‘Mortal as I’d Always Been’: C.K. Williams’ Falling Ill

Falling Ill: Last Poems
by C.K. Williams
(FSG, 2017, 64 pgs., $23)

Those looking for consolation in C.K. Williams’ final book (Falling Ill, FSG, 2017), written after an end-of-life diagnosis, won’t find much of it. But there is spare beauty, control, honesty, mitigated terror, and love. Especially love.

Long-time readers of C.K. Williams no doubt anticipated this collection as the final word of a beloved and influential poet. (Williams passed away in 2015, two years before the release of this manuscript.) But I admit that I picked it up primarily out of curiosity about dying. Yes, I’d like to know what that is like. Tell me. We all know somebody falling mortally ill—parent, grandparent, friend. Most of us would like to understand what they are going through. And in my case I’ve just given birth, a practice round for death. Williams himself has said that we should be “able to imagine and re-experience the deaths of other people, and one’s own future death, as an essential part of general and personal history and of our poetic toolkit.”1 It is what we will all have to face.

In fact, Williams plays on the many meanings of “face” in one of his poems, quoted here in full:

Here’s my face slung on its bones like a slop
of concrete here the eyes punched into the mortar
hardened it seems to something like stone

this is my secret face seen only I like to believe
from within no one not even an all-seeing something
could perceive its true semblance visible solely

to me yet I suspect that sometimes and not
really rarely someone regarding my face will know
what’s going on inside it know exactly

its fear or fretful confusion while I keep insisting
I don’t believe I’m feeling such things
How could I why would I cling to them but

face if I splayed a hand on you to more closely
conceal your this and your that would I know
what everyone else does of my foreboding?

The poet is writing full-on toward this curiosity about dying, offering an answer. But of course no poet answers anything finally, and Williams is also driven by the same urge he has always had, on the one hand to make sense of and express experience, and on the other to wander restlessly, extensively his interior world.

I find these poems terrifying, and this gives me confidence in them. “The template for myself has radically shifted,” he writes in “Better,” “and links me with a vision that’s gone awry / out of sync I’m out of sync that is to say….” And five poems later, in “Worse”:

it’s come upon me so deviously this time

I have to know I’m mortal as I’d always
been but back then I could think I’d possessed
such a small portion of eternity I’d hardly remark

when I’d consumed it while now all pretexts
are gone leaving me not as I was when fear
first came upon me but wretchedly worse

I suppose we know, whether in our hearts or as witnesses, that aging and dying are not easy, and neither comfortable nor peaceful; to hear otherwise would disgust us. Williams, astute and practiced scrutinizer of himself as he is, sees this more clearly than most of us ever will.

But how to express this? The poet’s mode was, for me, initially a little disappointing. Each poem follows exactly the same pattern: single-word title, five stanzas (always tercets), no punctuation, a series of clauses often possible to parse as a single complex sentence. In key places a poem in the sequence will be italicized, signaling that it’s addressed to a particular person, a beloved, rather than primarily to the multiplicitous self. It’s not that the form doesn’t work—in fact it’s often quite brilliant—but that, Williams being such a wide-ranging and intuitive poet, there seems something mournful in the sameness, a signal of decline. Though Williams has published other formal sequences within his sweeping oeuvre, I missed some of the spontaneity and playfulness inherited from Ponge which has so long been a part of his sense of the line. Here the lines seem to work less instinctively, their edges more like pre-determined boundaries.

Then, too, the vocabulary, the metaphors, the network of tentative perceptions so characteristic of Williams are remarkably deemphasized. I’ve always liked, for example, his poem “The Cup,” in which he describes his mother drinking coffee and admits to the childish horror of loathing her habits. The language is outrageous, pleasurable:

There’d be a tiny pause as though she had consciously to synchronize her mouth and hand,
then her lips would lengthen and reach out, prehensile as a primate’s tail,
and seem to grasp the liquid with the sputtering suctioning of gravity imperfectly annulled.
Then, grimacing as though it were a molten metal she was bringing into herself—
always grimacing, I’d think: did she never know what temperature the stuff would be?—
she’d hold about a spoonful just behind her teeth before she’d slide it thickly down.

In Falling Ill much of this expansive analysis is set aside for language that is strikingly, shockingly inadequate: “why,” “fear,” “I keep asking,” “this is really happening,” “catch your breath,” “how strange.” One of the final poems in the sequence, “Crying,” deals with the theatricality of weeping. Williams charges that we are “marked”

within our deepest hearts with weakness
cowardice all the labels we accumulate
and nail into ourselves leaving gaps rips

openings to the world we didn’t mean to have
and you wish you were someone else
someone unlike us constructed of tubes

of fear or sadness that dip into the secret
wells of misery lakes oceans of angst
and then the overflow only then tears

That final stanza, however ironic it may be, depends on the most unsubtle diction: “fear,” “sadness,” “misery,” “angst,” “tears.”

And yet as I began to reengage the poems, considering them as a great poet’s offering of his last experiences of life, I found myself slowly beginning to think of these traits—simplicity, flexible formality, repetition, the unadorned, unelaborated abstraction—as gifts.

