Selected Later Poems

Selected Later Poems


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A selection from the last twenty years of C. K. Williams's career, plus new work—proof of his enduring power

C. K. Williams's long career has been a catalog of surprises, of inventions and reinventions, of honors. His one constant is a remarkable degree of flexibility, a thrilling ability to shape-shift that goes hand in hand with an essential, enduring honesty. This rare, heady mix has ensured that his verses have remained, from book to book, as fresh and vibrant as they were when he first burst onto the scene.

Selected Later Poems
—a generous selection of the last two decades of Williams's poetry, capped by a gathering of new work—is a testament to that enduring vibrancy. Here are the passionate, searching, clear-eyed explorations of empathy in The Vigil; here are the candor and revelation of Repair; here are the agonizing morality of The Singing and Wait, and the unsparing reflections on aging of Writers Writing Dying; here are the poignant prose vignettes of All at Once.

Williams's poetry is essential because its lyric beauty, precise and revealing images, and elegant digressions are coupled to a conscience that is both uneasy and unflinching. Selected Later Poems is at once a celebration of Williams's career, an affirmation of his continued position in the pantheon of American poets, and a kind of reckoning—a reminder of the ways in which art can serve both beauty and justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536565
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,052,520
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(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. Williams was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2005. He wrote a critical study,On Whitman; a memoir, Misgivings; and two books of essays, Poetry and Consciousness and In Time: Poets, Poems,and the Rest.

Read an Excerpt

Selected Later Poems

By C. K. Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 C. K. Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71372-0



The Vigil


    The Neighbor

    Her five horrid, deformed little dogs, who incessantly yap on the roof under my
    her cats, god knows how many, who must piss on her rugs — her landing's a
    sickening reek;
    her shadow, once, fumbling the chain on her door, then the door slamming
    fearfully shut:
    only the barking, and the music, jazz, filtering as it does day and night into the hall.

    The time it was Chris Connor singing "Lush Life," how it brought back my college
    my first real love, who, till I left her, played the same record, and, head on my
    hand on my thigh, sang sweetly along, of regrets and depletions she was too young
    as I was too young, later, to believe in her pain: it startled, then bored, then repelled

    My starting to fancy she'd ended up in the first firetrap in the Village, that my
    neighbor was her;
    my thinking we'd meet, recognize one another, become friends, that I'd accomplish
    a penance;
    my seeing her — it wasn't her — at the mailbox, gray-yellow hair,
    army pants under a nightgown:
    turning away, hiding her ravaged face in her hands, muttering an inappropriate "Hi."

    Sometimes, there are frightening goings-on in the stairwell, a man shouting
    Shut up!
    the dogs frantically snarling, claws scrabbling, then her, her voice, hoarse, harsh,
    almost only a tone, incoherent, a note, a squawk, bone on metal, metal gone
    calling them back, Come back, darlings; come back, dear ones, my sweet angels,
    come back.

    Medea she was, next time I saw her, sorceress, tranced, ecstatic, stock-still on the
    ragged coat hanging agape, passersby flowing around her, her mouth torn
    suddenly open,
    as though in a scream, silently though, as though only in her brain or breast had it
    a cry so pure, practiced, detached, it had no need of a voice or could no longer
    bear one.

    These invisible links that allure, these transfigurations even of anguish that hold us:
    the girl, my old love, the last, lost time I saw her, when she came to find me at a
    her drunkenly stumbling, falling, sprawling, skirt hiked, eyes veined red, swollen
    with tears;
    her shame, her dishonor; my ignorant, arrogant coarseness; my secret pride, my
    turning away.

    Still life on a rooftop: dead trees in barrels, a bench, broken; dogs, excrement, sky.
    What pathways through pain, what junctures of vulnerability, what crossings and
    Too many lives in our lives already, too many chances for sorrow, too many
    unaccounted-for pasts.
    Behold me, the god of frenzied, inexhaustible love says, rising in bloody splendor:
    Behold me!

    Her making her way down the littered vestibule stairs, one agonized step at a time;
    my holding the door, her crossing the fragmented tiles, faltering at the step to the
    droning, not looking at me, "Can you help me?" taking my arm, leaning lightly
    against me;
    her wavering step into the world, her whispering, "Thanks, love," lightly, lightly
    against me.

