The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected Poemsby Alan Williamson
Alan Williamson artfully joins social and literary history with personal experience in The Pattern More Complicated, a collection of his very best poems over the last twenty years. A powerful section of new poems draws the whole work together in a kind of autobiographical novel, as—in Eliot's phrase, from which the title is taken—"the pattern of/i>
Alan Williamson artfully joins social and literary history with personal experience in The Pattern More Complicated, a collection of his very best poems over the last twenty years. A powerful section of new poems draws the whole work together in a kind of autobiographical novel, as—in Eliot's phrase, from which the title is taken—"the pattern of dead and living" grows "more complicated" with the years. Williamson's verse is a refreshing examples of how delicately the personal can intersect with the public in a love for the considered life.
The Pattern More Complicated assembles Williamson's most important, representative poems, marking the trajectory of poetic development and the recurrence of themes across the span of four previous collections to present a survey of a major American poet in a single volume.
Read an ExcerptThe Pattern More Complicated
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
By ALAN WILLIAMSON
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
from THE MUSE OF DISTANCE (1988)
[Fallings from Us, Vanishings
Sometimes you came home from the beach with a wasp-sting, or a speck of sand that even the eye-cup wouldn't wash out. The day was troublingly larger for being spent empty, among bodies-as if some great purpose had been found or missed, looking out to the stationary water-intake boat, the crib (did anyone live there?). And when you got home, and the sun stayed insidiously involved in your skin, all indoors seemed delicious and temporary, like a glass of water.
Or in the early autumn dark, when you came out of a movie theater, and something cruel, from another world- the plague; a slave crushed dragging a stone for the Pyramids- stayed with you, you were afraid to go out to the end of the long hall, where the small one crooked off to the bathroom, sensing it, and you, would shelve off into another space you could feel, though you couldn't know or explain ...
And it was almost a relief to carry the telescope down and set its metal legs with a small crisp tinkle on the playground asphalt (the city stood around silent like its cardboard skyline in the planetarium). And then the slight shock of floating out through your eye to those bodies of gas and nothing, the Coal-Sack Nebula, across the clean, unlivable, untraversable years.
It made you imagine the world was God's body, split from some first atom, that was neither world nor God. You wrote about that for school-"accounts of Creation"- then refused to read it aloud, because no one else's was like it, the boys' all science, the girls' all Biblical. But while you thought about it outdoors, the dangerous night held its distance; or if not, you could hear it far off, coming with the same slight ping over the wintry ground. The City
-A kind of map of the mind, or of life ...
Eastward, in the fragile curtain we lived in, all brilliance, tracery, flutings, the mind's feminine enchantment with itself-crystalline rooms- it blows against the Lake,
light out of darkness, as the long parks at its feet, abandoned now to monstrosity, for those hours, tell you by night; as the gloomy, steeped and over-steeped last oak leaf of its brick tells you by day.
(One night, a man in one of those towers saw a shadow detach from the tree-shadow and steal after a woman, oblivious, in the sulphur brilliance of the arc lights. She was dead when he put down the phone.)
Then the space behind, with nothing to stop it-beginning in the loneliness of certain upper office stories, hundreds of snowy doors, in the buildings downtown; hurled westward on the El's black interruption of the air of Gilded Age shopping streets, to the neighborhoods where life grew violent and thin with reduplication, like the great letters stencilled in a fungus of end-of-winter lavender, char-black, rose, on the walls where the ads have passed.
Somehow I never felt the invisible country as ending it (notwithstanding the bits of green at the moraine rise, distant banners in summer's heavier, wavy industrial air)-
anymore than the Lake, with its visible, invisible far shore, ended anything.
If there was culmination near the shales of the beaches, in the blankness of late November, it was those eyes opening on endlessness, the museums: out past the small airfield, spun silk of comets dream-depthless in the slightly brown far space of early observatory plates; or the glowing ring of the Table of the Elements, rounded warily for fear of the whistle from the reconstructed coal mine grazing the dome beyond.
