February 8, 2017

Symptoms of Love: The Abiding Presence in C.K. Williams’s Farewell Volume

By Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening …. —C.K. Williams (1936-2015), from “The Singing”

With Valentine’s Day approaching, here’s a bouquet of love notes from three writers who were all born on this date, February 8. According to the peerless prose stylist John Ruskin (1819-1900), he of the unconsummated marriage, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” Jules Verne (1828-1905), the author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, sounded the amorous depths when he asked, “Is not a woman’s heart unfathomable?” While it’s a challenge to pick any one gem from the riches Robert Burton (1577-1640) compiled for his “Symptoms of Love” in The Anatomy of Melancholy, it’s hard to top this spectacular valentine: “better a Metropolitan City were sackt, a Royal Army overcome, an Invincible Armada sunk, and twenty thousand Kings should perish, than her little finger ache ….”

Another literary luminary born into the world of love and loss on this date, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) begins her poem “Three Valentines” by claiming, “Love, with his gilded bow and crystal arrows/Has slain us all.” 

The Abiding Presence

For better or worse, February 14 is the one day of the year set aside for the celebration of love, and in spite of the fact that the poet’s impending death is the ostensible subject of C.K. Williams’s Falling Ill (Farrar Straus & Giroux $23), love is the book’s abiding presence, the source of its warmth and spirit. Such is the enduring truth on the other side of the holiday’s commercial exploitation of the emotion that Keats says “might bless the world with benefits unknowingly,” for who can tell that “flowers would bloom,” or that earth would have “its dower of river, wood, and vale,/The meadows runnels, the runnels pebble-stones,/The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,/Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet,/If human souls did never kiss and greet?”

A Princeton area resident since 1995, Williams began writing these last poems after receiving a terminal diagnosis from a “sympathetic young woman doctor.” The former Princeton University professor arranged each poem in five three-line stanzas that, as Peter Sacks observes, “seem to cross terza rima with sonnet to make a kind of bookend to Dante’s Vita Nuova.” Though the only time she’s mentioned by name is in the dedication, Williams’s Beatrice is his wife Catherine (pronounced “Katrine).

Love in Italics

Williams’s way of presenting his wife in this farewell volume is to, in effect, italicize her, that being the form he gives the poems intimately related to her, of her, for her. The typographic image suggests a more delicate, relatively shapely mode. As far as I can tell after looking through the Collected Poems (2006) and the collections published since, it’s the first time Williams has used italics this way, as a point of style setting apart a particular group of poems. Another unusual move involved clearing the lines of punctuation except for the six poems that end with question marks; as a result, line flows into line, stanza into stanza like a supremely sustained last breath, a letting go of the once taken-for-granted necessity of commas, periods, semicolons, dashes, leaving nothing but the poetry. In respect of the style followed in the Catherine poems, I’m quoting from them in italics (even the titles are set in italics) while leaving out the solidus (/) and quotation marks customarily used when excerpting verse. Also, the usual paraphrasing where the second person is transposed to the third detracts from the intimacy of poems where love speaks in every you and your.

In Flame, the first poem, Williams hears the usual commotion coming from the workshop where his wife is making jewelry — the insistent exhalations of your torch, the shy tings of a hammer, and then your footsteps moving from one side of the room to the other as though you were on a ship checking the horizon for indolent dawn. The unexpectedness of the shipboard analogy has an incidental charm, almost as if it’s her gift to him, a sharing of the imagined moment. A long silence follows, as she thinks of something he feels no need to imagine as he hears your door opening your footsteps on the stairs and then the thought of you as your flame ignites again and once more moves towards me again.

