C.K. Williams

Not Soul by C.K. Williams

Not soul,
not that tired tale anyway about preliterate
people believing cameras would extract
their spiritual essence, nothing so obvious,

but what is it I feel has been stripped,
stolen, negated, when I look out across
this valley of old farms, mist, trees,
a narrow, steep-banked brook,

and have the thought take me that all this
is a kind of reservation, a museum,
of land, plants, houses, even people¾
a woman now, crossing a field¾

that it all endures only by the happenstance
of no one having decided to “develop” it,
bring in a highway from the turnpike,
construct subdivisions, parking lots, malls?

Not soul,
soul is what religions believed subsumes
experience and will, what philosophers
surmised compels us to beauty and virtue,

is what even the most skeptical still save
for any resolving description of inner life,
this intricately knotted compound
which resists any less ambiguous locution.

How imagine so purely human a term
applying to things, to the rushing brook
which follows the slant of soil beneath it,
the mist functioned by the warmth of air,

even the houses to be torn down or crowded
into anonymity according to patterns
which have no discernible logic, certainly
nothing one mind might consider sufficient?

Not soul,
but still, anthropomorphism or not,
the very shape and hue and texture of reality,
the sheen of surface, depth of shadow,

seem unfocused now, hollowed out,
as though the pact between ourselves and world
that lets the world stand for more than itself
were violated, so that everything I see,

the lowering clouds, the tempered light,
and even all I only bring to mind, is dulled,
despoiled, as though consciousness no longer
could distill such truths within itself,

as though a gel of sadness had been interposed
between me and so much loveliness
so much at risk, as though a tear
had ineradicably fixed upon the eye.

Secret Dancers

For about 3 years, I was a bit obsessed with C.K. Williams's poems. They usually tell stories, and rather than worrying over whether his words impose some burden of meaning on his subjects, Williams uses words to discover the meanings that exist independent of them. The result is a stripping away of tired, habituated ways of seeing to make way for new revelation.
This poem was also inspired by Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, which focuses on a day in the life of a neurosurgeon. Anyway, I really love how this poem turned out, but it's so derivative I feel I have to cite my inspirations.

                                       Secret Dancers
The woman on the right side of the booth as I approach—“Can I get you something to
            drink?”—I noticed had something wrong with her,
the way she walked, the way she moved, when I led her with her friend, much older,
her mother perhaps, from the door—“Hello, will it be
just the two of you today?”—to where they sit, in my section, scanning the menu for that
one item.

“I’d just like water with lemon,” the one on the left says, the older one, the mother.
I nod, repeating, “water with lemon,” as I turn to the other,
like I always turn from one to the next, but this time with an added eagerness, with a
curiosity I know may offend, and I see my diagnosis was correct,
for the woman cannot, does not, sit still, cannot be still, but jerks and sways, as if unable
to establish equilibrium, find a balanced middle.

I’m glad, hurrying to the fountains, as I always do, the woman said, in essence,
“For me too,” because I’ve already lost her words in the deluge
of the disturbance, the rarity, the tragedy of the sight of her involuntary dance—chorea—
which is, aside from the movement, nothing at all like a dance,
more an antidance, signaling things opposite to what real dancers do with their

I watch my hands do by habit the filling of plastic cups with ice and water, reach for
straws and lemons, still seeing her, slipping though sitting,
and doing my own semantic antidance in my mind: “How could anyone go on
believing… after seeing… dopamine… substantia nigra…
choreographed by nucleotides—no one ever said the vestibular structure, the loop
under the ear with the tiny floating bone that gives us, that is
our sense of balance, was implicated… so important to see.”

In the kitchen, sorting dishes by shape on the stainless steal table on their way to being
washed, I call to the pretty young cook I sort of love,
who sort of loves but sort of hates me for the sorts of things I say (noticing and
questioning), and say, “There’s a woman with Parkinson’s
at table three—you should come look,” and feel chastised by an invisible authority
(somewhere in my frontal lobe I suspect) before the suggestion
can even be acknowledged. Look? Are we to examine her, make her a specimen, or
gawk, like at a freak? But it—she is so important to see,
I set to formulating a new category of looking.

I begin with the varieties of suffering so proudly and annoyingly on display: abuse, or
“abuse”, survived, poverty escaped, gangsta rappers shot or imprisoned
to earn their street cred, chains of slights and abandonments by ex-lovers, all heard so
frequently, boasted of as markers of authenticity. Is there a way,
I wonder, to look that would serve as tribute to the woman’s much more literal, much
more real perseverance and courage, a registering and appreciation
of identity, that precious plumage that renders each of us findable in the endless welter
and noise of faces and the dubious stories of heroism attached to them?

