Doing Time at the Writer’s House With C.K. Williams, Chekhov, and Shakespeare
By Stuart Mitchner
You can’t write a sentence in English without Shakespeare being in there somewhere. — C.K. Williams
The Writers House is located on Locust Walk, which runs through the heart of the Penn campus, like McCosh Walk at Princeton. For just over two decades the 165-year-old cottage has been a venue for readings, seminars, lectures, and events like the April 11 memorial celebration of the life and work of poet C.K. Williams (1936-2015), who died last September.
The Giant Outside
By six o’clock, when the first reader begins reciting the first of 15 Williams poems, the day feels mild and bright after a chilly overcast morning. The Writers House is a cozy Hobbitty sort of place: imagine a cottage in the Forest of Arden or a fairytale dwelling where the tallest person in the room is the poet who can’t be seen and yet is very much there in the minds of everyone present. In the fairytale, he’d be taller than the house, the giant peering in the window at a gathering that could be taking place in a line from his poem, “The Singing,” which ends, “sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening.”
At such an occasion, with poetry on the agenda, it’s surely permitted to think that the someone watching and listening might be the poet himself, the giant outside with whom everyone seems to be on a first-name basis, like the character in the old play Where’s Charlie?, only Charlie’s here, being remembered by friends who agree that it’s impossible to recite his poetry without becoming him, speaking in his voice.
Time Is on His Side
In his book of essays, In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest, Williams writes of being “immersed in the both gratifying and occasionally maddening struggle” with his craft, and of his “gratitude and astonishment” that he “managed to stumble into a world the richness of which” he’d had no idea when he began.
As the readings progress, contrary to the title of the book, we seem to be not in time but safely outside it, an illusion suggested by the holding pattern the day appears to be adhering to, the waning light sustained, evoking a Scheherazade scenario: as long as people keep reading, night will never fall and the poet of the hour will never leave us, safe forever in this storybook domain with its front window looking out on Locust Walk where people, students mostly, are constantly passing. As each reader comes to the lectern, a fluid camera-obscura-like frieze of passing figures is in motion behind them, like a live video feed of “people on their way somewhere.” The dreamlike effect is heightened if your view of the lectern is blocked, as mine is, meaning the only way to see the readers is on the screen of the monitor where the passers-by in the background seem even farther removed from the reality of the moment. It’s as if we’re in two different time zones. Outside on Locust Walk it’s Eastern Standard, in here it’s C.K. Williams Time.
In fact, the concluding stanza from “Wait,” a poem addressed to time, is reproduced on a placard handed out at the door. After picturing time as a butcher (“chop, hack, slash; cleaver, boning knife, ax”), the youth “for whom everything always was going too slowly, too slowly” becomes the one who’s chopping and slashing, gorging on time, swilling it, his heart “firing, misfiring,/trying to heave itself back to its other way with you,” while the third stanza asks “When I ran/as though for my life, wasn’t I fleeing from you, or for you?” Clearly the final stanza was chosen because it’s the essence of C.K. Williams, of Charlie, calling “Wait, though, wait: I should tell you, too, how happy I am.” Now time is his beloved: “Please know I love especially you, how every morning you turn over/the languorous earth, for how would she know otherwise to do dawn,/to do dusk, when all she hears from her speech-creatures is ‘Wait!’?/We whose anguished wish is that our last word not be ‘Wait.’”
As the speech-creatures wait for time to do dusk, the lectern belongs to the poet’s wife, lover, muse, saviour, first reader, the pronunciation of her name the subject of her husband’s brief instructive poem “Catherine” (“Cat-reen. And roll the r a little”). “Friends,” the yet-to-be-published composition she reads, is addressed to those who have gone, yet “how precious/you remain how little your essential nature/has altered.” Catherine reads the last lines as if she were saying them to her husband, “here we laughed here danced all falls away/only the tattered snatches of what we call past/echo out from the isolate provinces of time” — reminding us where we are, where we’ve been, between six and seven-thirty in the Writers House off Locust Walk in Philadelphia.
Then, after a brief silence, the poet’s recorded voice is heard musing on “forgiveness and repair” and “the garments of the mind” in his poem, “Invisible Mending,” where three women “old as angels” benignly “gather up worn edges to be bound” as they “take the fabric to its last.”
By now it’s dark outside, people are standing, mingling, talking, like those “left behind” in “Friends” awaiting “the generation of future memories.”
Like others who were at the Writers House that day, I’ve been thinking messages to Charlie ever since September 20, 2015, now more than ever. Thinking if we could meet for coffee at the Boro Bean in Hopewell, I’d be hanging on his ear about “dear Chekhov,” who turns up like the mystery guest in “Jew on Bridge,” a poem inspired by Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, and Raskolnikov, and read at the memorial by Michael Wood. I can imagine the direction the conversation would take. After asking about the source for his reference to “Chekhov’s ensemble of Jews wailing for a wedding,” I’d mention Chekhovian Jewesses like the jolly, eloquent, devious and devastating Susanna in “Mire,” and we’d talk about Dostoevsky, whom he esteemed “beyond almost all who ever scraped with a pen,” and I’d tell him about studying Crime and Punishment my freshman year in college with a girl, and how we fell in love, and Charlie would be amused at the notion of a couple of students in Indiana bonding over such a book, then he’d tell me about visiting St. Petersburg (“I was there. Whores, beggars,/derelict men with flattened noses”), and I’d get back to Chekhov, who used to keep a humane trap for mice on a bookcase and carry them by the tail to a Tartar cemetery where he let them go, whereupon Charlie would recall how Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow by train in a refrigerated car marked For the Conveyance of Oysters.
And if we were having coffee this week, sharing an awareness of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death Saturday, I’d tell him how Berlioz’s music from Romeo and Juliet came jingling tinkling dancing over the car radio the other day, a musical flight of fancy composed for Mercutio’s celebration of Queen Mab, the fairies’ midwife, and after mentioning how Berlioz with his immense ensembles must have kept half the musicians in Paris employed, he’d recite the last lines of Mercutio’s speech, “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,/That presses them and learns them first to bear,/Making them women of good carriage,” which prompts him to say, “You can’t write a sentence in English without Shakespeare being in there somewhere,” and I’d remember the line from his giddy litany of beloved poets in “The Foundation,” one of the poems read on April 11, “my giants, my Whitman, my Shakespeare, my Dante and Homer.”
Then I’d think, wait, this can’t be, we’re talking about April 23, 2016, it’s seven months after September 20, 2015, never mind, we can deal with that little detail, put it down to poetic license. And I’d tell him about the celebration at the Writers House where the giant peered in the window and everyone called him Charlie.
Falling Ill, a collection of poems written during C.K. Williams’s last illness, will be published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in January 2017.