Falling Ill: Last Poems

Falling Ill: Last Poems

by C. K. Williams


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A capstone to an unforgettable career

Over the past half century, the great shape-shifting poet C. K. Williams took upon himself the poet’s task: to record with candor and ardor “the burden of being alive.” In Falling Ill, his final volume of poems, he brings this task to its conclusion, bearing witness to a restless mind’s encounter with the brute fact of the body’s decay, the spirit’s erasure.

Written with unsparing lyricism and relentless discursive logic, these brave poems face unflinchingly “the dreadful edge of a precipice” where a futureless future stares back. Urgent, unpunctuated, headlong, vertiginous, they race against time to trace the sinuous, startling twists and turns of consciousness. All is coming apart, taken away, except the brilliant art to describe it as the end is coming. All along is the reassurance of love’s close presence.

Here are no easy resolutions, false consolations. Like unanswered prayers, they are poems of deep interrogation—a dialogue between the agonized “I” in its harrowing here-and-nowness and the elusive “you” of the beloved who flickers achingly just out of reach.

Williams’s Falling Ill takes its place among the enduring works of literature about death and departure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537531
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 64
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

C. K. Williams (1936–2015) published twenty-two books of poetry, including Flesh and Blood, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Repair, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; and The Singing, winner of the National Book Award.

Read an Excerpt

Falling Ill

By C. K. Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 The Estate of C. K. Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71546-5



From your workshop the usual commotion
the insistent exhalations of your torch
a hammer banging shy tings from silver

then your footsteps from one side of the room
to the other as though you were on a ship
checking the horizon for indolent dawn

then a long silence implying you must have
usurped a morsel of time to think of something
and priceless time waits to be certain you haven't

squandered anything of it in a tiny packet
an envelope with an hour still unspent then
time begins again then silence again

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 sympathetic young woman doctor
informs me with an awkward uncharacteristic
formality that the laboratory has reported

not only on my blood but on the day's worth
of urine I'd amassed in a plastic bottle and
that I've been diagnosed awful word and that

I'm afflicted with a malady the name of which
I've never heard but which arrives now
in an alliterated appellation that sounds to me

utterly harmless what menace after all can
blameless alliteration contain and perhaps
that's why I find myself in spite of myself

blurting out well that certainly makes things
interesting no?
that's what in my utter
witlessness came blurting interesting no?


Volume I once believed of adhesive fragments
over which I presumed I'd always preside
but I'm informed has filled with renegade

somethings replacing the bits over which
I now assert nothing rather I'm more
a box in which amass insidious devourers

and when I picture myself I'm mostly
transparent not in the accusing greys of an x-ray
but in a substance something like what

was once called spirit imperceptible yet insistent
is it surprising then to imagine I might want
to flee from this box that heaves and groans

like a tree blasted by wind the cries of innocent
root twig and branch coursing through
this absence within me but no longer mine?

Heading Home

Now I'm a hero I think I might even be
a star I think or think I think star
for the first time in what's been merely a life

I say think because who can guess what you
postulate when your mortality distant or near
is proclaimed what do you do but stash

the news in the battered trunk of your ego
because you know that if you're the hero
the protagonist of this contest you'd scorn

such matters as death laugh at and about it
therefore this must be theater for isn't death
a spectacle and don't stars or heroes don't even

actors playing star-heroes always prevail
even if they don't appear to be paying attention
don't they still always carry the day?


Pops of pain here and there on my torso
and knee insistent though at first
unremarkable shots from some hidden bunker

and with them arrives the disquieting question
of whether they're the innocent pangs I've always
felt and dismissed or might they be indications

of something newly arrived to be received
with dread and what a trap that notion evokes
of having to admit the distractions

you've allowed yourself your whole life
are illusions and such a bizarre notion it is
too that you might lie to yourself as though

you truly could be the two-part invention
you conceived you'd made of yourself
just as it's all untuning all coming apart