Returning to the booth to take the women’s orders, so awkward, so wrong, the looking,
I discover, cannot be condoned under my new rubric because
the sufferer’s antidance is leading her in the wrong direction. Those stories of abuse,
penury, assaults or arrests, and recurrent dealings with
unfaithful lovers all go from bad, the worse the better, to better but never too good. This
story, like nearly all real and authentic stories, is about deterioration.
So I type their orders on the touch screen computer, defeated, chastened, as if curiosity—
noticing and questioning—leads irredeemably to taboo
(but how lucky to be born with this affliction instead of one more incapacitating!)

I’m left sulking a little, and thinking about dancing and movement that goes by the name
but isn’t. “Dance Champ!” they exhorted Ali from ringside in Zaire,
when he’d decided, strategically, and it turned out successfully, not to. Ali, The Greatest,
the star and subject of movies, King of Classic Sports on ESPN,
his not quite dancing featured so prominently, so inescapably—look all you want, look
and be awed—but all in the past. You forget the man is still alive.
The secrecy makes me wonder: is it economic, is it political?

The visibility, the stark advertisement of achievers of the formerly impossible, the
heroically, the monstrously successful, coupled with the tabooed
hiding away of the vastly more numerous unfortunate, fallen, and afflicted—the
lifeblood, the dangling American Dream, insufficient,
the market for better lives necessitates the beating heart of  belief, “You can do
anything...,” be your heroes, be heroes for others, by working,
spending, studying, being industrious, acquisitive, but never, never questioning and only
curious to a degree, “…anything you put your” (antidancing) “mind to.”

As I carry the plates, one in the crook between palm and thumb in my left hand, the other
balanced over it on my wrist so I have a free hand to grab the ketchup
on my way to the booth, I recall uneasily watching Ali, his arm outstretched, antidancing
as he lit the Olympic Torch.

CK Williams translates Ovid

Image Courtesy of wikimedia.org

Hercules, Deianira, Nessus
                   From Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IX
There was absolutely no reason after the centaur had pawed her and
            tried to mount her,
after Hercules waiting across the raging river for the creature to carry her
            to him
heard her cry out and launched an arrow soaked in the hydra’s incurable
            venom into the monster,
that Deianira should have believed him, Nessus, horrible thing, as he
            died but she did.
We see the end of the story: Deianira anguished, aghast, suicide-sword
            in her hand;
Hercules’ blood hissing and seething like water in which molten rods are
            plunged to anneal,
but how could a just-married girl hardly out of her father’s house have
            envisioned all that,
and even conjecturing that Nessus was lying, plotting revenge, how
            could she have been sure?
We see the centaur as cunning, malignant, a hybrid from the savage time
            before ours
when emotion always was passion and passion was always unchecked by
            commandment or conscience;
she sees only a man-horse, mortally hurt, suddenly harmless, eyes sud-
            denly soft as a foal’s,
telling her, “Don’t be afraid, come closer, listen”: offering homage,
            friendship, a favor.
In our age or scrutiny and dissection we know Deianira’s mind better
            than she does herself:
we know the fortune of women as chattel and quarry, objects to be won
            then shunted aside;
we understand the cost of repression, the repercussions of unsatisfied
            rage and resentment,
but consciousness then was still new, Deianira inhabited hers like the
            light from a fire.
Or might she have glimpsed with that mantic prescience the gods hadn’t
            yet taken away
her hero a lifetime later on the way home with another king’s daughter,
            callow, but lovely,
lovely enough to erase from Hercules’ scruples not only his vows but the
            simple convention
that tells you you don’t bring a rival into your aging wife’s weary, sorrow-
            ful bed?
…No, more likely the centaur’s promise intrigued in itself: an infalli-
            ble potion of love.
“Just gather the clots of blood from my wound: here, use my shirt, then
            hide it away.
Though so exalted, so regal a woman as you never would need it, it
            might still be of use:
whoever’s shoulders it touches, no matter when, will helplessly, hope-
            lessly love you forever.”
See Hercules now in the shirt Deianira has sent him approaching the
            fire of an altar,
the garment suddenly clinging, the hydra, his long-vanquished foe, alive
            in its threads,
each thread a tentacle clutching at him, each chemical tentacle acid,
            adhering, consuming,
charring before his horrified eyes skin from muscle, muscle from tendon,
            tendon from bone.
Now Deianira, back then, the viscous gouts of Nessus’ blood dyeing her
            diffident hands:
if she could imagine us watching her there in her myth, how would she
            want us to see her?
Surely as symbol, a petal of sympathy caught in the perilous rift between
            culture and chaos,
not as the nightmare she’d be, a corpse with a slash of tardy self-
            knowledge deep in its side.
What Hercules sees as he pounds up the bank isn’t himself cremated
            alive on his pyre,
shrieking as Jove his Olympian father extracts his immortal essence from
            its agonized sheathing¾
he sees what’s before him: the woman, his bride, kneeling to the dark,
            rushing river,
obsessively scrubbing away, he must think, the nocuous, mingled reek
            of horse, hydra, human.
                                                                                    ¾C.K. Williams
                                                                                                TheVigil, 1997
Also available in Collected Works