Errors in the Scriptby Greg Williamson
Greg Williamson's verbal wizardry is again on display in these funny and darkly serious poems. As Richard Wilbur said of his first collection, The Silent Partner, Williamson "is concerned...with the fugitive nature of all orderings." And here, in the latest title in the Sewanee Writers' Series, the doublings and hidden dangers in life and language ricochet wildly, as in the quadruple look at people's relationship to nature and metaphor in "The Dark Days" or in the group of twenty-six "Double Exposures" where each poem has to be read three times.
These obsessive themes lead to a final section about the difficulties of any artistic quest in these disordered times. We hear from a sesquipedalian security mirror and a disapproving muse, join in progress a medieval romance in a shopping mall, despair with Wile E. Coyote, and see the poet's frustrated efforts at a life in art in the title poem, a meditation on modern times-times filled with computer glitches, phone trees, and talk radio.
Author Bio: Greg Williamson is the author of a previous collection of poetry, The Silent Partner. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Read an Excerpt
The kids are good at this. Their nimble fingers
Double and fold and double fold the pages,
Making mimetic icons for all ages.
The floor of the school is littered with dead ringers:
Songbirds that really flap their wings, rare cranes,
Bleached bonsai trees, pale ghouls, two kinds of hats,
Dwarf stars, white roses, Persian copycats,
Small packet boats, whole fleets of flyable planes.
Some of the girls, some of the older ones,
Make effigies of boys and ... "Goodness sakes?
They ask what I can make. "I make mistakes."
"No really, Mr. Greg!" They don't like puns.
I tear out a page and say, "I've made a bed."
They frown at me. I'll have to lie on it.
"See, it's a sheet." But they're not buying it,
And seem to imply ("you crazy!") it's all in my head.
I head for home, where even more white lies
Take shape. The page is a window filled with frost,
An unformed thought, a thought I had, but lost.
The page is the sclera of someone rolling his eyes
As it becomes (you'll recognize the trick)
Tomorrow morning, laundry on the line,
The South Pole, circa 1929,
The mainsail of the Pequod, Moby Dick,
The desert sand, the shore, the arctic waste
Of untold tales, where hero and author together
Must turn, out of the silence, into the whether-
Not to your taste?
The page is a flag of surrender. I surrender
To the rustle of programs before a serious talk,
The sound of seashells, seas, the taste of chalk,
The ghost of snow, the ghost of the sky in December,
And frozen surfaces of ponds, which hide
Some frigid stirring, something. (What have I done?)
It's the napkin at a table set for one,
The shade drawn in a room where someone died.
The pages keep on turning. They assume
More shapes than I can put my finger on,
A wall of silence, curtains, doors, false dawn,
The stared-at ceiling of my rented room.
"You crazy, Mr. Greg." The voices call.
The sheet on the unmade bed is gone awry.
I sit at my little desk in mid-July
Throwing snowballs at the Sheetrock wall.
Kites at the
What's up, today, with our lovers?
W. D. Snodgrass
At fingertip control
These state-of-the-art stunt kites
Chandelle, wingover, and roll
To dive from conspicuous heights,
Whatever the pilots will,
While the wowed audience follows
As the kites come in for the kill
And slice up the air like swallows.
But look, across the park
Someone has put together
What is it? It looks like a lark
Tossed up into the weather.
It's homemade out of paper
That tumbles and bobs like a moth
On another meaningless caper.
Why, it's a bit of froth
Spun on a blue lake,
A name or a wrinkled note
Dropped into the wake
Of an ocean-going boat.
But still it pulls itself higher
As he would pull it back.
The line goes tight as wire,
Or sags, falling, and goes slack,
And while the audience claps
At the aerobatic buzz,
It flutters, quiets, then it snaps.
But that's about all it does.
Flying its tail of rags
Above these broken lands,
It's one of those white flags
For things that are out of our hands,
The hoisted colors of
The handkerchief of a love
That's come to the end of its rope.
When the line breaks, the string
Floats to the ground in the wind.
He stands there watching the thing
Still holding up his end
As the kite heads into the sky
Like a sail leaving a slip.