That Williams has culled his signature long lines into what is essentially loose tetrameter or pentameter gives each line the feeling of a single breath. Fifteen breaths at a time. The number a sick man is able to sustain, the biggest window into his mind a living man can repeatedly tolerate. Instead of giving themselves freedom to follow tangents and pursue a philosophical line of questioning wherever it may lead, each of these poems articulates a single feeling, an ill person’s “up” or “down.” Yet they work together like a good sequence should to show the many facets of disease, particularly the ways it may change personality, or what the sick person had thought of as his self. This person, after all,

…assumed I’d always spin my webs in
a conception of myself that had certain

boundaries edges however out of focus
in which I’d always move instead of the half-
healed structure which has become the ultimate

of who I am and will be as I wander
through some dimension where I breathe
I think easier than know after I don’t

Williams is still a poet of metamorphosis, as this collection does represent something a little new for him. He is at his most personal, nudging his raw responses to sickness into their own kind of “half-healed structures.” In limiting himself in his use of language—even, one might say, choosing its capacity to work within boundaries rather than transcend them—Williams the poet is continuing his love for it.

I had wanted the chance to enter someone else’s dying. Perhaps what I had subconsciously been hoping for was bright insight into my own death. And because Williams has tended to be labeled a “social” poet, perhaps I wanted his individual experience to prompt some kind of action in me, to draw my attention to some need for change in culture. And yet who am I to condemn if Falling Ill is not the great epiphanic experience I would like it to be? If it does not speak to the social concerns of this present moment as overtly as I might seek? If death in the poet’s hand doesn’t particularly animate me? Rather, what I have is the gift of the “once more” and then “once more again” these poems represent, and which their form allows for—one more exploration of a feeling, one more articulation of an insight, one more question raised.

It seems natural for the poems to eschew punctuation, because punctuation is ending, and the poet’s spirit persists. (I think Williams, though he does not seem to believe in an afterlife, still would approve of that word “spirit”). Nor, even if spare compared to Williams’ extensive earlier work, are these pieces exactly bare bones. We don’t have series of phrases, clipped simple sentences, or clean aural line breaks; we have a clause that pushes past itself into another clause, then pushes again, again, and again. We have a poem that begins, like an amateur’s, “how strange.” But we also have arresting figures: “do we end / as tangles of molecules slashing ourselves / like the tails of comets”? And we have, in the sequence’s final poem, the tender admission of a “mind / so sadly vulnerable with its capacity / for contradicting itself” which nonetheless continues to hazard possibilities. So we could also say that the poems persist, refusing their own ends.

I had spoken earlier of the love present in these pieces. Maybe it is possible to think of this collection as an act of love simply because it occurs near death, which this poet suggests will effectively undo his painstaking attention to language. He imagines himself speaking to “Lord Death,” who is “refusing to hear,” but—because the poet cannot communicate a dimension without language—nonetheless replies,

…………………………………………………… …the not
becomes as though never and even as though

too is a lie and are and were lies too and
that’s what you’ll have learned or will soon
and what else can be taught other than that

Though I am speculating, it seems that in the face of such ultimate foreboding only love for other human beings could move the poet’s hand to write. How could old habit or the desire to be remembered be enough?

But there also seems to be love for a particular person behind this sequence of poems. For even though the poet is told, in his inner being, that the basic verbs of existence are “lies,” there remain the wonderful pieces in italics that seem to address an individual with whom the poet has had long rapport. And these pieces contend:

I’m here unworn untendered with you
here with you in a calm I never realized I
was capable of that even now fades and goes out

And:

…………………………there’s a poignancy
to our embrace this once there’s a kind

of not desperation but force a force
that takes us both and presses us against
each other more than “presses” hurls us …

……………………………………….. … I can’t tell if
it represents or embodies a recognition

of mortality a premonition of what will be
coming to take us or whether this is beyond
us beyond what’s coming to us beyond all

If there is anything in Falling Ill which suggests transcendence, it is this glimmer of a possibility of “paradise” found in a human embrace.

The basic tenderness and persistence of these poems moves me to read them again and again. Falling Ill is not a sequence of particularly astonishing pieces. They are not elaborate, electrifying, or even, in many cases, particularly spontaneous. But they are something better. They are unpretentious and patient. They accept certain limits—a signal, we might say, of the poet’s maturity—even while continuing to ask unsettling questions. They do not give up on ordinary love, and they are, in their humble way, sufficient.

1 C.K. Williams, “Letter to a Workshop,” In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest, University of Chicago Press, 2012, p. 93

Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman is a poet, essayist, and mother of five living in Spokane, WA. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Gulf Coast, The Hopkins Review, Gingerbread House, 32 Poems, The Cresset, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
Kjerstin Kauffman

Author: Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman is a poet, essayist, and mother of five living in Spokane, WA. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Gulf Coast, The Hopkins Review, Gingerbread House, 32 Poems, The Cresset, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.