    Dominion: Depression

    I don't know what day or year of their secret cycle this blazing golden afternoon
    might be,
    but out in the field in a shrub hundreds of pairs of locusts are locked in a slow
    sexual seizure.

    Hardly more animate than the few leaves they haven't devoured, they seethe like a
    single being,
    limbs, antennas, and wings all tangled together as intricately as a layer of neurons.

    Always the neat, tight, gazeless helmet, the exoskeleton burnished like half-hardened
    always the abdomen twitched deftly under or aside, the skilled rider, the skillfully

    One male, though, has somehow severed a leg, it sways on the spike of a twig like
    a harp:
    he lunges after his female, tilts, falls; the mass horribly shudders, shifts, realigns.

    So dense, so hard, so immersed in their terrible need to endure, so unlike me but
    like me,
    why do they seem such a denial, why do I feel if I plunged my hand in among them
    I'd die?

    This must be what god thinks, beholding his ignorant, obstinate, libidinally maniacal
    wanting to stop them, to keep them from being so much an image of his impotence
    or his will.

    How divided he is from his creation: even here near the end he sees moving
    towards him
    a smaller, sharper, still more gleaming something, extracting moist matter from a

    No more now: he waits, fists full of that mute, oily, crackling, crystalline broil,
    then he feels at last the cool wingbeat of the innocent void moving in again over the


    This time the holdup man didn't know a video-sound camera hidden up in a corner
    was recording what was before it or more likely he didn't care, opening up with his
    not saying a word, on the clerk you see blurredly falling and you hear — I
    keep hearing —
    crying, "God! God!" in that voice I was always afraid existed within us, the voice that
    beyond illusion the irrevocability of death, beyond any dream of being not mortally
    injured —
    "You're just going to sleep, someone will save you, you'll wake again, loved
    ones beside you ..."

    Nothing of that: even torn by the flaws in the tape it was a voice that knew it was
    knew it was being — horrible — slaughtered, all that it knew and
    aspired to instantly voided;
    such hopeless, astonished pleading, such overwhelmed, untempered pity for the
    self dying;
    no indignation, no passion for justice, only woe, woe, woe, as he felt himself falling,
    even falling knowing already he was dead, and how much I pray to myself I want
    not, ever,
    to know this, how much I want to ask why I must, with such perfect, detailed
    know this, this anguish, this agony for a self departing wishing only to stay, to
    knowing all the while that, having known, I always will know this torn, singular voice
    of a soul calling "God!" as it sinks back through the darkness it came from,
    canceled, annulled.

    My Fly

    FOR ERVING GOFFMAN, 1922–1982

    One of those great, garishly emerald flies that always look freshly generated from
    fresh excrement
    and who maneuver through our airspace with a deft intentionality that makes them
    seem to think,
    materializes just above my desk, then vanishes, his dense, abrasive buzz sucked in
    after him.

    I wait, imagine him, hidden somewhere, waiting, too, then think, who knows why, of
    you —
    don't laugh — that he's a messenger from you, or that you yourself (you'd
    howl at this),
    ten years afterwards have let yourself be incarnated as this pestering anti-angel.
    Now he, or you, abruptly reappears, with a weightless pounce alighting near my
    I lean down close, and though he has to sense my looming presence, he patiently
    as though my study of him had become an element of his own observations
    — maybe it is you!

    Joy! To be together, even for a time! Yes, tilt your fuselage, turn it towards the light,
    aim the thousand lenses of your eyes back up at me: how I've missed the layers of
    your attention,
    how often been bereft without your gift for sniffing out pretentiousness and moral

    Why would you come back, though? Was that other radiance not intricate enough
    to parse?
    Did you find yourself in some monotonous century hovering down the tidy queue of
    waiting to experience again the eternally unlikely bliss of being matter and

    You lift, you land — you're rushed, I know; the interval in all our terminals is
    much too short.
    Now you hurl against the window, skid and jitter on the pane: I open it and step
    and follow for one final moment of felicity your brilliant, ardent atom swerving


