Repair

Overview

Nominated for the National Book Award—The eighth book by one of our greatest poets

"Always, "These gigantic inconceivables."

Always, "What will have been done to me?"

And so we don our mental armor,

flex, thrill, pay the strict attention we always knew we should.

A violent...

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Repair: Poems

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Overview

Nominated for the National Book Award—The eighth book by one of our greatest poets

"Always, "These gigantic inconceivables."

Always, "What will have been done to me?"

And so we don our mental armor,

flex, thrill, pay the strict attention we always knew we should.

A violent alertness, the muscularity of risk,

though still the secret inward cry: What else, what more?"

—from "Risk"

Repair is body work in C. K. Williams's sensual poems, but it is also an imaginative treatment of the consternations that interrupt life's easy narrative. National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Williams keeps the self in repair despite love, death, social disorder, and the secrets that separate and join intimates. These forty poems experiment with form but maintain what Alan Williamson has heralded Williams for having so steadily developed from French influences: "the poetry of the sentence."

 

Repair is a 1999 National Book Award Finalist for Poetry and the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
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.

—Aviya Kushner

From the Publisher
"Formally, these new poems mark a departure. Underneath, though, they are driven by the familiar Williams sensibility: intelligent, restless . . . always wanting to know and understand more . . . [an] excellent book."—The Boston Book Review
Boston Book Review
Excellent...Formally, these new poems mark a departure. Underneath, though, they are driven by the familiar Willaims sensibility: intelligent, restless, perpetually unsatisfied, always wanting to know and understand more.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his long career Williams has performed a rare feat, forging a distinctive style by great labor without a late flop into exhausted mannerism. Past 60, newly a grandfather, he is still a foxy tinkerer, offering a good deal of variety in his characteristic long line, snaking into solid stanzas, couplets and even prose blocks. He tries out new moods, ecstatic italics here (Open, she says, open up!); a bracing gust of Baudelaires cool irony there; but his project remains consistent: rendering the broadstroke conflicts of consciousness as it arrives at points of decision. "Risk" asks if we unknowingly crave disaster. An exchange of looks with a hare from within a stranded train allows his mind that trick of trying to go back into its wilder part. "The Nail" tries to come to terms with how a dictator had gruesomely disposed of enemies (its we who do such things). Throughout, Williams, following Lowell and Berryman, sets off after the sources of the self, as in "House": Down under all to the ancient errors, indolence, envy, pretension, the frailities as though in the gene;/ down to where consciousness cries Make me new, but pleads as pitiably, Cherish me as I was./ Down to the swipe of the sledge, the ravaging bite of the pick; rubble, wreckage, vanity: the abyss. The individual poems dont accumulate narrative momentum or add up to a sequence, as previous works have. But Williams's unreconstructed liberal agony (the flip side to Billy Collinss bourgeois-surrealist conflict resolution), continues to exude a Lowell-like earthiness, and earnest near-candor. (June)
Library Journal
A prolific poet and translator, winner of numerous awards and fellowships, Williams (The Vigil, Farrar, 1997) is best known for his breathless, long, and often prosaic line. But in this eighth volume of poetry, he intersperses short-lined poems--perhaps his finest works to date. Focused and lyrical, they include delicate love poems set against precarious backdrops. "Dirt," for example, speaks of the grandmother who washed his mouth out with soap and how he "never, until now, loved her again." One senses the poem itself becoming the instrument of healing and loving. Aptly titled, this entire volume deals with self-understanding in a world where there is "no end to our self-shaping." Williams's most compelling insights are often embedded in the mundane: the sight of his face in the mirror, a pair of shoes left on a windowsill. Together and apart, these images lead him toward "the space within me, within which I partly, or possibly most exist." Yes. Recommended for most collections.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Elizabeth Lund
At his best, Williams is insightful, vulnerable, unblinking. He explores the hidden mental realms behind people's outword actions, and he leads us fearlessly behing the mind's closed doors.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
The much-celebrated Princeton professor (whose honors include an NBCC award) provides in this, his eight book of verse, a wishful definition of his art: a poet is "someone who lives in words, making a world from their music." Elsewhere, he reveals his dissatisfaction with language when sculpting with wax, "something real," "instead of words." Such confusion about his work results partly from Williams's clumsy style—he's made the extra-long-line his trademark, but his pronouns often lose their referent as a result; his stale and undistinguished vocabulary is propped up by a preponderance of adverbs; and his flat and wordy lines derive their only rhythms from the pointless repetition of phrases. The author sticks with the driving themes of his previous volumes: the struggle between "consciousness" (a word he uses way too often) and being in the moment; between love and despair; between the heart and the mind—though neither of these fares well. Williams's testaments to love are cloying at best: in a poem to his newborn grandson, he enters the child's "consciousness" and is overwhelmed by "such love"; in "Depths," a childhood fear anticipates the poet's fear of never having found his true "love"; and "Lost Wax" answers its own question—"What make you whole?" [sic] with "Love. My love." Williams's long, touchy-feely personal narratives are particularly limp: "The Poet" profiles a self-styled poet from the "years of hippiedom" who scares the guilt-ridden Williams; and "King"—a knee-jerk narrative about crying at a Martin Luther King memorial—is a self-serving gush about feeling his "black friend's" pain. Williams should stick to poems like "InvisibleMending," a lovely portrait of three seamstresses working in a storefront window, seen as angels of "forgiveness and repair." It's hard to find a whole lot to enjoy in a poet who moans: "The agonizing plasma consciousness can be."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374527068
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 80
  • Sales rank: 789,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.19 (d)

