," twists narrative perspective, so, like a late Cezanne painting, perception and stance become mobile.
OH Oh my, Harold Brodkey, of all people, after all this time appearing to me, so long after his death, so even longer since our friendship, our last friendship, the third or fourth, the one anyway when the ties between us definitively frayed, (Oh, Harold's a handful, another of his exfriends sympathized, to my relief); Harold Brodkey, at a Christmas Eve dinner, of all times and places, because of my nephew's broken nose, of all reasons, which he suffered in an assault, the bone shattered, reassembled, but healing a bit out of plumb, and when I saw him something Harold wrote came to mind, about Marlon Brando, how until Brando's nose was broken he's been pretty, but after he was beautiful, and that's the case here, a sensitive boy now a complicatedly handsome young man with a sinewy edge he hadn't had, which I surely remark because of Harold, and if I spoke to the dead, which I don't or not often, I might thank him: It's pleasant to think of you, Harold, of our good letters and talks; I'm sorry we didn't make it up that last time, I wanted to but I was worn out by your snits and rages, your mania to be unlike and greater than anyone else, your preemptive attacks for inadequate acknowledgment of your genius ... But no, leave it alone, Harold's gone, truly gone, and isn't it unforgivable, vile, to stop loving someone, or to stop being loved; we don't mean to lose friends, but someone drifts off, and we let them, or they renounce us, or we them, or we're hurt, like flowers, for god's sake, when really we're prideful brutes, as blunt as icebergs. Until something like this, some Harold Brodkey wandering into your mind, as exasperating as ever, and, oh my, as brilliant, as charming, unwound from his web to confront you with how ridden you are with unthought regret, how diminished, how well you know you'll clunk on to the next rationalization, the next loss, the next lie.
The narrator's ambivalent, torn between his impatience with Brodkey's explosive, self-important grievances and his inability to let go of his own rage. He associates the beauty of damage with his nephew and Brando--our histories reflect vulnerability in our faces--but that perception brings him to his estranged friend, whose "damage" depleted and exhausted him. The process of the poem moves us toward revealing the narrator's own frailties and contradictions, including his failure "to love." We pay a price for our judgments, for stopping "loving someone." The ghostly Harold Brodkey metaphorically haunts the narrator with his own "unthought regret." How diminished he is, having lost the capacity to embrace damage, by judging and thereby refusing to empathize. Finally, to let go of Brodkey, is to accept the impossible, his death, and to accept not only one's own mortality and the opportunity to "rectify," but our flawed capacity to love. In the closure of the poem Williams turns to the second pronoun, so the "you" becomes Brodkey, the speaker and the reader: we all stand accused. We're consumed by too much self and a sense of deprivation, which impedes our capacity to experience sustained intimacy. The resolution of the poem turns away from its subject, and instead looks inward in to Williams's familiar self-effacing or self-hating "rationalization."
Lost in a world that lacks a moral center but one that requires continuous choice and judgment, these Jewish writers both find the need to probe difficulty, the irrational, and the incomplete. Their concentration on the dark bespeaks both of a familiar Jewish pessimism, but is also informed by their need to understand goodness and evil. The cost of these stirrings for Williams is blindness to the world as it is, a world not plaited with meaning but stirring with immediacy and the "play"--in this poem--of childhood.
But why, even in dreams, must I dwell on the dark, in the dire, in the drek? A foal in a dappling field, I might have dreamed, a child trailing after with a rope, But no, the sense, the scent nearly, the dream-scent, was wild frustration; not pity but some insane collision with greed, and power, and credulity, above all. (from "Chaos")
There's no easy communion for Stern and Williams: I hear in their ironies the ghostly voice of Stevens's satirical "The deer and the dachshund are one." These Jewish writers require dismantling the hypocrisy and injustice of a destructive and fictive world order, a transcendental world that promises beauty and redeemed spirit. Reminiscent of Queequeq's tattoos in Moby-Dick, the secrets of the universe, once inscribed, remain inscrutable and untranslatable. "The historical idea of the Jew as eternally stubborn, hopeful and dreaming creature" has served as "a secret metaphor for my own inclinations" (Stern, p. 62). That desire to heighten sensual attention at the same time they remain "hopeful," helps them inhabit this world with a remarkable love for justice and compassion.
*In an unpublished talk called "What's There When Nothing's There: The New Elliptical," Mary Jo Bang offers a brilliant and searing discussion of Pinsky's "The Green Piano" from the perspective of sentimental appropriation.
IRA SADOFF'S most recent collection of poems is Barter (Illinois, 2003). He teaches at Colby College and in the MFA program at New England College.
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|Title Annotation:||What I Can't Bear Losing; The Singing|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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