It was in an underground lecture chamber there, all muralless blank tan plaster, I heard of The Birth and Death of the Sun; the earth made uninhabitable in the last explosions. That I and everyone I knew would be dead, didn't help. My friend thought we would have colonized other solar systems by then. I pinned my hopes on a race of people who had learned to travel at the speed of the earth's turning, living constantly westward, on the cusp of the sun's rising, in a new kind of car that hovered inches above deserts and oceans; sometimes gaining an hour or two of night, to sleep in something still not fire-twisted beyond use; some thing like the Field Museum's caveman's cave ...
The ten years I've owned it, unapproachable:
Shaker-square; its bottom a cage; its seat tight-woven, tobacco- and pale-cornhusk-speckly as an old man's hand, with almost no give from the years it gave you comfort, the window behind, light falling from the desk lamp; on the wall, the bitten-in iron wrinkles of King Charles and John Dryden ... It was where you lived, except for the long planetary loops through the apartment, your face appearing, eager, at my reluctantly open adolescent door.
Once a famous man, who revered you, described your first class of the term. You were having a controversy with another scholar. You came in, laid your green Harvard bookbag down, took out a book and stared straight into it until you sensed the students were all assembled; then looked up and began, "Now he says ..."
Too often, too early, I was the "he" that said something that could not be swallowed, or let pass. A thousand miles away, I've had to follow the endless, cornered turnings of your hurt reasoning-the chair, the stillness, the long hall- like a chess partner, unable to withdraw my attention, because you could not withdraw yours, day after day, hour after hour ... I cannot sit in it to think or write.
Yet how hard you tried to escape from it, the years after your first illness, when I was twelve- to enjoy without doing: listening for an hour, after lunch, to your records of the new, sad, witty French music, Les Six-though really almost preferring to search out newer ones in the catalogues ...
Or how we "broke in" our new Ford each bright fall weekend, driving north in the white sickle of the autumn light and your easily angered travel-nerves, to Yerkes Observatory-prism of leaves downhill to the cold lake-or the bratwurst restaurant you remembered, in Milwaukee, from before I was born.
And after, returning, caught on the expressway in the choke of early dark, moving with the other accidental cars-the seamed tired faces, children restless in back, in blue- I thought of the empty apartments they moved to scattering leaflike as their presence beside us in the night, one slipping ahead, one returned by magic as our lane slid forward. And back at last, heating our makeshift meal out of cans, it took a while for the glaze of home to settle again onto our own echoing cavern, brown Braques and Légers.
I wanted us so to be happy and at ease, and we were, halfway; so something clings about our objects, still crying out for something more to be done with them, and yet nothing that is not betokened in the calm and stillness of their deep shine. And the chair, where once I hid in the under-cage and watched the sun whiten the dust-motes ... As I grow older, it seems to go on getting smaller: when I am dead, I can imagine it no longer human-scale, still perfectly polished, in some museum of styles or souls-strange ones, tied to their places as a child to his cradle or a martyr to his tongs ... In their bright shirts, without ties, the new easy people pass our cage and comment on the turn of the century; Protestantism; the grimness of Swedes; the fastidiousness and guilt of those who rise above their origins; the long winter of the Great Plains ... I am always half gone on with them and half held back by my need to argue with, convince, demolish, do justice to and shield and rescue you-cage and prisoner, but, while I live, never not the scale of life.
He came from a small town in downstate Illinois, and couldn't believe it when his city students laughed at the notion that you could hear the corn grow on soft summer nights. He got me to eat a fried grasshopper once. His chuckle came low and bland from inside his sheath of baby fat; his eyelids were neatly, symmetrically pursed, like the valves of a clam.
Between assurances that our easily sliced-up flatworm, named Elvis, would regenerate in days, he was the class matchmaker. He gave us shyer ones lists of girls to ask to the Prom; and then-as no adult had ever spoken to me-"Who knows? You might give it all up, get married, go and work in the steel mills. That's the power of your chemistry. I mean the chemistry of your body, of course."