My Body

I keep wandering away or rushing or bolting
or anyway fleeing for my life I suppose I'd say
from the truth that to speak now of my body

is absurd because doesn't my body possess
me hasn't my me succumbed so to my body
that I possess nothing in this realm of owning

and the real question is if my body possesses me
is it capable of speaking without my permission
and if so might that be what it's doing here

but then when would the I that used to seem
to exist apart from my body have its turn
if I'm my body's me or perhaps it's neither

my body nor me but my illness that speaks
that keeps seizing the chance to assert dominion
unless (how not think this?) it already has


I don't decide to tell or not tell you
I'm ill I don't decide to confess because
the notion of acknowledgment itself

becomes repugnant because it's so close
to something like accomplishment or pride
look what I have become being ill

sometimes to tell or not is a contest
a fruitless absurd struggle I might win
an agon in which I might overcome myself

to keep from divulging keep from squealing
as though making up my mind for such
a trivial thing had become a moral issue

and I come to feel I've degraded myself
and you and everything else with this spewing
this unthoughtout revelation of dismay


Always I've been fixed on what comes next
what might be arriving or be on its way
next and after next and subsequent to that

but now it's gotten out of hand pathetic
nearly pathological I reach out compulsively
towards it whatever it is dwell on it and

not just dwell but allow myself to be bound
by it or in it I enter this "next" as into
some elaborate structure where I imagine

a nest in which one might repose and ponder
except I don't ponder I generate thoughts
whose shape I'm unable to determine so I'm left

with next only next in which I move purpose to
purpose while knowing I'm only keeping track
that my future tense is dissolving even as I watch


Here's my face slung on its bones like a slop
of concrete here the eyes punched into the mortar
hardened it seems to something like stone

this is my secret face seen only I like to believe
from within no one not even an all-seeing something
could perceive its true semblance visible solely

to me yet I suspect that sometimes and not
really rarely someone regarding my face will know
what's going on inside it know exactly

its fear or fretful confusion while I keep insisting
I don't believe I'm feeling such things
how could I why would I cling to them but

face if I splayed a hand on you to more closely
conceal your this and your that would I know
what everyone else does of my foreboding?

First Dying

He thought he knew dying the near edge
of dying because everything was so taxing
every moment more taxing because waking

was taxing because rising from his chair
too taxing so it seemed reasonable to sprawl
on the reliable chair and because he was this tired

he thought he must know the onset of dying
the lurch into dying the first task of dying
did he think this had something to do with dying

believing his duty now was surrender
did he dare think dying was submission
to conditions not wholly unfamiliar dying might

be not even unpleasant he'd think even
lifting yourself on your flimsy legs to be blown
about in blind time like a guttering flame


Inserted into my mouth my veins the repulsive
fat on my belly my many medications
slide through me into my blood and bones

like battalions of ax-wielding thugs slashing
stabbing shrinking this engorging that
strong enough to tunnel through tissues

known hitherto only to matters of life
as inner being each drug with its own
mythic name a stinking shaman might burp

in consonant grunts and lung farts the rattle
and groans of his convulsionist dancing awing
the helpless patient who lies eyes stapled open

seeing nothing and mute as the excrement
of the corpse he'll have become shuddering
as it's kicked into the ditch back of the hut


Always beside me always so closely to me
that you might be within me or be me
especially that night I couldn't breathe

then you were emphatically with me
I saw you there not gasping with
me as I gasped but radiant with hope

though hope's such an insignificant
term compared to the panic barely suppressed
I couldn't help seeing in your eyes

as you waited and I couldn't help either
not allowing death to enter the drama
because that might undo you and 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 before known


Every gesture a task a chore not in the old
domestic sense of cherished duties
but rather purposeless acts their only aim

distraction from interminable demanding
mortality stuff but might my hypothetical
dying still concealed in and from me demand

even more attention than I'd have thought
especially in those abysses beneath mind
where unclear obligations demand command

but leave gaps in which taskless time swells
with too many leftover hours to come to terms with
for isn't dwelling on self even part of the time

a waste for dwelling even part-time in those depths
is futile and to escape requires more effortful
toil than there's energy in the world for


This is really happening this is really
not merely my death drawing closer
but the messy undomesticated sprawl

of thought which all but the most fortunate
have to go through here the indignities
degradations anything that might be left

of self-cultivation swiped away and then
you know it might be this day
when you'll be reduced to the outposts

of mind scattered through the corporeal
self and the facts of the flesh
you can no longer regulate or contain

all loosening turning to pathos and grief
and why is this happening you want to ask
while knowing the answer isn't to be borne


