Poets, I guarantee you, never spring fully formed into their craft. We are all deeply in debt to the writers, thinkers, artists who lend us shape, structure, language; who make our own work possible by broadening our idea of what poetry, and art, is capable of. In this space, I’ll be exploring texts from writers that I consider foundational or important to my own practice. No matter what craft or path we are in pursuit of, I believe one of the strongest acts of community is to talk openly about who you’ve been influenced by, who has helped to carve out the territory that your practice now inhabits. This space will be my attempt to do just that.
C. K. Williams’s Tar is, at times, unbearable. On my second and third trips through the collection, I’m not ashamed to say that I had to avert my eyes from certain segments. In many ways, it was like a particularly evocative/visceral/difficult scene in a movie I’ve already watched. The first time, it hit me like a cinder block dropped from an airplane—with his unassuming titles, the most harrowing moments tend to jump from around corners and crush your face rather quickly. Once I knew it was coming, I found myself bracing for the impact, but in no way was the power lessened by the lack of surprise. Williams is an unrelenting force of perception and self-awareness who floods the reader with his micronarratives: heavy doses of his inner persona cut with clear and astute observation of the outside world.
When I say parts of Tar are unbearable, it’s meant as a compliment—or it’s at least meant as an acknowledgement of Williams’s affective ability as it relates to his perception. Rarely have the description-based poems I’ve encountered been able to pull as much emotional weight as the poems in Tar. Description-heavy poems are often trying to make a point by being cool/distant about something big and/or terrible, or they’re highlighting some aspect of universality by focusing on something small yet enduring. Either way, they usually let the brilliance of the observation speak for itself, with little in the way of personal interjection in the body of the poem. The difference with Williams’s poems is that they’re the internal processing of the observation as it’s been run through the speaker’s own intensely personal, aware, developed perspective. Because the poems are in first person and are often told in the storytelling mode of remembrance—a mixture of present and past tense—Williams imparts the feeling of being in the room as someone talks to their inner self, unaware of another’s presence. Combined with Williams’s ability for photorealistic description and perfect memory recall (or at least the impression of perfect memory recall), what emerges are these airtight micronarratives that function in a similar fashion as a series of film shorts would. Our brains, ideally, naturally and effortlessly encode our own memories, our data—large or small, fascinating or mundane—with a sort of encryption, a data signature that carries within it the sum of our perception; it’s how we view the world and our place in it. We gravitate toward people with similar perceptions because trying to decrypt our experience to a point that it can be understood by someone who functions in a completely different way from us is an almost impossible task. If all of us had perfect brains, we could call up any memory in our mind like a vast video library and be able to show it to someone else in the same way that we see it. We lack perfect brains, of course, but in Tar, Williams demonstrates the ability to not only have control over that level of recall, but to take the reader along with him to his private screenings and show them how he sees the world.
“From My Window” is a good example:
From My Window
Spring: the first morning when that one true block of sweet, laminar, complex scent arrives
from somewhere west and I keep coming to lean on the sill, glorying in the end of the wretched winter.
The scabby-barked sycamores ringing the empty lot across the way are budded—I hadn’t noticed—
and the thick spikes of the unlikely urban crocuses have already broken the gritty soil.
Up the street, some surveyors with tripods are waving each other left and right the way they do.
A girl in a gym suit jogged by a while ago, some kids passed, playing hooky, I imagine,
and now the paraplegic Vietnam vet who lives in a half-converted warehouse down the block
and the friend who stays with him and seems to help him out come weaving towards me,
their battered wheelchair lurching uncertainly from one edge of the sidewalk to the other.
I know where they’re going—to the “Legion”: once, when I was putting something out, they stopped,
both drunk that time, too, both reeking—it wasn’t ten o’clock—and we chatted for a bit.
I don’t know how they stay alive—on benefits most likely. I wonder if they’re lovers?
They don’t look it. Right now, in fact, they look a wreck, careening haphazardly along,
contriving, as they reach beneath me, to dip a wheel from the curb so that the chair skewers, teeters,
tips, and they both tumble, the one slowly, almost gracefully sliding in stages from his seat,
his expression hardly marking it, the other staggering over him, spinning heavily down,
to lie on the asphalt, his mouth working, his feet shoving weakly and fruitlessly against the curb.
In the storefront office on the corner, Reed and Son, Real Estate, have come to see the show.
Gazing through the golden letters of their name, they’re not, at least, thank god, laughing.
Now the buddy, grabbing at a hydrant, gets himself erect and stands there for a moment, panting.
Now he has to lift the other one, who lies utterly still, a forearm shielding his eyes from the sun.
He hauls him partly upright, then hefts him almost all the way into the chair, but a dangling foot
catches a support-plate, jerking everything around so that he has to put him down,
set the chair to rights, and hoist him again and as he does he jerks the grimy jeans right off him.
No drawers, shrunken, blotchy thighs: under the thick, white coils of belly blubber,
the poor, blunt pud, tiny, terrified, retracted, is almost invisible in the sparse genital hair,
then his friend pulls his pants up, he slumps wholly back as though he were, at last, to be let be,
and the friend leans against the cyclone fence, suddenly staring up at me as though he’d known,
all along, that I was watching and I can’t help wondering if he knows that in the winter, too,
I watched, the night he went out to the lot and walked, paced rather, almost ran, for how many hours.
