Event Review

C.K. Williams and Galway Kinnell, 92nd Street Y (02/25)

Poetry in the Shadow of the Towers
by Larissa Shmailo

At the beginning of this remarkable reading, Sharon Olds spoke of a longing shared by all poetry audiences "to be touched deeply to the very core of our lives." C.K.Williams, with his distinctive craft and "thoughtual" (Olds's coinage) style, and the brilliant Galway Kinnell, whose great voice subtends the world from saint to sow, succeeded in doing just that. Neither poet shirked his responsibility to speak of 9/11: Williams brought his pacifism and sense of complex realities; Kinnell simply gave the truest account yet spoken of what happened that day.

Williams began with a poem he said was hard to read called "The Singing," about a young black man spontaneously and effortlessly making up cadences to a song. Except for the poet, "no one saw, no one heard, no one was there." The poet appreciates the music, especially the effortless nature of it, but cannot communicate with the man: he is too nice a person, the poem concludes. Uncomfortable with the free flow of creativity, and trapped by being "nice," the poet leaves the young artist to return to his restrained world.

Williams's music continued in the second poem, about his father. Less restrained, Williams carried the listener from "the abyss of silence" to "cacophonous drunkenness" to the time when there was "nothing to do/but the prayers again." A poem addressed to the shade of the difficult Harold Brodky was followed by "The Tract," a work without punctuation. "The world oppressed me," the poet stated, "I'm sure, because it contained me." In "The Tract," a man who loses all in a flood sinks into the water and rises again to see the sleeping Vishnu, who wakes only to pop the sufferer in his mouth. The poet searches for the genesis of this legend, the myth that contains this monstrous image, which he rejects. Fighting depression and uncertainty, accepting that "to imagine life without suffering is suffering," he concludes by exhorting us to believe that the reality of others is truly enough to keep us "hanging on for dear life." Describing his (fortunately successful) battle with cancer, the poet offered his "Prostatic Triolets ("Ach Gott, as my grandmother would say"), a pure fear haunting the comic accent and the choice of light form, but a testimonial to the author's courage in the face of Vishnu's maw.

Williams began his reading of two post 9/11 poems with "War," published in the New Yorker in October 2001:

I keep rereading an article I found recently about how Mayan scribes,
who also were historians, polemicists, and probably poets as well,
when their side lost a war—not a rare occurrence, apparently,

there having been a number of belligerent kingdoms
constantly struggling for supremacy—would be disgraced and tortured,
their fingers broken and the nails torn out, and then be sacrificed.

Williams compares the Mayan warriors who torture the scribes to "bomber pilots in our day,…with their radar/and their infallible infrared, who soar, unheard, unseen, over generalized, / digital targets that mystically ignite" Certainly, the poet who now reminds us of our obligation to "Do unto, Love, Don't kill" and speaks of " complicity" in the 9/11 events stands a good chance of sharing the fate of the Mayan scribe. The singularity of this voice was echoed by the audience, which fell completely silent after the reading of this poem, either moved or unsure what to think.

A thread throughout his reading, Williams's next 9/11 poem was entitled "Fear," describing horrible infestations of vermin that had been eclipsed by the age's new fears: "armaments, anthrax, pox." Exploring the politics of terror, he invoked Coleridge: "We have been most tyrannous, " once again accusing the U.S. of complicity in the attacks. Williams ended as he had begun, examining the nature of art in "Fragonard," which for the poet was realer than life: "more than we are, more even than itself."

Sharon Olds provided a clever introduction for Galway Kinnell, a "Message in a Bottle" read at his 75th birthday party, which wove the titles of his books into pleasant doggerel. Kinnell began his reading with his magnificent "St. Francis and the Sow"; unlike Williams's encounter in "The Singing," there is no difficulty or hesitation here in the poet's calling of "reteach[ing] a thing its loveliness;" Kinnell is easily able to "retell it in words and in touch/ it is lovely/until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing." Kinnell advised the audience to wait in slow and hard times: "Things will become interesting again."

"Oatmeal" followed, about Kinnell's experience eating breakfast alone in his cabin at a writers colony. The poem is a marvelous Homeric simile about imaginary breakfasts with Keats, with discussions of how the latter wrote and shuffled the stanzas of "Ode to a Nightingale" on scraps of paper and was never sure he had gotten the order right. Continuing with irreverence, and humility, a sex poem extolled his lover's buttocks: "Similes are useless / there is nothing like them on earth."

The tour de force of the evening was Kinnell's "When the Towers Came Down," weaving François Villon, Hart Crane, and Walt Whitman with the narrative voice of a fireman at Ground Zero and the poet's own NYU [Greenwich Village] vantage point. No more fully realized depiction of that day could be written. More than memory is operative in this poem; it is the "retelling" of the sow, the essence of a thing brought forth by an inspired hand. The poem is the march of ash-covered refugees mingling with the freshly dressed; it is the way we watched television that day, and how the rescue workers fought to save the victims and each other. The poet's words shook the dog walkers in Washington Square Park anew, and captured the moment at which the passengers of Flight 93 decided, "Let's roll". The many-sectioned poem offered a deep, uneditorialized compassion for this culmination of a century of holocausts. Ending with "Lastness," Kinnell celebrated the birth of his son: "…when he was born his head / came out, the rest of him stuck… And almost / smiled, I thought, almost forgave it all in advance."

When he came wholly forth
I took him up in my hands and bent
over and smelled
the black, glistening fur
of his head, as empty space
must have bent
over the newborn planet
and smelled the grasslands and the ferns.

(Poet Larissa Shmailo works as an editor for a major New York publishing house. She writes frequently for the magazine.)