When I close my eyes or I should say when
my eyes close because I don't will them to close
they decide despite me and they close

and to open them have them working again
I have to come up with a reason unlike when
they clicked and flew open as soon as they shut

unless I'd closed them for sleep or love or to keep
myself from being afraid while now being
behind my closed lids is more than seductive

it's normal and along with it the temptation keeps
taking me why not stay why not let myself stay
here so that other unspeakable thought-thing I dare

not confront might not take me and how not believe
if I were to stay here behind this veil the appalling
truth wouldn't when it arrived surprise me at all


And my bones and my living flesh turning
to stone how will they manage their fusion
how will I be brought as every being

must be sooner or later to its inevitable
transformation its passing from unending
to ending when time is once again a canal

like that through which our eruption into
the selves that exalt and suffer clutched us
will there be fractures in the suddenly

vulnerable precarious systems do we end
as tangles of molecules slashing ourselves
like the tails of comets until we cry out

if we could only deceive death reach into
the mechanism and stop it just dial
the swiveling switch so it would read off


Look at him sidling like some sub-terrestrial
some broken-down predator-prey thing fear-bitten
hate-bitten furtively drifting among others

like him though he's invisible to them he likes
to believe because so like them this spy in his time-woven
depths impotently trying to forgive

the weaknesses of his own tremulous vessel
trying to lift itself in his slackness his softness
on its crook of his spine believing he might enact

a concealment unsullied by terror always the spy
espies endings not only others' but its terrible
own not only those it imagines trying to lift

themselves from despondencies like his own
his repugnant humiliation how courageous these
others manifesting no mortification like his


What a vile word sharing as it does the trivia
of cough or sniffle yet which makes me ask
(furtively of my own rarely candid body)

if I feel more ill than I did last week
is my breath coming shorter when I try
to walk is what feels like the petty onset

of a dismissible fever or flu really
a portion of a definitely greater menace
a vessel let's say that blithely takes you

and your breath in and breath out
and with no drama at all turns them
into conditions which must be reflected

upon in different modes of attention but
from which you're helpless to effect a peace
you might someday turn onto yourself


If I keep secret from you that I'm spinning
if I don't hint to you I feel I'm falling
if I keep hidden from you that I'm fainting

the next death-thing wants on its own
to say I'm expiring or on the way to expiring
not expiring in itself but in some strange way

close to or even adjacent to it but there's no
reason that sharing with you the spinning
should evoke a premonition of expiring

still certain I am I'm far from any kind
of extinction can you hear that can you
and I hear that waking together in which

I'm not "spinning" my head not "turning"
I'm only waiting as everything must for its
long-concealed turnings to be revealed


Of the dictator of some far-off country
the news speaks of his medical team that
for several years has been fighting for his life

which makes me wonder not without a slash
of anxiety if that's what's been going on
here whether my doctors there are so many

are laboring if that's the word do doctors
actually labor not just to make me stronger
with more stamina etc to keep me going

keep me going unsettling thought
though it's surely a more realistic way
to consider my relatively animated condition

as matter being fought for a wild
something to be tamed and retrained
such resistance it has though such power


Fresco of spear-fighting Etruscans or Greeks
or some army anyway with its marvelous armor
but some warriors despite those invulnerable plates

have sharp spears thrust into them and on through
into the painted air just as radiation blasts through us
though not in my friend's mind whose doctor

referred to his x-ray apparatus as a "spot welder"
which for some reason elated my friend gave him
hope though like much hope it didn't work out

in the end for even a spot welder no matter
how heartening its name how glowing its promise
knows well as it buzzes and clanks its limits

and those who promise me many fine bodily
outcomes without ever precisely specifying what
are they also merely too confident gunners?