It was snowing, the city in that holy silence, the last we have, when the storm takes hold,
and he was making patterns that I thought at first were circles, then realized made a figure eight,
what must have been to him a perfect symmetry but which, from where I was, shivered, bent,
and lay on its side: a warped, unclear infinity, slowly, as the snow came faster, going out.
Over and over again, his head lowered to the task, he slogged the path he’d blazed,
but the race was lost, his prints were filling faster than he made them now and I looked away,
up across the skeletal trees to the tall center city buildings, some, though it was midnight,
with all their offices still gleaming, their scarlet warning beacons signaling erratically
against the thickening flakes, their smoldering auras softening portions of the dim, milky sky.
In the morning, nothing: every trace of him effaced, all the field pure white,
its surface glittering, the dawn, glancing from its glaze, oblique, relentless, unadorned.
The characteristic lineation and description-heavy content suggest a prose-poem at first glance but never does Williams’s style actually conform to that initial observation. The tight, driven description relies on rich sonic rhythms to move the reader along, taking advantage of the wide spaces provided by the long lines to create momentum rather than using it as extra space to veer the poem toward a more prosaic construction. Williams rarely lingers too long or falls into the trap of growing florid with his language, remaining compact and dense in his description, just offering a lot of it. He favors lists of adjectives in key descriptive moments, preferring to let them do the work rather than risk an overwrought passage: “the poor, blunt pud, tiny, terrified, retracted”; “from where I was, shivered, bent, / and lay on its side: a warped, unclear infinity, slowly, as the snow came faster, going out”; “In the morning, nothing: every trace of him effaced, all the field pure white, / its surface glittering, the dawn, glancing from its glaze, oblique, relentless, unadorned.” In doing so, Williams preserves the sonic intensity (those sounds clumped so closely together hit like kick drums) and doesn’t distract the reader with any extraneous information, something that is critical to the success of his micronarratives. The reason I call his poems micronarratives is not so much their size but that they rarely deal with large moments or anything even resembling a “big” story, really. They’re very small in scope, though there is nothing small about their intensity, and it’s in that lack of distraction that I also find the similarities to short film.
Similar to the visual medium, Williams is showing you everything in perfectly clear detail (or as clear as he desires it to be). The setting is established (spring), surveyors are, well, surveying, a girl is jogging, kids pass by, then the two focal points of the poem come along; it feels like we’re moving from shot to shot. Of course, the difference, and indeed the most powerful part of the poem, lies in Williams’s ability to internally narrate the scene. A raw description would work, and might even be effective, but it’s the slight-yet-constant interjections of perception and perspective that keep the poem fresh and elevate it to a more evocative level.
Williams is sometimes interpreted as dispassionate and distant because his tone is often removed and neutral, but I didn’t really get that feeling. To me, he seems relentlessly specific—and unyielding specificity can sometimes feel mechanical or robotic—but the moments of genuine humanity and affection strongly refute any dispassionate reading of his tone. When he says: “In the storefront office on the corner, Reed and Son, Real Estate, have come to see the show. / Gazing through the golden letters of their name, they’re not, at least, thank god, laughing,” I can’t help but feel that his perception is humanized; he’s not caught up in description for its distance or objectivity, he’s observing so closely because he cares, because he has a fundamental interest in the human. We can clearly see that he’s “rooting” for these two, that he’s interested in not only their well-being but their dignity. The lines describing the vet losing his pants could easily be read as grotesque or indulgent or denigrating, but, in the context of the poem, and the care already exhibited by Williams in his descriptions, they come off as necessary.
Williams’s attention to detail, and the concern for the humanity within those details, even if it’s a relatively dispassionate concern, gives him that latitude to take certain risks. And similarly, his slavish adherence to awareness and accuracy (in terms of being accurate to his perspective) means a five-adjective description of a destitute man’s privates doesn’t feel out of place. And that’s the thing. It’s easy to do something, to take a risk in a poem because it’s edgy or because it will shock the reader, but Williams seems to be doing it solely in the interest of the poem’s clarity; the description of the veteran’s “poor, blunt pud” is there only because it serves the narrative and the larger theme of human dignity.
“From My Window” is also a very good example of how Williams likes to shift the state of play. It’s easy to think that, because he’s dealing in micronarratives, he’s going to stay relatively linear in regards to time, but he’s not afraid to leap back and forth chronologically. There is a quick flashback to an earlier encounter with the pair early in the poem and then the poem jumps back to the present before closing with a rather haunting sojourn to the past again. The way Williams slides from the veteran’s friend looking at him to recalling a memory where he (once again) was looking at the veteran’s friend, watching him trace crude figure eights in the snow, is characteristic of how Williams imparts the feeling of process into his poems. There’s a real sense of becoming when a poet jumps like that within an observation or recollection. Done right, it feels spontaneous, surprising, and we as readers feel like we’ve stumbled through a hidden door. We were previously in a shared space, a situation happening on a street in the present tense that anyone could observe (not really, of course, but that’s what it feels like; there’s a girl jogging, kids, real estate brokers, etc.), it feels open. Then, suddenly, we’re taken to a private space, one of Tar’s “video screen moments” as I came to call them, where it feels like Williams calls up a memory on a screen and plays it back, with the same amount of perfect, crisp detail as he’s been describing the present moment with. Of course it’s all a construction, but as I’m reading it, it imparts upon me the idea that Williams pays attention to every moment of every day; whether true or not, it adds to the overwhelming power over self-awareness that Williams projects through the poems in Tar.
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is anti-blackness and the afterlife of slavery. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a former Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. He is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016).