Ethics

by C.K. Williams

Much of what I wish for myself is patently unattainable,
yet it might be my most sincere and abiding desire—
that I live without contrivance, scheming or forethought.

By contrivance and scheming, I mean trying to be other
than I am; without forethought is wanting to live
impulsively, artlessly, with no intervention of will.

I want to act not because I’ve coerced myself to,
but because I’ll have responded from the part of myself
that precedes will, residing in intrinsic not projected virtue.

I have no wish to be good, or pure—inconceivable that—
but I wish not to have to consider who I am or might be
before I project myself into quandaries or conflicts.

All this that I crave, which I know my craving impedes,
this absurdity of which might diminish further who I am
and what I stand for, if that’s the term, to myself—

(can one stand for something to oneself? can one not?)—
I’ve never found a shred of evidence for in myself,
yet I observe it constantly, every day, in Catherine,

some large portion of my esteem for her surely consists
of my gratitude for her implausible generosity,
which permits someone like me to partake—(oh raptly)—

of her presence, and causes her unthinkingly to forgive
my having to struggle to evoke even a semblance
of what she so effortlessly, gorgeously, joyfully is.

Helen


1.

More voice was in her cough tonight: its first harsh, stripping sound
       would weaken abruptly,
and he'd hear the voice again, not hers, unrecognizable, its notes from
       somewhere else,
someone saying something they didn't seem to want to say, in a tongue
       they hadn't mastered,
or a singer, diffident and hesitating, searching for a place to start an un-
       familiar melody.

Its pitch was gentle, almost an interrogation, intimate, a plea, a moan,
       almost sexual,
but he could hear assertion, too, a straining from beneath, a forcing at
       the withheld consonant,
and he realized that she was holding back, trying with great effort not to
       cough again,
to change the spasm to a tone instead and so avert the pain that lurked 
       out at the stress

Then he heard her lose her almost-word, almost-song: it became a groan,
       the groan a gasp,
the gasp a sign of desperation, then the cough rasped everything away,
       everything was cough now,
he could hear her shuddering, the voice that for a moment seemed the
       gentlest part of her,
choked down, effaced, abraded, taken back, as all of her was being
       from him now.

2.

In the morning she was standing at the window; he lay where he was and
       quietly watched her.
A sound echoed in from somewhere, she turned to listen, and he was
       shocked at how she moved:
not enough moved, just her head, pivoting methodically, the mecha-
       nisms slowed nearly to a halt,
as though she was afraid to jar herself with the contracting tendons and
       skeletal leverings.

A flat, cool, dawn light washed in on her: how pale her skin was, how
       dull her tangled hair.
So much of her had burned away, and what was left seemed draped list-
       lessly upon her frame.
It was her eye that shocked him most, though; he could only see her pro-
       file, and the eye in it,
without fire or luster, was strangely isolated from her face, and even from
       her character.

For the time he looked at her, the eye existed not as her eye, his wife's,
       his beloved's eye,
but as an eye, an object, so emphatic, so pronounced, it was separate
       both from what it saw
and from who saw with it: it could have been a creature's eye, a member 
       of that larger class
which simply indicated sight and not that essence which her glance had
       always brought him.

It came to him that though she hadn't given any sign, she knew that he
       was watching her.
He was saddened that she'd tolerate his seeing her as she was now, weak,
       disheveled, haggard. 
He felt that they were both involved, him watching, her letting him, in a 
       depressing indiscretion:
she'd always, after all their time together, only offered him the images
       she thought he wanted.

She'd known how much he needed beauty, how much presumed it as
       the elemental of desire.
The loveliness that illuminated her had been an engrossing narrative his
       spirit fed on;
he entered it and flowed out again renewed for having touched within
       and been a part of it.
In his meditations on her, he'd become more complicated, fuller, more
       essential to himself.

It was to her beauty he'd made love at first, she was there within its cap-
       tivating light,
but was almost secondary, as though she was just the instance of some
       overwhelming generality.
She herself was shy before it; she, too, as unassumingly as possible was
       testing this abstraction
which had taken both of them into its sphere, rendering both subservient
       to its serene enormity.

As their experience grew franker, and as she learned to move more con-
       fidently towards her core,
became more overtly active in elaborating needs and urges, her beauty
       still came first.
In his memory, it seemed to him that they'd unsheathed her from the 
       hazes of their awe,
as though her unfamiliar, fiery, famished nakedness had been disclosed
       as much to her as to him.

