I was lucky enough to recently stumble upon Kevin Young's Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series (Young is the curator), and specifically CK Williams’ 2008 reading for this series. If you don't know about this series, available on iTunesU, you should. During the past five or so years, Young has brought to the library some of America's most accomplished poets—Lucille Clifton, Paul Muldoon, Rita Dove, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and the list goes on—to Emory University to perform, and the best thing is that they are archived and available online via laptop or smart phone.
A few days ago, during an afternoon that felt more like July than late April, I headed out for a run along a lake with the CK Williams' voice blasting in my ears. I haven’t read much Williams, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Listening to the first couple I enjoyed what I heard, but I wasn’t quite sold. The readings run about an hour or so each, however, so I kept listening.
A few more poems in, he began reciting a poem titled “Wood.” I didn’t listen that closely the first time through, but then I had one of those whoa moments, as in what did he just DO? The poem literally stopped me in the middle of the jogging trail. The poem begins innocently enough: “That girl I didn’t love … that Sunday when I stopped by and she was in bed in her nightgown…”. Okay, so he’s referring to a woman as a girl. I’m not exactly endorsing that, but then again the poem is written in remembrance a time far in the past—a time he had not yet been taught that referring to a full-grown woman as a girl is sexist. Anyway, about a third of the way in, the poem takes a turn:
…when my hand touched her belly, under the plush mesh nightgown,
began turning her belly to wood—I hadn’t known this could be done,
that girls, that humans, could do this—then, when all her belly was wood
I hit the back button and listened again, and then another time: began turning her belly into wood. What had just happened? She began turning the rest of herself to perhaps something harder, steel, / or harder; perhaps she was turning herself, her entire, once so soft self, / to some unknown mineral substance found only on other, very far planets, // planets with chemical storms and vast, cold ammonia, oceans of ice …
My delight and exuberance were similar to the way I had felt the day before, reading Lydia Davis’s story “The Brother in Law,” wherein the protagonist’s actions move from the plausible to the fantastical in the space of a page.
This got me thinking about the line between reality and whatever you choose to call it—the fantasical, the magical, the surreal—and when, how, and where it gets crossed. James Hoch alluded to it when he came to visit my poetry class at Bellevue College just after his book Miscreants appeared. He offered a lot of great advice that afternoon, but the piece that stuck with me was the one about pushing past “the way things happened,” the ordinary: If a couple is having an argument in the kitchen, have them suck helium and float around while they’re arguing. It’ll be so much more interesting if they’re having their spat while floating above the pots and pans.
Robert Frost said “if it is a wild thing, it is a poem.” Charles Simic chimed in with “cultivate your madness.” I kept these two quotes pinned to my study wall when I was attending the University of Washington, trying to figure out how to write interesting poems. CK seems to have received the same memo. He knows that abandoning the rational, hightailing it past simile and metaphor and straight into the realm of pure imagination, is often the best move a poet can make.
I quickly moved from fence sitter to devotee. I highly recommend his work, but especially his collection, Wait