The rags wave goodbye.
They're scarves at the back of a ship.
On or about His
Party of one: the shower, the cake of soap,
The buttery toast to which he raised his cup
Of tea. Having discarded the envelope
Of sugar and perused the horoscope,
"Big deal at work turns up,"
And having lit the citronella candle
And wandered (lonely as a cloud) to check
The Crimson Jack tomato vines that dandle
Emerald solitaires, he loosens a sandal
And sits, all hands on deck.
If the sun's a gift, rising above the gable,
If begonias in the window bloom like bows,
If liriope turns to ribbon, it's a fable
And he's the intrusive speaker. At the table
He sets the cards in rows,
And instantly the catalpa's full of hearts;
Exclusive clubs of finch and chickadee
Shuffle around the feeder, playing their parts
In the running commentary, which imparts:
Black two on red three.
The grass is wet with diamonds, and the spade
In the ground he calls a spade. The serpentine
Hose is a six on which a pothook's played
By the one-eyed jack, who never learned a trade.
Red eight on black nine.
Big deal at work. If things turned up they'd find
The clouds of icing turn to floating cakes
Of French vanilla, layered and refined.
What turns up next, what comes to the floating mind,
Is he and the clouds are fakes.
They might be sawdust clouds of cabinetwork,
Cities of smog, exhaust, the thick cascade
Of refinery smoke, lobbies where bankers smirk.
Black seven on red eight. Big deal at work.
He never learned a trade.
And soon enough the sun will set. The vines
Will drop their fruit. The bows will fall. The fall
Will see the birds depart, as he cosigns
Another loan, in some nonce place. The signs
Are there. If you can call
It work, he sees how the pattering mind will cope
With what the heart is feeling, like reading a cup
Of tea leaves, cloud banks, cards, the horoscope.
He shuffles the deck. He'll play his cards and hope
Whatever he needs turns up.
The Top Priority
Granted I am a malcontent, a geek,
Whose people skills and interfacing technique
Are, let's say, challenged; granted I maintain
A kennel of pet peeves, and yet this reign
Of fashion needs a simple boy to focus
On our nude king, the cheeky hocus-pocus
Of base, Orwellian duplicitese:
Free gifts, true facts, and top priorities.
At JFK the ticket engineer
Invites us to pre-board. I down my beer
Then stash the paperback and check my fly.
That isn't what she means. I don't know why.
She says to us, who clearly aren't on board,
"Those who have not pre-boarded now may board."
And when we land in the weather event called rain,
Do we de-board? It turns out we de-plane.
I've left, egressed, dismounted, not remained;
But the hitch de-planing is, we never planed.
Granted I am a grump, a grouch, a crank,
But when the recipe for braised lamb shank
Au dik-dik says, "Preheat the oven to,"
If it said, "Heat the oven," what would you do?
If grocery stores supply a pre-sliced roll,
And sliced is sliced, pre-sliced is what? Well, whole.
If the sales clerk suggests a pre-made bow,
You think that he means ribbon. Does he? No.
When Deal Dan says, "Not `used,' `pre-owned' Crown Vic,"
You ask him, "Did she use it?" He says, "Dick."
If soup is ready-to-eat, what soup is not?
The kind that's rice, a chicken, and a pot.
And this kind, too, because there is no pan,
No bowl, no spoon, it's cold, it's in a can.
And why not offer ready-to-fish-with hooks,
Or ready-to-read, pre-bound, pre-written books?
We call things "literal" when figurative:
"I literally died." And yet you live.
We float a metaphor until it fails:
"The steam was taken out of the president's sails."
We drown correctness in polluted waters:
"Woman admits to allegedly killing her daughters."
We dress plain subjects up in regal guise:
To talk is "to share"; to plan, "prioritize";
And the big business, when its growing ceases,
"Rightsizes," when, more rightly, it decreases.
We form tautologies defying sense,
As with, say, "previous experience,"
"Past history," or when the poet wrote,
"Then I can truly forgive her." By a vote
The class refused to find the phrase unruly.
