Book Review: Falling Ill
by C.K. Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
If an unimaginative modern novelist felt the need to create a standard-issue minor-character Established Poet, perhaps as a thwarted academic rival to the main character (who has the same name as the author, of course), or as the disapproving father of the main character’s love interest, if a general-casting Established Poet were required, the figure that would show up would be virtually indistinguishable from that of the late C. K. Williams, who died in 2015 and whose final book, Falling Ill, is now published by FSG.
The Established Poet would be tall and distinguished-looking, with fine features and lovely gray hair and piercing eyes always peeping over the tops of nearly-invisible eyeglasses. He would be slightly avian with aging grace, angular, fit, deliberate. He would speak, in his late autumn days, with quiet, even friendly emphases, but there would be something still in the cadence of his well-chosen words that hinted at wildwood days in Philly, at late-night cab-hailing in Morningside Heights. He would bear himself as an ordinary man in ordinary rooms, and it would be for others to whisper about his accomplishments, and those accomplishments would be legion: the book contracts, the respectful nods of publishers, and the awards. The Established Poet would be someone even our take-no-prisoners tear-up-the-rulebook main character had to respect.
There’s that same element of convenient unreality about Williams; his life comprised every old conservative Station of the Cross that in bygone ages fit the whole earthly existence of the Established Poet. He published new volumes with a regularity that was steady enough to suggest a profession without being frequent enough to suggest a compulsion. His poetry freely used his life as its raw material, and it was very mild, often deceptively so. He won all the awards: the National Book Critics Circle, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer. He had a big Collected Poems and a slightly smaller Later Poems. He did everything the old Establishment Poets hoped or expected to do, without ever once failing his art and without ever once exciting the imagination of the general reading public.
The stateliness of this procession could hardly fail to be disrupted by a cancer diagnosis, and Falling Ill is the result of such a disruption. It’s as slim as many of this author’s other books, but it’s crackingly, at times icily different from everything that came before it. This is the last Station, the end of idle experimentation, the one book the poet could not write for an audience. No tasteful readings. No signing parties surrounded by family and well-wishers. These are fifty-two one-page poems, most with stark single-word titles, struck off in the work room under the eaves and fired into the void.
They obsess over the “tremulous vessel,” the weak and failing body of the poet. They recoil from diagnoses and procedures. They yearn for the same kind of silly heroism this poet’s verse had mocked for decades:
because you know that if you’re the hero
the protagonist of this contest you’d scorn
such matters as death laugh at it 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 when they don’t appear to be paying attention
don’t they still always carry the day?
And in the most remarkable thread running through the book – the thread that makes this one of the most remarkable codas in modern American verse – these lines seethe with the headlong mixture of shame and bewildered, wounded vanity that the dying so often feel and so seldom express: “Is it as I suspect not that rare for you to be/wounded and ravaged stripped of so much/of what you wore with seeming pride.”
C. K. Williams spent his entire professional career transmuting his life into his poems and then purifying it there and hammering it into new and often ironically provocative shapes. But here at the end, he has no strength (or perhaps more likely given this author, no interest) for hammering, and he seems to view even irony as a tool he no longer has a right to use. What’s left instead is the purifying, and at times, in certain of these poems, that purity is almost unbearably direct:
here we laughed here danced all falls away
only the tattered snatches of what we call past
echo out from the isolate provinces of time
It almost feels too raw for readers, and the last of these poems, written in italics and titled “Farewell,” reads like the one work a grieving widow would keep to herself and leave out of the public’s possession. Williams faced his fate with his art until the very moment his fate overtook him. There’s a cleanliness, a completion there not given to many poets. It’s the Established Poet’s last and best challenge.