No date that time. But later, the thought of smokestacks in South Chicago, across the dreamlike gulf from the school towers, helped bridge the other gulf when Karen, dancing, said in her sensible voice, "Hold me closer," as if it were no more than Mr. Brown showing me a firmer way to shake hands ...
When the jocks started saying, "Brown's a homo" in the locker room, I thought with stricken loyalty, if he is, I must be too; then when he crooked a finger under my belt buckle, talking in the hall, a holy dread ... till tamed by absence, though never listed matter-of-factly among "gay" friends, he stood, a kind of Terminus, or excluded Moses, over the long descent to where we are ropes, ribbons bird shrill electric outlets dizziness like the first seawater's, waking to its own presence somehow jelled from the sun ... The Muse of Distance
What composes a life? Mine comes, too much, from books; but also the sense that, if you climbed high places,
you would see the streets go on with nothing to end them, and be driven to, perhaps even desire,
whatever they withheld: a flight of smokestacks past water; a girl in a mean, dawn-blue room; a glimpse of the terrible
engines, or giants, it took to make such a world ...
* * *
Far in the caverns of our night, a jarring: then chinks of light
at both doors to my room, and sausage-smells from our huge travellers' breakfast; then lugging the suitcases, down
from the hiding-places where they'd kept all winter- tribal ochre: the trademark an Indian's head
off an old penny-down the long stairwell, black rail, white balusters, to the mirroring black-and-white tile at the foot, not scarily dim now, but bathed through the jewel-faceted panes
of the entrance hall beyond, in silveriness without origin or ray ... So our years came round, as far back
as I can remember, to this ritual of detaching ourselves from ourselves westward:
our summer in California; half the continent's breadth; a journey reliving
my father' s childhood, failure by fresh start, westward; which was, perhaps, why his nerves flared to get away
at seven, on schedule, so that he lashed out at my mother or me, some wrong way I packed the trunk
or failed to make it lock-"If you grew up the way most people do, that's what your precious
intelligence would be judged by!"-betraying not only me, but his whole life there, with the quiet,
the high-ranged books ... And yet the happiness, the Nunc Dimittis, when we set our course down
the east-west numbered streets, half-fused with the sun risen from the lake behind us, touching with unwitnessing strangeness
-as, back in the apartment, I had touched the dinosaur bones on my dresser, knowing nothing would change their position or how the light would pass them all the days till fall-the dewy Gothic mirage
of the University; the Negro blocks; the airport's prairie-tan lanes ...
When we passed the garbage dump, my father marvelled in hoots and youks, and held his nose, as if everything
he hated in his life were exposed, concentrated, rotted and burned at once. For the next half hour-
the country coming on, meadowlarks starting from the wet ditchgrass, but the great heat rising
more unimpeded than ever in the city- he sang:
You were my girl in cal-i-co, I was your bashful barefoot beau, I wrote on your slate, I love you so, When we were-a couple-of kids!
* * *
My Great-Uncle George hopped the train where it slowed for the curve near the family farm eight miles out of Galesburg. He'd done it often, but this January night couldn't awaken conductor or passengers. I can imagine the corridor through the window, lucid, empty, and how he managed, in the gathering speed, to unbuckle and reloop his belt around some grip. They found his frozen body still hanging there in the gaslight of the Chicago yards.
I imagine my father was named for him, whether before or after I've no idea. In any case, they moved West so early and repeatedly, the death could only have followed like a kind of legend or coat-of-arms.
Often, crossing the Midwest, on the new bypass skirting some blind place-name, my father would say, "I went to high school here," or "we had a farm," and then "only my poor father would have bought such land. I suppose they bailed him out. They always did."
We never stopped to visit those family places, though once we were turned away at the Brown Palace dining room in Denver, because I had no tie on. (I was fourteen.) "Take a look anyway," my father said shyly, and nudged me past a door-the wrought-iron well above the lobby, leather sofas: "That's where I sat and held the gold brick!" -a real one; for maybe half an hour, while Uncle Alvin went upstairs and made his calls.
