C. K. Williams splits his time between Paris and Princeton, New Jersey. Considering his transcontinental lifestyle, it seems fitting that this poet and professor's latest volume of poems swings between two poles. For 71 pages, Repair negotiates the interplay of opposite concepts and takes obvious pleasure in that negotiation.
Repair begins with a sharp image of destruction ice cracked by a needle-awl and ends with the rather soft word "repair," which of course, doubles as the book's title. In the pages between those opposing phrases, Williams navigates the hurt humans inflict on each other and explores the idea of forgiveness for that hurt. In his trademark long, elegant lines, along with some shorter, sparer stanzas, he constantly returns to the themes of confidence and self-doubt, mixing them with commentary on youth and aging.
Despite his own advancing age and supposedly introspective profession as a poet and scholar, Williams repeatedly remarks on how poorly he knows himself. Here, in "Glass," the poet looks into a mirror:
Lately, since my father died, and I've come closer to his age,
I sometimes see him first, and have to focus to find myself.
I've thought it's that, my precious singularity being diluted,
but it's harder than that, crueler, the way when I was young
I believed how you looked was supposed to mean,
something graver, more substantial. I'd gaze at my poor face
and think, "It's still not there." Apparently I still do.
What isn't there? Beauty? Not likely. Wisdom? Less.
While "Glass"isrelatively spare for Williams, it sometimes feels like the poet is piling language, building and layering image atop image in an attempt to "repair," to make words into forgiveness. Oddly, this sensation of thickness comparable to several coats of paint is reinforced by the poet's heavy use of the word "thick" throughout the volume. Here, for example, the poet remembers his grandmother in a poem called "Dirt":
My grandmother is washing my mouth
out with soap; half a long century gone
and still she comes at me
with that thick, cruel, yellow bar.
All because of a word I said,
not even said, really, only repeated
In that opening stanza, hurt, words, and that singular word "thick" appear, just as they do throughout much of the book. While in some poems the speaker is older, a grandfather himself, in others like "Dirt" he remembers the elderly people who populated his younger years. And then, like other poets of his age and standing Adrienne Rich in her recent Midnight Salvage comes to mind Williams ventures into what made him a poet anyway, what pushed and propelled him into the life of poetry. Again in "Dirt," he wonders if it was his seemingly cruel grandmother:
But oh, her soap! Might its bitter burning
have been what made me into a poet?
The sensual image of soap is related to another theme: the physical, and how physical appearance can be misleading. In several places, the old and less-than-beautiful characters reveal the deeper beauty of simply existing. One of the most endearing poems here is "The Dance," about a less-than-glamorous woman seen in a second-rate café, where she soon begins to dance with a good-looking, younger man. She dances with great confidence, leading the poet to think about beauty, and yet again, confidence and doubt. As she dances, he notices:
that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some sad
conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we'd ever thought of as a real lack, nothing to be ad mired or repented for
"Lack" the lack of self-recognition in a mirror, lack of confidence, lack of ability to forgive, keeps coming up. The closing poem in the book seeks to tie all the themes together age and youth, beauty and plainness, confidence and doubt, hurt and repair of hurt. Called "Invisible Mending," which also functions as a synonym for the title and overarching theme of repair, that final poem features three women "old as angels, / bent as ancient apple trees." The word "needle," first mentioned in the opening poem, surfaces again here, since these women hold "needles fine as hair." The women generally focus on their needles and threads:
Only sometimes would they
lift their eyes to yours to show
how much lovelier than these twists
of silk and serge the garments
of the mind are
The elegance of "garments of the mind" is what Repair tries to evoke. But it never wallows in that elegance, always trying for some harshness, like the opening image of the needle-awl cracking the ice. Even when the language seems wholly beautiful, Williams takes pains to depict loneliness, to make sure aloneness is clearly noted. In the last stanza the speaker watches the old women at work, finding beauty in their difficult, repetitive activity, oddly like the work of a poet:
And in your loneliness you'd notice
how really very gently they'd take
the fabric to its last, with what
solicitude gather up worn edges
to be bound, and with what severe
but kind detachment wield
their amputating shears:
forgiveness, and repair.
Those two words "forgiveness" and "repair" may also point to Williams's future direction. He will spend next year on a fellowship in Berlin, a city familiar with splits, with the pain and comfort of both forgiveness and repair.