The Poetry of Grieving

C.K. Williams is seldom associated with the poetry of love. Look at the blurbs on the back covers of his books and you find terms like “acutely observant,” “self-interrogating,” “splendid intensity,” “raw emotion and careful thought.” The Boston Globe’s Jonathan Aaron comes closest to defining one of Williams’s greatest strengths when pointing out the way his poetry “affirms the uncanny resiliency of love as solace for pain.” It’s the capacity to feel and express love and loss that makes Williams a master of the poetry of grieving, notably in his elegies for his friends poet Paul Zweig and artist Bruce McGrew. Since he can’t grieve for himself in Falling Ill, he grieves for the approaching loss of his wife, which means grieving for her loss as well. The last stanza of Impatience, another Catherine poem, ends with the knowledge that wishing for release from this halfway death would mean having to tear myself to leave my beloved and wouldn’t my beloved be torn too and isn’t it intolerable to entertain that?

Always Beside Me

The two most physical Catherine poems are You and Embrace. The first begins Always beside me, always so closely to me, before describing the night I couldn’t breathe and I saw you there not gasping with me as I gasped but radiant with hope, hope becoming insignificant next to the panic barely suppressed I couldn’t help seeing in your eyes and couldn’t help either not allowing death to enter the drama because that might undo you. In other later poems like “The Coffin Store” from the 2010 collection Wait, Catherine restores and consoles him, but here there’s a change because I needed you even just from that side of my life even defined by your valiant hope and being your self in a way I’d never known before.

The “never before” idea returns in Embrace, when with your arms round my neck my arms round your waist this once there’s a poignancy to our embracea force that takes us both and presses us against each other more than “presses” hurls us each to and against the other in a way we’ve never experienced before. At the end, the poet can’t tell if the embrace 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.


The poem in Falling Ill that’s most expressly outwardly directed is “Friends,” which, minus Catherine’s italics, speaks to “Those of you who’ve gone before how precious you remain how little your essential nature has altered” and closes with one of the collection’s most “written” and resonant passages: “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.” Not surprisingly, this was the poem Catherine chose to read, herself, to friends and family at the conclusion of last spring’s memorial service for C.K. at the Writers House in Philadelphia.

Their Story

They met by chance. No mutual friends introduced them at a party; nor were they colleagues, nor did they strike up a conversation in a Left Bank cafe. They met at a ticket counter at Kennedy in March 1973. Both were Paris bound. If all had gone according to schedule, if the plane had been reasonably close to departing on time, they might not have taken it further. But the wait dragged on for a full day, giving them time to talk. As he recalls in his 2013 chapbook Catherine’s Laughter, “We didn’t get to Paris for another day and a half, and by then we were friends and soon after and ever since lovers.”

Several of the italicized poems in Falling Ill contain glimpses of their life together. In Air, there’s a reference to that island the week of love’s onset and those mornings with mild waves insinuating themselves on the shore we looked out on, the island air informing the air of the first days of illness enfolding me in a texture I’d never known as though in another genre of simple being. There’s a moment in Trees, the image of that stand of great trees at the edge of a pond beneath which I stood with you one morning in rain and felt something I might have called bliss. In Lonely, he mentions the enduring need of my first life (presumably life before that chance meeting) and of acute moments of solitude from which you most of all brought respite. And of course there’s the intrusion amid the sounds of her workshop of that metaphorical ship on which it pleases him to imagine her checking the horizon for indolent dawn.

Finally, if you know how they met, the poem titled Farewell takes on additional meaning when he thanks her for devising a life for me I never imagined I’d have.

Symptoms of Love

Returning to thoughts of February 14, here’s a most unmelancholic celebration of the Beloved from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: “she keeps the keys of his life; his fortune ebbs and flows with her favour, a gracious or bad aspect turns him up or down …. Howsoever his present state is pleasing or displeasing, ‘tis continuate so long as he loves, he can do nothing, think of nothing but her; desire hath no rest, she is his Cynosure, his Hesperus et Vesper, his morning and evening Star, his Goddess, his Mistress, his life, his soul, his every thing, dreaming, waking … his heart, eyes, ears, and all his thoughts are full of her.”

The Poetry Society of America is hosting a tribute to C.K. Williams on Wednesday, February 22, at 7 p.m., at The Auditorium, Alvin Johnston/J.M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, New York City. The event is free and open to the public.