Next morning we drove out an indeterminate, elm-lined boulevard to a lavender-Gothic house. When I got out to take a picture, he said I was "making a spectacle"; and then, as we pulled away, "it must have been here that I had the t.b. That bilious attic room."
And I said, "It must? But Daddy, don't you know?"
Then off again: but that night I wondered just what he was revisiting when, as often, he groaned himself to sleep. (Though my mother once returned from the thin-walled motel bathroom, her voice a mixture of panic and triumph-"They were saying, 'do you think there's something wrong with that man in there?'" -it was not an unmusical sound: long, falling, half a sigh, like wind in the wires, or a train distancing.)
* * *
But what I remember best are the anonymous towns whose Main Streets we walked at twilight, drugged with the slow lift of six-hundred-mile days -not even stared at: as though our speed were written like a protective mark, across our brows- in those Main Streets still smelling of grass, or the desert's sharpness ...
It was the things that wrenched at me the most in those places: a dead firm's name still silver-dollared in the cool pavement between new display windows; and all the tools, that lived and toughened and rusted with men's hands-the unsold harvesters shining in the first fall light, more terrible than the graveyards one passed on the outskirts, Indian-fringed with alders ...
The things were like a song, that could only be heard near the earth, only two or three inches above it: of men becoming what they did to live; of raw skill, contempt for the mind; or just of conditions, equal and without rancor, of the slow flesh, that has no hope not to vanish with all it touches ... whispering, near the earth.
And yet if it was high summer, and the road wound along the bluffs where the tall old scalloped houses stood embraced by verandas, I invariably would ask my mother, "Don't you wish we lived here?" She would sigh, or else be drawn-of course not, no theater, no art museums, no real friends-
And she was right: I didn't, really; what I loved were the Triple A timetable cards, Vandalia 16 minutes, 30 minutes Centralia; the never quite being in one place, the wind always the same through the scarcely opened windows;
and yet being everywhere; and, as I grew older, imagining someone waiting-as if I were called to scatter love like a wanderer scattering apples, through death's arbitrary stations and ends ...
* * *
-When the moon moves and the bare driftwood splinters stand out on the Nevada station wall I close my eyes, lie on a hard bench, and see when I am too guilty to picture you, it is you, the scarps toward your breasts ... -It is last year's antlers, pointing somewhere in the mountains.
-Yes, you were always one for pointing elsewhere; and yet there is no place you have not given. You always lived in the only house with a tower in the level prairie town. Your hair was the red Southern clearing, its snakes and lianas; your eyes a torn screen door somewhere flashing on coolness. The empty watery taste of motel air at day's end is a scarf you left behind you, a view of weeds in new earth by a train scar.
And when we meet at the last cottonwood going into the desert, drawn up in the dry whisper of her leaves on themselves over and over, will we spring together into the final jewel case of the air?
-We are lying together so far across the moonlight, you can feel the weeds start growing through your hair.
* * *
Aunt Mary Alice always asked if the girls I liked had auburn hair. Uncle Harold, she said, always liked auburn-haired girls- though hers was dark, darker than the fox fur stole I loved on her, with the real little teeth and paws, and the little tawny depthless glass-chip eyes.
-This was beyond the desert, beyond the distance where America almost floats off in the blueness between mesas and thunderheads, an opaline shudder neither transparence nor obstruction ... beyond that end, a city that seemed a slightly seasick form of motion, sea palms and mountain pines, the smell of driving, the center always just behind you-unless
it centered, as for me, up stairs exhaling dry stucco, in a room with carefully kept American coin silver, the mantel clock bonging, and a sampler with not Home Sweet Home but a woolly locomotive, car, and ocean liner, and Over the Land/Over the Sea/Travelling Far and Wide.
And under it, leg raised and gauzed, no traveller but a man cars couldn't keep from leaping onto- off of jacks; unnoticed and unbraked in driveways- until he had little underarm skin left to be grafted and "take," or not, over long weeks, on his leg's reopened tread, my Uncle Harold sat waiting, eyes bulging as he talked, a rapid-fire high harmonica twang of hyperbolic bewilderment, that comes back a tune without words, or the broken words of old age: how his footsteps cracked in the air of subzero prairie mornings; how they drove a hundred miles to pick up everyone, "out to Burbank, the big bands came there-" A song heard near the earth, only two or three inches above it ...
