The poet C.K. Williams died the other day. I recognized the name immediately in a headline, but couldn’t call to mind a specific poem. I knew he was a great poet, I forgot that some of his work is nothing short of magnificent. There are plenty of obituaries that ably outline the awards he won—all of them—and the subjects of war and morality he tackled. There are some beautiful remembrances with stirring words and graceful, elegiac memories of an artist’s life, a poet’s life.
I once greatly wanted to be a poet. Or at least, to live a poet’s life. These aren’t the same thing, and I think the immaturity in not being able to make that distinction—or, more accurately, being able to make it but still preferring the latter—led to my abandonment of poetry after graduating college. Moving to East Africa to do development work might’ve contributed.
As I plan my move back to the States, I’m thinking more about writing as a career. Part of this is because while I worked in community health and lived in a remote African village for two years, I thought of writing every. single. day. I like to think that’s a sign. Someone I knew in college recently got in touch and when our conversation naturally turned towards writerly aspirations, she asked if I still wrote poetry. I was embarrassed to reply in the negative. Sure, I’m doing other interesting things with language, but I started thinking back to how much I really do love poetry and started considering taking another crack at some English verse.
Now, with the news of C.K. Williams’ passing, remembering the feeling that truly great poetry like his gives, that resolve is much stronger. Browsing his work, I was struck by some poems I had seen, some I hadn’t, and some I had but forgotten. While the subject is unfortunately morbid in light of the man’s recent passing, I can’t help but post a poem called “The Coffin Store” here: it’s at once monumental and still light as a feather, its scope spanning wide as the globe and plumbing the depths of death and love in the whispered words of a lover, the effortless flutter of a bird’s wings. It’s miraculous. Far better to be a poet than to live a poet’s life, I suppose, if the result is something even half this good.
The Coffin Store
I was lugging my death from Kampala to Kraków.
Death, what a ridiculous load you can be,
like the world atremble on Atlas’s shoulders.
In Kampala I’d wondered why the people, so poor,
didn’t just kill me. Why don’t they kill me?
In Kraków I must have fancied I’d find poets to talk to.
I still believed then I’d domesticated my death,
that he’d no longer gnaw off my fingers and ears.
We even had parties together: “Happy,” said death,
and gave me my present, a coffin, my coffin,
made in Kampala, with a sliding door in its lid,
to look through, at the sky, at the birds, at Kampala.
That was his way, I soon understood, of reverting
to talon and snarl, for the door refused to come open:
no sky, no bird, no poets, no Kraków.
Catherine came to me then, came to me then,
“Open your eyes, mon amour,” but death
had undone me, my knuckles were raw as an ape’s,
my mind slid like a sad-ankled skate, and no matter
what Catherine was saying, was sighing, was singing,
“Mon amour, mon amour,” the door stayed shut, oh, shut.
I heard trees being felled, skinned, smoothed,
hammered together as coffins. I heard death
snorting and stamping, impatient to be hauled off, away.
But here again was Catherine, sighing, and singing,
and the tiny carved wooden door slid ajar, just enough—
the sky, one single bird, Catherine—just enough.