    Although he's apparently the youngest (his little Rasta-beard is barely down and
    most casually connected (he hardly glances at the girl he's with, though she might
    be his wife),
    half-sloshed (or more than half) on picnic whiskey teenaged father, when his little
    two or so, tumbles from the slide, hard enough to scare himself, hard enough to
    make him cry,
    really cry, not partly cry, not pretend the fright for what must be some scarce
    but really let it out, let loudly be revealed the fear of having been so close to real
    he, the father, knows just how quickly he should pick the child up, then how firmly
    hold it,
    fit its head into the muscled socket of his shoulder, rub its back, croon and whisper
    to it,
    and finally pull away a little, about a head's length, looking, still concerned, into its
    then smiling, broadly, brightly, as though something had been shared, something of
    not dreadful, or not very, not at least now that it's past, but rather something ...
    funny, yes, it was funny, wasn't it, to fall and cry like that, though one certainly can
    we've all had glimpses of a premonition of the anguish out there, you're better now,
    aren't you, why don't you go back and try again, I'll watch you, maybe have another
    yes, my son, my love, I'll go back and be myself now: you go be the person you
    are, too.

    My Book, My Book

    The book goes fluttering crazily through the space of my room towards the wall like
    a bird
    stunned in mid-flight and impacts and falls not like a bird but more brutally, like a
    mortally sprawling, spine torn from its sutures, skeletal glue fragmented to crystal
    and dust.

    Submissive, inert, it doesn't as would any other thing wounded shudder, quake,
    act out at least desperate, reflexive attempts towards persistence, endurance, but
    how could it,
    wasn't it shriven already of all but ambition and greed; rote, lame emulations of

    ... Arrives now to my mind the creature who'll sniff out someday what in this block
    of pretension,
    what protein, what atom, might still remain to digest and abstract, transfigure to
    what trace of life substance wasn't burned away by the weight of its lovelessness
    and its sham.

    Come, little borer, sting your way in, tunnel more deeply, blast, mine, excavate,
    take my book to you, etherealize me in the crunch of your gut; refine me, release
    let me cling to your brain stem, dissolve in your dreaming: verse, page, quire;
    devour me, devourer.


    1. WIND

    Night, a wildly lashing deluge driving in great gusts over the blind, defeated fields,
    the usually stoical larches and pines only the mewling of their suddenly malleable
    a wind like a knife that never ceased shrieking except during the stunning volleys of

    By morning, half the hundred pullets in the henhouse had massed in a corner and
    an inert, intricate structure of dulled iridescence and still-distracted, still-frenzied
    the vivid sapphire of daybreak tainted by a vaporous, gorge-swelling fetor.

    The tribe of survivors compulsively hammered their angular faces as usual into the
    nothing in the world, they were saying, not carnage or dissolution, can bear
    the simplest acts of being, they were saying, can obliterate all, all madness, all

    2. GUITAR

    For long decades the guitar lay disregarded in its case, unplucked and untuned,
    then one winter morning, the steam heat coming on hard, the maple neck swelling
    the sixth, gravest string, weary of feeling itself submissively tugged to and fro

    over the ivory lip of the bridge, could no longer bear the tension preceding release,
    and, with a faint thud and a single, weak note like a groan stifled in a fist, it gave
    its portions curling agonizingly back on themselves like sundered segments of

    ... The echoes abruptly decay; silence again, the other strings still steadfast, still
    still feeling the music potent within them, their conviction of timelessness only
    of being essential, elemental, like earth, fire, air, from which all beauty must be

    3. OWL

    The just-fledged baby owl a waiter has captured under a tree near the island
    seems strangely unfazed to be on display on a formica table, though she tilts
    all her weight on one leg as though she had merely paused in her lift towards

    Immobile except for her constantly swiveling head, she unpredictably fixes her
    clicking from one far focus to another — sea, tree, sky, sometimes it seems
    even star —
    but never on hand or eye, no matter how all in the circle around her chirp and

    Thus the gods once, thus still perhaps gods: that scrutiny densely grained as
    the rotation calibrated on chromium bearings; dilation, contraction; wrath, disdain,
    and remove ...
    But oh, to be slipping ever backwards in time, the savage memories, the withheld

    4. DOG

    Howl after pitiful, aching howl: an enormous, efficiently muscular doberman
    has trapped itself in an old-fashioned phone booth, the door closed firmly upon it,
    but when someone approaches to try to release it, the howl quickens and

    and if someone in pity dares anyway lean on and crack open an inch the obstinate
    the quickened howl is a snarl, the snarl a blade lathed in the scarlet gape of the
    and the creature powers itself towards that sinister slit, ears flattened, fangs

    the way, caught in the deepest, most unknowing cell of itself, heart's secret, heart's
    decorous usually, seemly, though starving now, desperate, will turn nonetheless,
    ready to kill, or die, to stay where it is, to maintain itself just as it is, decorous,

