Posts filed under ‘C K Williams’

In the Heart of the Beast

C. K. Williams

Listen (part 2)

Listen (part 3)

(May 1970: Kent State, Jackson State)


I’m sorry.

I don’t want to hear anymore that the innocent farmer in ohio on guard
duty means well but is fucked up by his politicians and raises his
rifle out of some primal fear for his own life and his family’s and
that he hates niggers hates them hates them because he is warped and
deceived by events

and pulls the trigger

I’m sorry I don’t want to forgive him anymore
I don’t want to say he didn’t know what he was doing
because he knew what he was doing
because he didn’t pull the trigger once and run away screaming
they kept shooting the kids said
we thought they were blanks but they kept shooting and shooting
we were so scared.

I don’t want to forgive the bricklayer from akron who might or might
not hate his mother I don’t care or the lawyer or gas station
attendant from cleveland who may or may not have had a bad childhood

I don’t care

I don’t want to know

I don’t want to hear anything about it

another kid said the rocks weren’t even reaching them!

I don’t want to understand why they did it

how could you?
just that

everything else is pure shit.


on the front page of the times a girl is screaming
she will be screaming forever
and her friend will lie there forever you wouldn’t know she wasn’t
just sleeping in the sun except for the other screaming
and on the editorial page
“the tragic nature of the division of the country…the provocation
undoubtably was great and was also unpardonable…”

o my god
my god

if there was a way to purify the world who would be left?
there is a list
and it says
this person for doing this
and that person for doing nothing
and this person for not howling in rage
and that for desperately hanging on to the reasons the reasons
there is an avenger
who would be left?
who is there now who isn’t completely insane from all this?
who didn’t dream with me last night
of burning everything destroying everyone
of tearing pieces of your own body off
of coughing your language up and spitting it away like vomit
of wanting to start at the bottom of your house
breaking everything floor by floor
burning the pictures
tearing the mattresses up
smashing windows and chairs until nothing is left
and then the cars with a sledgehammer
the markets
the stores that sell things
the buses
the bridges into the city
the airports
the international harbors
the tall buildings crumpling like corpses
the theaters torn down to the bare stage
the galleries naked the bookstores like mouths open

there should be funerals in front of the white house
bones in the capitol

where do you stop?

how can we be like this?

The more I hear people drawing comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the current one in Iraq, the more I’m struck by one vivid difference – the lack of widespread public protest against the Iraq invasion. Never mind the opinion polls, where are the marches, the street protests?

I’m not alone in noticing this. In last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:

“One of the things that will strike future historians about our era is the placidity of American cultural life at the time of a wildly unpopular war – the unexcited alteration of American death and “American Idol” so different from the eruptions that attended Vietnam – that is a result of our not having to go there if we don’t have [want?] to.”

Today’s poem takes us back to 1970, to the time of those violent eruptions, to the massive outpouring of political outrage that once overflowed America’s campuses, and became the keynote of a generation that turned protest into a culture. It is an angry and (uncharacteristically for Williams) over-the-top poem, frantic in its accusations, breathless with sensibility. Like the generation it champions it is frenzied and impractical; but that is exactly the point. There are times when our conscience demands that we not be reasonable, that we refuse to make allowances. And when what is at stake is the lives and freedoms of innocent people, whether at home or in another country, then that time has come.

There is much that could be said against the student protests of the 70s. You could take, with Gopnik, the cynical view, and argue that, in the era of the draft, the protests were motivated by self-interest. You could say that at the end of the day the protests achieved nothing. No matter what their reasons and no matter how little they achieved, though, at least the young people of the day protested – as loudly and as vehemently as they were able. You may say they were dreamers, but it was a beautiful dream.

And why is a poem about the suppressing of an anti-war protest part of a series on War Poetry? Because in the end the only war worth fighting is the one against war itself.


P.S.: C.K. Williams has a new Collected Poems out (FSG, 2006). A lovely book.