When I'm feeling "better" that's to say
closer to "normal" there's a veering in my sense
of being who I am and used to be

the template for myself has radically shifted
and links me with a vision that's gone awry
out of sync I'm out of sync that is to say

with the apparatus within my self I used to
and assumed I'd always spin my webs in
a conception of myself that had certain

boundaries edges however out of focus
in which I'd always move instead of this half-healed
structure which has become the ultimate

of who I am and will be as I wander
through some dimension where I breathe
I think easier then know after I don't


Long time since rage groundless anger
engulfed me for no nameable reason with
no apparent actual cause but itself its own

frustration fury that makes me want to destroy
no matter what to assuage the anger
I feel towards my affliction and if I don't act

on it now some great part of my world
will forever be unsatisfied unconsummated
though what can that possibly imply

is there a fury equal to the robe of illness
that encases me as though in an embrace
composed itself of raging resentment

and hastened by still being able to contain
enough of me in itself to crush me
and dissolve me in my own wrath


Get it over with's not what Adam would
have shouted to serpent when his going began

not get me out of here get me over with

never is more likely what he'd have groaned
unlike that chip of me that petrifies
not daring to postulate any sort of departure

but keeps anyway telling itself over and over
not like begging to oh I don't know pick
your king your old god get this over with

you would say pull up this halfway death
finish this endless non-suffering suffering
release me though I don't really mean it

for wouldn't I have to tear myself to leave
my beloved and wouldn't my beloved be torn
too and isn't it intolerable to entertain that?

My Double

Not Nabokov's Dostoevsky's Poe's
of the whole crew no one remotely like mine
who regards me across a clinic's abyss

non-existence enveloping him while his
proximity to it makes him glow in the sheenless
warship grey of his skin the crushed slump

of his shoulders the glance he flings at me
I realize I'm meant to take as a challenge
because he knows his knowledge cowers in me

and because even now much later his presence
alive only in vaults of memory where we circle
each other in the accusing field of his glare

I know what he sees is gullible hope and
that he'd condemned me for all I'd perceived
in him and refused to allow in myself


I keep asking myself something
but what is it I ask what is it that tugs
so slow-wittedly and lethargically

that it seems to pay no attention to me
what is it that plods through me like the oldest
mule in creation and if there were still flies

from that ancient world it would be covered
with them but would hardly notice twitching
its slack hide only enough not to be wholly

consumed as cicadas in myths are consumed
by their singing and what is it in me that's
being consumed and what would consumed mean

to be made to vanish or cease to exist
but what part of me could ever vanish cease
to exist without me even as I know it still does


It seems my fear has outwitted me again
changed its costume sharpened its knives
come back out of its hiding place crept

behind me where I can't picture it
but can only sense its presence so can't
steel myself the way I could so well

such a short time ago and pretend though
knowing I was that it wasn't there
it's come upon me so deviously this time

I have to know I'm mortal as I'd always
been but back then I could think I'd possessed
such a small portion of eternity I'd hardly remark

when I'd consumed it while now all pretexts
are gone leaving me not as I was when fear
first came upon me but wretchedly worse

How Many

How many times do I find myself
whispering later even as I have to grasp
death's advent will have to bring sooner

does this happen to us all I wonder
I mean all of us not only threatened
but who have our ending laid before us

all of us all whom death has been given
and the word death which the world
was so eager to have us know

so that now just saying it seems almost
a kind of vengeance just to be able to utter
later later and find some sustenance

some surcease in the uttering itself
in the silent insistent sob that finds
its way out in futile blurts later later


Excerpted from Falling Ill by C. K. Williams. Copyright © 2017 The Estate of C. K. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Flame 3

Diagnosis 4

Box 5

Heading Home 6

Pops 7

My Body 8

Telling 9

Next 10

Face 11

First Dying 12

Names 13

You 14

Tasks 15

Really 16

Eyes 17

Bone 18

Old 19

Symptoms 20

Secrets 21

Labor 22

Rays 23

Better 24

Rage 25

Impatience 26

My Double 27

What 28

Worse 29

How Many 30

Friends 31

Fine 32

The Past 33

Everyone 34

Here 35

Coward 36

Wounded Earth 37

Embrace 38

Bad Day 39

The Heart 40

Lonely 41

Begun Again 42

Can It Be Lost? 43

Trees 44

Crying 45

Others 46

Air 47

Depression 48

Day Off 49

Against Me 50

Lord Death 51

Life 52

Whenever 53

Farewell 54

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