Elms – C.K. Williams
All morning the tree men have been taking down the stricken elms skirting the broad sidewalks.
The pitiless electric chain saws whine tirelessly up and down their piercing, operatic scales
and the diesel choppers in the street shredding the debris chug feverishly, incessantly,
packing truckload after truckload with the feathery, homogenized, inert remains of heartwood,
twig and leaf and soon the block is stripped, it is as though illusions of reality were stripped:
the rows of naked facing buildings stare and think, their divagations more urgent than they were.
“The winds of time,” they think, the mystery charged with fearful clarity: “The winds of time…”
All afternoon, on to the unhealing evening, minds racing, “Insolent, unconscionable, the winds of time…”
The above poem is taken from C.K. Williams’ book “Flesh and Blood”. This book stands out from the rest of his work because the poems in it consist of eight lines each, a dramatic change from his usual epic poems which tend to sprawl down the page visually. I say sprawl in a good way; Williams has for most of his career written in a longer line, a line he has worked at, earned, and done amazing things with.
The shorter poems in this book find him working that same line to more intense effects. “Elms”, for example, has a lot in its eight lines. Williams first paints the scene vividly, using his adverbs to not only describe but move a poem along. The “choppers in the street…chug feverishly, incessantly, packing truckload after truckload…” You almost get the sense of something being shredded in the language itself.
Adverbs tend to be no-no’s in poetry, but they way they serve to build things visually and conceptually makes them work here. Adjectives are another no-no, yet later here we get the surprising juxtaposition of “Insolent, unconscionable.” This move continues the tone of severity while keeping the momentum going in following each other.
After the scene is set, Williams moves on to have the buildings speak. Nice. He gets away not only with them speaking but with the phrase “The winds of time”, a cliché if a person says it, but not when buildings do. How he gets away with it, I don’t know. But he does, and, as you know, what a poet can get away with is a fascination/aspiration for me.
One of the great things about working at a bookstore is the privilege to leaf through hundreds of books on a daily basis. Once, I came across a scene in a novel where, after writing a poem, a person asks another: Is it a poem, or is it description? This question has stayed with me and come up during my revision process. What moves me most about “Elms” is how Williams shows how a long, descriptive line can work in a short lyric and still sing.
p.s. Just looked up the word “divagations”. You should too.
p.p.s. I got to see the proofs for my upcoming chapbook, The Wall, yesterday. Maybe I’m excited. Maybe. *big grin*