And my father listening, almost abashed, only later shaking his head at how much he'd heard about fishing trips- yet fond, and almost guilty; and, for all his professorial moustache, so like his brother, their long skulls all angles and knobs, and the hair spurting out of them in short sparky wires-all hardness, but hardness never at peace with itself: the expression formal, shy, and ready to break apart in Jeepers creepers haywire whimsy-like a machine some Futurist was designing, while they walked to school, on the icy Plains.
* * *
What held him there in L.A.?-the mantel clock bonging musically, with a long premonitory rasp on the quarter hour, that, hurrying time, held it still, unimportant, adrift ...
My grandfather, in the Depression-the last farm gone, the cow sold, it was said, "so George could go to college"- failed to see a streetcar as he came home one sunrise from his last job, night-watchman at a warehouse, in L.A....
And all his children lingered, except my father, already gone; and one uncle, whom I hardly knew, retired early, married late, and bought a trailer, and lived, it seemed, in a kind of roving family of trailer-couples, linking up near Christmas in Guadalajara; in the spring, up Oregon way ...
depthless, to us, as if he'd stepped off in that air between mesa and cloud.
* * *
I thought I knew what Uncle Harold did. Then, once, at our place (our summer place, in Monterey) a wall-outlet failed.
I said, "We'll have to get an electrician." Uncle Harold said, "I am an electrician."
I said, "You're kidding. I thought you-" and suddenly I didn't quite know what I'd thought. I looked to my father, but he just looked surprised, and said with an indefinable hurt in his voice, "Of course your Uncle Harold is an electrician."
Harold worked for Lockheed: the intricate circuits that held the big jets up in the sky. But that wasn't the point: my mother and I were outsiders on any such ground. Sometimes, on the trip, he'd compare his arm with ours, where it rested, freckle-stained as a gas station floor, on the rim of the open window- "I can't tan the way you people do, I only burn"; or watching a home movie, after twenty years, would get angry at the way she was standing, off by herself, in the hallway of his parents' house. And one winter, in Chicago- "I'm not going to work in the factory, after all," I yelled at him.
(I'd gotten a D in Phy s. Ed. For two weeks, total silence on the subject. I conferred with my mother:
"But those aren't his values. He doesn't play ball, or-"
And she: "Whatever men want for themselves, for their sons they want the other." "But a professor-"
"Just because they're professors, they can't stop being men ..."
-leaving me wondering just what I was, included in this sad, superior, helpless, womanly understanding ...)
Now, going to work in the factory hung in the lunch-table air. Then my father saying, with deadly calm, "Two of my brothers did."
I rushing in heedless, "But Daddy, you were the exception in your family. If a professor's kid-"
He managed the worldly, world-weary smile of his prose, feeling fused with intellect. "Oh, I know, you're the exception-"
"I didn't say that. What I said was, you were-"
Then the voice of the Lord in thunder, drowning me out:
"You're the exception! You're always the exception!"
* * *
Two of my brothers did: it was his wish he hated, completed in mine.
When Uncle Harold failed to show up for a family reunion, or awkwardly we had to shift at the last minute and stay with one of my aunts- As a child, I didn't notice. Later, the explanations:
"He can't touch a drop now, or-"
"He was the one who went down to the morgue when our father-"
But Aunt Mary Alice, looking down at her own arthritis-jewelled fingers, said once, "Harold has fine hands, a surgeon's hands. He wanted to be a doctor, but the Depression- and 'the cow was sold for George to go to college'-"
When I told my father, he winced, as if he'd bitten something sour, then sighed, "Harold wanted to be everything. He was going to write a great novel, and we'd all be famous from it. He'd make a million dollars on the movie-"
He didn't, of course. Like my father, he gave half his paycheck to keep their parents in their own house, until the sunrise and the streetcar ...
