Presenter of the National Book Awards

2003 National Book Award Winner: Poetry

C. K. Williams

The Singing

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

About the Book

Although most of the poems in this collection deal with topics associated with aging - the loss of loved ones, fleeting memories of childhood, and love of grandchildren - the tone is reflective rather than strictly backward looking. Events from the past function as reference points upon which to base an assessment of the present, not intended as hard and fast answers, but instead as tools for developing an informed perspective. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Author Biography

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1936, C.K. Williams was educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He began his career as a poet in the early 1960s, and has gone on to write numerous works, including Repair, a National Book Award Finalist in 1999. Mr. Williams teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University, and divides his time between Princeton and Paris.

Selected Backlist

The Bacchae of Euripides
A Dream of Mind
Love about Love

Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself

Poetry and Consciousness
Repair

Selected Poems
Vigil: Poems

Excerpt from The Singing

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
November 2003; $20.00US/$33.00CAN
0-374-29286-8
Copyright © 2003 C. K. Williams

The Doe

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I'd only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

The Singing

I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person" he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor
heard no one was there

Bialystok, or Lvov

A squalid wayside inn, reeking barn-brewed vodka,
cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense
in a village church, kegs of rotten, watered wine,
but then a prayer book's worn-thin pages,
and over them, as though afloat in all that fetidness,
my great-grandfather's disembodied head.

Cacophonous drunkenness, lakes of vomit
and oceans of obscenities; the smallpox pocked
salacious peasant faces whose carious breath
clots one's own; and violence, the scorpion-
brutal violence of nothing else, to do, to have,
then the prayers again, that tormented face,

its shattered gaze, and that's all I have,
of whence I came, of where the blood came from
that made my blood, and the tale's not even mine,
I have it from a poet, the Russian-Jewish then
Israeli Bialik, and from my father speaking of
his father's father dying in his miserable tavern,

in a fight, my father said, with berserk Cossacks,
but my father fabulated, so I omit all that,
and share the poet's forebears, because mine
only wanted to forget their past of poverty
and pogrom, so said nothing, or perhaps
where someone came from, a lost name,

otherwise nothing, leaving me less
history than a dog, just the poet's father's
and my great-grandfather's inn, that sty,
the poet called it, that abyss of silence, I'd say,
and that soul, like snow, the poet wrote,
with tears of blood, I'd add, for me and mine.

Copyright © 2003 C. K. Williams

Photo Credit: Bruce Davidson