Later I forgave them, but not truly,
And add my errors to the list, of course.
I have misspoken, riding my high horse,
But hope I'm truly forgiven every lie.
And so, you know, like, basically, when I die,
Pre-dig my grave six feet to hide the coffin,
Brainstorm and dialogue about me often,
And I'll de-body to join the win-win group
For pre-cooked ham and ready-to-eat soup,
Completely free gifts, no extra charge to me,
And walk with God, the Top Priority.
Bodies of Water
Glimmerings are what the soul's composed of.
Yes, but the body is made of water. That's
A fact. It freezes with fear
And boils with rage because it has its states.
It blows off steam. It swells with pride.
It sweats like a pipe,
But it is water.
Genetic pool, swamp of desires, its heart
Melts at a beautiful face;
Turned to a puddle, it stands in the street and admires.
The body runs hot and cold and down
In soaked beds,
Seeking its level.
There have been souls who drowned in pity, drowned
In sorrow. Just last week
There was a glimmer of something out on the surface,
Then it went under. When divers went in
They found gold teeth
And hundreds of miles of water.
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
W. H. Auden
Not many trees survive our satellite
Communities. But here by a quiet house
And fanned by warm midmorning breeze, daylight
Flares in a living ash, where dark birds light
On ramifying, migratory routes.
And then this warning flashes on the light
Meter: Inside the house a pilot light
Is always burning in the oven's eyes,
And the low roof is pulled down over the eyes
Like a hat, and underneath the morning's leit-Motif
networks of subterranean lines
Run like the nervous system, or bloodlines,
Or fractures spreading from tectonic lines
Of fault. From distant coasts, heavy and light
Petroleum is piped across state lines,
And gas, electric, oil, and water lines
Convey their vital humors to the house.
The greatest threat to all these bottom lines
Remains the operator who declines
To call for information about their routes
But sinks the backhoe's teeth among the roots.
An accident explodes in the headlines,
Rattling the suburb's glassy eyes,
Or seeps into the ground beneath our eyes,
Avoiding, for a time, the public's eyes.
The leak spreads like reticulating lines
Of thought, which thinks of crow's-feet at the eyes,
Or secret guilt dilating in your eyes,
Something you hope is never brought to light,
Or mysteries behind your neighbor's eyes,
Or else the casual way we shut our eyes
To dark forebodings lurking in the house-Hold
phrase, our faults that may bring down the house.
There's a screw loose, blown fuse, fire in the eyes,
Frayed nerves, live wires. Like words out of taproots,
The pipes break off on long, anfractuous routes.
Bearing in mind the origin of "routes"
Is rumpere, "to rupture," cast your eyes
On the thriving industry of thrift, which roots
In the cracked sidewalks, cracking with the roots.
There's something going on between the lines,
Below our feet, baring along their routes
Whatever's buried with the bitter roots.
Across the seeded lawn, by a floodlight,
A sassafras is spreading toward the light,
But it has "stone" and "breaker" in its roots.
It's growing at the corner of the house,
Derived from hydan, "to hide," which gives us "house."
Thus, rarely do we see an open house.
Like Huntington's stalking in genetic roots
Who can be sure what's growing up in-house,
In living rooms, in broken homes? They house,
Perhaps, deft infidelities, black eyes,
Crude violence to the children playing house.
The oven's eyes are burning in the house.
And you can almost hear, in the phone lines,
The hubbub that entreats, retracts, maligns.
A work truck sidles up beside the house.
Two men in hats and uniforms alight.
They have a pickaxe and a trouble light.
The underground is booming. Traveling light,
The pipelines work their way from house to house,
Operating among our darkest roots,
Like nervous systems tingling behind the eyes,
Conveying a threat, or something, along those lines.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a book from a poet of extraordinary talent. As a translator in Italian of many great American poets (Bishop, Stevens, Lowell, Hecht, Merrill, Justice, Strand, Simic, Bidart - for instance), I can tell you you are likely to have another big-leaguer here. Watch him closely, and don't be surprised if this book starts gathering important prizes in 2002.