He did his duty, in that brontosaurian language my father spoke more, when they'd been together, as he laughed at jokes on "the colored"; remembered his Model T Ford.
* * *
When "the t.b." returned in him, after years of late-night writing, slowly angrier nerves, and he hung in the balance all summer, needing seven times the normal dose of drugs -small wonder I turned to Christ, the eternal son, who dies a little (or much) to live beyond his father's justice without calling it a lie.
I gave up my childhood anger- its study of execution and torture, that put the iron and smoke of Chicago winter into my soul- in a kind of floating calm, a long June dusk of forgiveness, in which the city lay murmuring interfused, the dying and the newly born.
I thought it ungodly to fear death; though in daydreams I saw my spirit, airborne above my body, in a hospital bed like my father's, hover near the bowed heads, ecstatic to tell them how silly they were not to know how simple it was-then pausing in a white ceiling corner, not quite sure where to go. And my father, in his loose-hanging hospital gown, haggard, slowed down enough to be sweet and wry, not embarrassed, at my first crush on a girl- making me know the Mystery was simply true: in suffering, we were reborn.
But, when he recovered, things weren't much changed. He'd still sing, as on leaving Chicago, the last ten miles approaching "our shanty." But when we'd actually driven up Monterey Heights, almost to its scalplock of pines ...
It's a scene I somehow never entirely escape from. The fog already coming in; or perhaps not, and glare. The earthless white granite soil and pine-needle duff. My parents go over every inch of the house for "the tenants'" misdoings, every vanished glass or scratch in the varnish, as if it would tell them what is missing from what they wanted.
Wherever they move, the floor gives its slight, incurable booming reverberation from the space too big for a crawl-space and never finished as a cellar. My father's anger mounts, shakes everything, ceases, each year, in no particular proportion to what is lost.
I sit in my room, too visible from the other rooms, the stucco arc of street; and as I might think of a person-a pair of perfect, calm, understanding eyes-think of Chicago, where there are other people, worn gold interiors to glimpse from the car at night, returning, in a rush of such black, such deep-gripped-down cottonwood trees, my own life would grip down and sleep on itself, dark, full, opening our door on rich books, peaceful must.
But that is gone to the far side of the summer. Christ is less a refuge. If I am not to live a frozen ghost in the middle wind, a distance that can never become a place, I must
be here, with them.
* * *
When I was fourteen I made up a sentence: we are unhappy because we have no roots. I wasn't sure of it; I'd read something like it in Time. Perhaps we weren't unhappy, or too many roots would have been truer ...
But I know it struck on something in me; some place where I was dreaming, against us, an image of the true house, solid on the solid land: the summers falling stationary through the bay windows; piano music dampered at night, in the thick leaves; and up the stairs unnumbered branching alcoves, sisters, silences-
like a house in a book, where a distant lake was visible from one upper window-enough endlessness to rest a family in each other and the ground beneath, so that, if one lived there, a life would fall like an image: first love to white stone a falling of original leaves ... and the unseen sister upstairs comes out and gathers it all into her hands.
That was my dream, as we passed the small towns sleeping ... But what my father remembered (though he could never approve of himself for having arrived there) were the intimations of a world beyond: how a store would have, from some wanderer, almost postage-stamp-sized books, The Ballad of Reading Gaol or Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae ...
And though I said we are unhappy, we have no roots, I know when I reach back as far as I can for an image of happiness, I come to images of travel:
the DIP signs in the desert, the runningboards and buck-tan interiors of '40s cars; or asking my parents, in Needles, California, one night when I was four, "How far away are the stars?"-
expecting I don't know what, a few city blocks or even as far as L.A.-and then the vastness of the answer somehow soothing, as our departure soothed, back in Chicago, the dinosaur bones, the chairs ...
We seem contented in vastness, as we do not, wholly, anyplace solid, where our weight and distance can be determined ... in this, "the exception" though we are forever, most purely American.
Excerpted from The Pattern More Complicated by ALAN WILLIAMSON Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Alan Williamson is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently Love and the Soul and Res Publica, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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