February 12, 2007 at 12:50 pm 1 comment

On the Metro

C K Williams

Listen (to Dion Flynn)

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me;
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptation to Exist—and notice her glancing up from hers
to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms herself physically,” that is,
becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before: though she hasn’t moved, she’s allowed herself
to come more sharply into focus, be more accessible to my sensual perception, so I can’t help but remark
her strong figure and very tan skin—(how literally golden young women can look at the end of summer.)
She leans back now, and as the train rocks and her arm brushes mine she doesn’t pull it away;
she seems to be allowing our surfaces to unite: the fine hairs on both our forearms, sensitive, alive,
achingly alive, bring news of someone touched, someone sensed, and thus acknowledged, known.

I understand that in no way is she offering more than this, and in truth I have no desire for more,
but it’s still enough for me to be taken by a surge, first of warmth then of something like its opposite:
a memory—a girl I’d mooned for from afar, across the table from me in the library in school now,
our feet I thought touching, touching even again, and then, with all I craved that touch to mean,
my having to realize it wasn’t her flesh my flesh for that gleaming time had pressed, but a table leg.
The young woman today removes her arm now, stands, swaying against the lurch of the slowing train,
and crossing before me brushes my knee and does that thing again, asserts her bodily being again,
(Gombrowicz again), then quickly moves to the door of the car and descends, not once looking back,
(to my relief not looking back), and I allow myself the thought that though I must be to her again
as senseless as that table of my youth, as wooden, as unfeeling, perhaps there was a moment I was not.

(Poetry magazine Sept 2005. The reading is from the Poetry Foundation podcast.)

Makes you chuckle. The vulnerability of the poet and his rather hopeless anticipation work very well. People are almost always craving contact. And while we are still figuring out a way to read other people’s minds, the books they carry, seems like a good representation of their intellect and taste, don’t they?

A friend of mine judges people by (the contents of) their bookshelves. One will follow complete strangers just to catch a glimpse of the book they are carrying and another will ignore all the hot single women in a cafe. The only thing his eyes connect with are the sleeves of the books these women are reading.


Witold Gombrowicz was a Polish novelist and dramatist. Emil Cioran a Romanian philosopher and writer.


September 13, 2006 at 9:20 pm 8 comments

Cassandra, Iraq

C K Williams



She’s magnificent, as we imagine women must be
who foresee and foretell and are right and disdained.

This is the difference between we who are like her
in having been right and disdained, and we as we are.

Because we, in our foreseeings, our having been right,
are repulsive to ourselves, fat and immobile, like toads.

Not toads in the garden, who after all are what they are,
but toads in the tale of death in the desert of sludge.


In this tale of lies, of treachery, of superfluous dead,
were there ever so many who were right and disdained?

With no notion of what to do next? If we were true seers,
as prescient as she, as frenzied, we’d know what to do next.

We’d twitter, as she did, like birds; we’d warble, we’d trill.
But what would it be really, to twitter, to warble, to trill?

Is it ee-ee-ee, like having a child? Is it uh-uh-uh, like a wound?
Or is it inside, like a blow, silent to everyone but yourself?


Yes, inside, I remember, oh-oh-oh: it’s where grief
is just about to be spoken, but all at once can’t be: oh.

When you no longer can “think” of what things like lies,
like superfluous dead, so many, might mean: oh.

Cassandra will be abducted at the end of her tale, and die.
Even she can’t predict how. Stabbed? Shot? Blown to bits?

Her abductor dies, too, though, in a gush of gore, in a net.
That we know; she foresaw that – in a gush of gore, in a net.

(From the April 3, 2006 issue of the New Yorker)

To be right is not always to win. There are times when everyone loses, times when you almost wish you had got it wrong. For those of us who believed that the US should not have invaded Iraq, there is little satisfaction in knowing that time has proved us right. Rather there is only the frustration, and a terrible sense of loss for so many lives needlessly wasted.

Williams’ poem captures that sense of bitter vindication perfectly, invoking Cassandra (a connection that seemed so obvious after I read it that I still can’t believe I didn’t think about it before) and delivering some truly superb lines along the way. I didn’t think much of the second part of the poem, but I loved the opening, loved the “it’s where grief / is just about to be spoken, but all of a sudden can’t be” line, and loved the way the poem ends, the repetition of that final phrase combining menace with a sense of trapped helplessness.


April 10, 2006 at 9:38 pm 3 comments