She'd been grateful to him, and that gratitude became in turn another
       fact of his desire.
Her beauty had acknowledged him, allowed him in its secret precincts,
       let him be its celebrant,
an implement of its luxurious materiality, and though he remained as-
       tonished by it always,
he fulfilled the tasks it demanded of him, his devotions reinvigorated and
       renewed.

3.

In the deepest sense, though, he'd never understood what her beauty was
       or really meant.  
If you only casually beheld her, there were no fanfares, you were taken
       by no immolating ecstasies. 
It amused him sometimes seeing other men at first not really understand-
       ing what they saw;
no one dared to say it, but he could feel them holding back their disap-
       pointment or disbelief.

Was this Helen, mythic Helen, this female, fleshed like any other, im-
       perfect and approachable?
He could understand: he himself, when he'd first seen her, hadn't really;
       he'd even thought,
before he'd registered her spirit and intelligence, before her laughter's 
       melodies had startled him--
if only one could alter such and such, improve on this or that: he hardly
       could believe it now.

But so often he'd watched others hear her speak, or laugh, look at her
       again, and fall in love,
as puzzled as he'd been at the time they'd wasted while their raptures of
       enchantment took.
Those who hadn't ever known her sometimes spoke of her as though she
       were his thing, his toy,
but that implied something static in her beauty, and she was surely just
       the opposite of that.

If there was little he'd been able to explain of what so wonderfully ab-
       sorbed him in her,
he knew it was a movement and a process, that he was taken towards and
       through her beauty,
touched by it but even more participating in its multiplicities, the revela-
       tions of its grace.
He felt himself becoming real in her, tangible, as though before he'd 
       only half existed.

Sometimes he would even feel it wasn't really him being brought to such
       unlikely fruition.
Absurd that anyone so coarse and ordinary should be in touch with such
       essential mystery:
something else, beyond him, something he would never understand,
       used him for its affirmations.
What his reflections came to was something like humility, then a grati-
       tude of his own.


4. 

The next night her cough was worse, with a harsher texture, the spasms
       came more rapidly,
and they'd end with a deep, complicated emptying, like the whining flat-
       tening of a bagpipe.
The whole event seemed to need more labor: each cough sounded more
       futile than the last,
as though the effort she'd made and the time lost making it had added to
       the burden of illness.

Should he go to her? He felt she'd moved away from him, turning more
       intently towards herself.
Her sickness absorbed her like a childbirth; she seemed almost like some-
       one he didn't know.
There'd been so many Helens, the first timid girl, then the sensual Helen
       of their years together,
then the last, whose grace had been more intricate and difficult to know
       and to exult in.

How childishly frightened he'd always been by beauty's absence, by its
       destruction of perversity.
For so long he let himself be tormented by what he knew would have to 
       happen to her.
He'd seen the old women as their thighs and buttocks bloated, then with-
       ered and went slack,
as their dugs dried, skin dried, legs were sausaged with the veins that rose 
       like kelp.

He'd tried to overcome himself, to feel compassion towards them, but,
       perhaps because of her,
he'd felt only a shameful irritation, as thought they were colluding in
       their loss.
Whether they accepted what befell them, even, he would think, gladly
       acquiescing to it,
or fought it, with all their sad and valiant unguents, dyes, and ointments,
       was equally degrading.

His own body had long ago become a ruin, but beauty had never been a 
       part of what he was.
What would happen to his lust, and to his love, when time came to sav-
       age and despoil her?
He already felt his will deserting him; for a long time, though, nothing
       touched or dulled her:
perhaps she really was immortal, maybe his devotion kept her from the 
       steely rakings of duration.

Then, one day, something at her jowls; one day her hips; one day the
       flesh at her elbows...
One day, one day, one day he looked at her and knew that what he'd 
       feared so was upon them.
He couldn't understand how all his worst imaginings had come to pass
       without his noticing.
Had he all this while been blind, or had he not wanted to acknowledge
       what he'd dreaded?

He'd been gazing at her then; in her wise way, she'd looked back at him, 
       and touched him,
and he knew she'd long known what was going on in him: another admi-
       ration took him,
then another fire, and that simply, he felt himself closer to her: there'd 
       been no trial,
nothing had been lost, of lust, of love, and something he'd never
       dreamed would be was gained.