    5. FIRE

    The plaster had been burned from the studs, the two-by-four joists were eaten with
    ceilings smoke-blackened, glass fragments and foul, soaked rags of old rug
    even the paint on the outside brick had bubbled in scabs and blisters and melted

    Though the fire was ostensibly out, smoke still drifted up through cracks in the floor,
    and sometimes a windowsill or a door frame would erupt in pale, insidious flames,
    subtle in the darkness, their malignancies masked in blushes of temperate violet
    and rose.

    Like love it was, love ill and soiled; like affection, affinity, passion, misused and
    warmth betrayed, patience exhausted, distorted, all evidence of kindness now
    unkindness ...
    Yet still the hulk, the gutted carcass; fuming ash and ember; misery and shame.

    6. DAWN

    Herds of goats puttering by on the rock-strewn path in what sounded like felt
    before that (because the sudden awareness of it in sleep always came only after it
    the church bell, its cry in the silence like a swell of loneliness, then loneliness

    The resonant clock of the fisherman's skiff being tethered to the end of the
    the sad, repetitive smack of a catch of squid being slapped onto a slab of concrete;
    the waves, their eternal morning torpor, the cypress leaning warily back from the

    A voice from a hill or another valley, expanding, concretizing like light, falling,
    then a comic grace note, the creak of rickety springs as someone turns in their bed:
    so much beginning, and now, sadness nearly, to think one might not even have

    7. WIG

    The bus that won't arrive this freezing, bleak, pre-Sabbath afternoon must be
    the bewigged woman, pacing the sidewalk, furious, seething, can be only the
    mystic Shekinah,
    the presence of God torn from Godhead, chagrined, abandoned, longing to rejoin,

    The husband in his beard and black hat, pushing a stroller a step behind her as she
    The human spirit, which must slog through such degrading tracts of slush and
    bound forever to its other, no matter how incensed she may be, how obliviously

    And the child, asleep, serene uncaring in the crank and roar of traffic, his cheeks
    ladders of snowy light leaping and swirling above him, is what else but psyche, holy
    always only now just born, always now just waking, to the ancient truths of
    knowledge, suffering, loss.


Excerpted from Selected Later Poems by C. K. Williams. Copyright © 2015 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


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
From The Vigil (1997),
The Neighbor,
Dominion: Depression,
My Fly,
My Book, My Book,
The Bed,
From Repair (1999),
After Auschwitz,
The Dress,
The Cup,
Owen: Seven Days,
The Nail,
The Dance,
Invisible Mending,
From The Singing (2003),
The Singing,
Bialystok, or Lvov,
This Happened,
Self-Portrait with Rembrandt Self-Portrait,
Sully: Sixteen Months,
The World,
Of Childhood the Dark,
The Hearth,
Low Relief,
The Tract,
From Wait (2010),
The Gaffe,
On the Métro,
Cassandra, Iraq,
All but Always,
The Coffin Store,
Roe vs. Wade,
Still, Again: Martin Luther King, April 4, 2008,
Two Movements for an Allegretto,
I Hate,
The Foundation,
Jew on Bridge,
From Writers Writing Dying (2012),
A Hundred Bones,
Vile Jelly,
Bianca Burning,
Rat Wheel, Dementia, Mont Saint-Michel,
Poem for Myself for My Birthday,
The Day Continues Lovely,
Writers Writing Dying,
From All at Once (2014),
The Last Circus,
The Two Voices of Elizabeth Bishop,
The Broom,
The Sign Painter,
From Catherine's Laughter,
They Call This,
A Jew, a Road, Some Crows,
New Poems (2015),
The Sun, the Saint, the Sot,
Soul in Steel,
The World and Hokusai,
I Emerge from the News,
Little Hymn to Time,
Smashed Nail,
The Prick,
At What Time on the Sabbath Do Vultures Awake?,
Beethoven Invents the Species Again,
I Shot a Frog I Shot a Bird,
The Economy Rescued by My Mother Returning to Shop,
Dear Reader,
Index of Titles,
Index of First Lines,
About the Author,
Also by C. K. Williams,

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