Meet the Author

C. K. Williams lives part of the year in Paris and part in New Jersey, and teaches at Princeton University.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

ICE


That astonishing thing that happens when you crack a needle-awl into a
        block of ice:
the way a perfect section through it crazes into gleaming fault-lines,
        fractures, facets;
dazzling silvery deltas that in one too-quick-to-capture instant madly
        complicate the cosmos of its innards.
Radiant now with spines and spikes, aggressive barbs of glittering light, a
        treasure hoard of light,
when you stab it again it comes apart in nearly equal segments, both
        faces grainy, gnawed at, dull.


An icehouse was a dark, low place of raw, unpainted wood,
always dank and black with melting ice.
There was sawdust and sawdust's tantalizing, half-sweet odor, which, so
        cold, seemed to pierce directly to the brain.
You'd step onto a low-roofed porch, someone would materialize,
take up great tongs and with precise, placating movements like a lion-tamer's
        slide an ice-block from its row.


Take the awl yourself now, thrust, and when the block splits do it again,
        yet again;
watch itdisassemble into smaller fragments, crystal after fissured crystal.
Or if not the puncturing pick, try to make a metaphor, like Kafka's
        frozen sea within:
take into your arms the cake of actual ice, make a figure of its ponderous
        inertness,
of how its quickly wetting chill against your breast would frighten you
        and make you let it drop.
Imagine how even if it shattered and began to liquefy
the hope would still remain that if you quickly gathered up the slithery,
        perversely skittish chips,
they might be refrozen and the mass reconstituted, with precious little of
        its brilliance lost,
just this lucent shimmer on the rough, raised grain of water-rotten floor,
just this single drop, as sweet and warm as blood, evaporating on your
        tongue.


THE TRAIN


Stalled an hour beside a row of abandoned, graffiti-stricken factories,
the person behind me talking the whole while on his portable phone,
every word irritatingly distinct, impossible to think of anything else,
I feel trapped, look out and see a young hare moving through the sooty
        scrub;
just as I catch sight of him, he turns with a start to face us, and freezes.


Sleek, clean, his flesh firm in his fine-grained fur, he's very endearing;
he reminds me of the smallest children on their way to school in our
        street,
their slouchy, unself-conscious grace, the urge you feel to share their
        beauty,
then my mind plays that trick of trying to go back into its wilder part,
to let the creature know my admiration, and have him acknowledge me.


All the while we're there, I long almost painfully out to him,
as though some mystery inhabited him, some semblance of the sacred,
but if he senses me he disregards me, and when we begin to move
he still waits on the black ballast gravel, ears and whiskers working,
to be sure we're good and gone before he continues his errand.


The train hurtles along, towns blur by, the voice behind me hammers
        on;
it's stifling here but in the fields the grasses are stiff and white with
        rime.
Imagine being out there alone, shivers of dread thrilling through you,
those burnished rails before you, around you a silence, immense,
        stupendous,
only now beginning to wane, in a lift of wind, the deafening creaking of
        a bough.
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Table of Contents

Ice 3
The Train 5
Archetypes 6
After Auschwitz 8
The Dress 11
The Blow 15
Bone 17
Shock 18
The Poet 20
Stone 26
Droplets 27
Tender 28
Risk 29
House 30
Naked 31
Glass 32
Shoe 33
Dream 34
The Cup 36
Lost Wax 38
Space 39
Tantrum 41
Not Soul 42
Depths 44
Tree 46
King 47
Owen: Seven Days 53
Gas 56
Last Things 57
The Lie 58
The Nail 59
Canal 60
The Dance 61
Biopsy 62
The Island 64
Dirt 66
Swifts 67
Invisible Mending 68
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