5. 

With her in the darkness now, not even touching her, he sensed her
       fever's suffocating dryness.
He couldn't, however much he wanted to, not let himself believe she
       was to be no more.
And there was nothing he could do for her even if she'd let him; he tried
       to calm himself.
Her cough was hollow, soft, almost forgiving, ebbing slowly through the 
       volumes of her thorax.

He could almost hear that world as thought from in her flesh: the current
       of her breath,
then her breastbone, ribs, and spine, taking on the cough's vibrations,
       giving back their own.
Then he knew precisely how she was within herself as well, he was with 
       her as he'd never been:
he'd unmoored in her, cast himself into the night of her, and perceived
       her life with her.

All she'd lived through, all she'd been and done, he could feel accumu-
       lated in this instant.
The impressions and sensations, feelings, dreams, and memories were
       tearing loose in her,
had disconnected from each other and randomly begun to float, collide,
       collapse, entangle; 
they were boiling in a matrix of sheer chance, suspended in a purely
       mental universe of possibility.  

He knew that what she was now to herself, what she remembered, might
       not in truth have ever been.
Who, then, was she now, who was the person she had been, if all she
       was, all he still so adored,
was muddled, addled, mangled: what of her could be repository now, the
       place where she existed?
When everything was shorn from her, what within this flux of fragments
       still stayed her?

He knew then what he had to do: he was so much of her now and she of 
       him that she was his,
her consciousness and memory both his, he would will her into him,
       keep her from her dissolution.
All the wreckage of her fading life, its shattered hours taken in this fear-
       ful flood,
its moments unrecoverable leaves twirling in a gust across a waste of loss,
       he drew into himself,
and held her, kept her, all the person she had been was there within his
       sorrow and his longing:
it didn't matter what delirium had captured her, what of her was being
       lacerated, rent,
his pain had taken on a power, his need for her became a force that he
       cold focus on her;
there was something in him like triumph as he shielded her within the
       absolute of his affection.

Then he couldn't hold it, couldn't keep it, it was all illusion, a confec-
       tion of his sorrow:
there wasn't room within the lenses of his mortal being to contain what
       she had been,
to do justice to a single actual instant of her life and soul, a single mo-
       ment of her mind,
and he released her then, let go of this diminished apparition he'd cre-
       ated from his fear.

But still, he gave himself to her, without moving moved to her: she was
       still his place of peace.
He listened for her breath: was she still here with him, did he have her 
       that way, too?
He heard only the flow of the silent darkness, but he knew now that in it
       they'd become it,
their shells of flesh and form, the old delusion of their separateness and
       incompletion, gone.

When one last time he tried to bring her image back, she was as vivid as
       he'd ever seen her.
What they were together, everything they'd lived, all that seemed so frag
       -ile, bound in time,
had come together in him, in both of them: she had entered death, he
       was with her in it.
Death was theirs, she'd become herself again; her final, searing loveli-
       ness had been revealed.  


                                       
                                            (C.K. Williams)


Travelers by C.K. Williams

He drives, she mostly sleeps; when she’s awake, they quarrel, and now, in a violet dusk,
a rangy, raw-boned, efficient-looking mongrel loping toward them down the other shoulder
for no apparent reason swerves out on the roadbed just as a battered taxi is going by.
Horrible how it goes under, how it’s jammed into the asphalt, compressed, abraded, crumpled,
then is ejected out behind, still, a miracle, alive, but spinning wildly onitself, tearing,
frenzied, at its broken spine, the mindless taxi never slowing, never noticing or caring,
they slowing, only for a moment, though, as, “Go on,” she says, “go on, go on,” face averted,
she can’t look, while he, guilty as usual, fearful, fascinated and uncouth, can’t not.

 


From the author’s complete works

“Vocations” by C.K. Williams

Blocks of time fall upon me, adhere for a moment, then move astonish-

ingly away, fleeting, dissolving

but still I believe that these parcels of experience have a significance

beyond their accumulation

that though they bear no evident relation besides being occasionally ad-

jacent to each other,

they can be considered in a way that implies consequence, what i come

to call dream’s “meaning”

Although I can’t quite specify how this ostensible meaning differs from

the sum of its states,

it holds an allure, solutions are implied, so I keep winding the dream’s

filaments onto its core.

The problem is that trying to make the recalcitrant segments of the

dream cohere is distracting;

my mind is always half following what happens while it’s half involved in

this other procedure.

Also, my ideas about meaning keep sending directives into the dream’s

already crowded circuits,

and soon I’m hard put keeping the whole intractable mechanism mov-

ing along smoothly enough

to allow me to believe that at least I’m making a not overly wasteful use

of my raw materials.

Although, doesn’t the notion of “use” seem questionable, too? Use how,

and to what end?

To proliferate more complexities when I haven’t come to terms with

those I’ve already proposed?

Mightn’t all of this be only a part of the mind’s longing to be other or

more than it is?

Sometimes I think I’d be better off letting the dream make its own way

without butting in so,

but no, I understand the chaos I might wreak if I left off these indispens-

able cohesions.

How depressing dream can feel now, nothing it can move, everything

is suspended, waiting,

or, worse, not waiting, going on as it’s always gone on but with such fear-

ful, timid resolve

that I begin to wonder if all that keeps me going is my fear of random-

ness, regression, chance.

It doesn’t matter anymore: whatever dream meant once, whatever it

might come to mean,

I know the only way I’ll ever finish with this anguish is to understand

it, and to understand

was what the dream promised, and what, with all its blundering hopes, it

promises still.

From the book: “A Dream of Mind” (1992)

“Dirt” by C.K. Williams

My grandmother is washing my mouth
out with soap; half a long century gone
and still she comes at me
with that thick, cruel, yellow bar.
All because of a word I said,
not even said really, only repeated,
but Open she says, open up!
her hand clawing at my head.

I know now her life was hard;
she lost three daughters as babies,
then her husband died, too,
leaving young sons, and no money.
She’d stand me in the sink to pee
because there was never room in the toilet.
But, oh, her soap! Might its bitter burning
have been what made me a poet?

The street she lived on was unpaved,
her flat two cramped rooms and a fetid
kitchen where she stalked and caught me.
Dare I admit that after she did it
I never really loved her again?
She lived to a hundred, even then.
All along it was the sadness, the squalor,
but I never, until now, loved her again.

“Hog Heaven” by C.K. Williams

It stinks. It stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.
It stinks in the mansions and it stinks in the shacks and the carpeted offices,
in the beds and the classrooms and out in the fields where there’s no one.
It just stinks. Sniff and feel it come up: it’s like death coming up.
Take one foot, ignore it long enough, leave it on the ground long enough
because you’re afraid to stop, even to love, even to be loved
it’ll stink worse than you can imagine, as though the whole air was meat pressing your eyelids,
as though you’d been caught, hung up from the earth
and all the stinks of the fear drain down and your toes are the valves dripping
the giant stinks of the pain and the death and the radiance.
Old people stink, with their teeth and their hot rooms, and the kiss,
the age-kiss, the death-kiss, it comes like a wave and you want to fall down and be over.
And money stinks: the little threads that go through it like veins through an eye,
each stinks–if you hold it onto your lip it goes bad, it stinks like a vein going bad.
And Christ stank: he knew how the slaves would be stacked into the holds and he took it–
the stink of the vomit and shit and of somebody just rolling over and plunging in with his miserable seed.
And the seed stinks. And the fish carrying it upstream and the bird eating the fish
and you the bird’s egg, the dribbles of yolk, the cycle: the whole thing stinks.
The intellect stinks and the moral faculty, like things burning, like the cave under justice,
and the good quiet men, like oceans of tears squeezed into one handful, they stink,
and the whole consciousness, like something plugged up, stinks, like something cut off.
Life stinks and death stinks and god and your hand touching your face
and every breath, daring to turn, daring to come back from the stop: the turn stinks
and the last breath, the real one, the one where everyone troops into your bed
and piles on–oh, that one stinks best! It stays on your mouth
and who you kiss now knows life and knows death, knows how it would be to fume in a nostril
and the thousand desires that stink like the stars and the voice heard through the stars
and each time–milk sour, egg sour, sperm sour–each time–dirt, friend, father–
each time–mother, tree, breath–each time–breath and breath and breath–
each time the same stink, the amazement, the wonder to do this and it flares,
this, and it stinks, this: it stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.