Monday, April 5, 2010

It Is This Way With Men --- CK Williams


They are pounded into the Earth
like nails; move an inch,
they are driven down again.
The earth is sore with them.
It is a spiny fruit
that has lost hope
of being raised and eaten.
It can only ripen and ripen.
And men, they too are wounded.
They too are sifted from their loss
and are without hope. The core
softens. The pure flesh softens
and melts. There are thorns, there
are the dark seeds, and they end.

---CK Williams


I was introduced to this poem and a few others I will share this month in the Robert Bly edited collection The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Bly and his fellow editors included this CK Williams poem in a section that began with a scathing essay on American culture and our unabashed perfection of denial. The stirring indictment of practical ignorance was aimed at the United States circa 1992, when the book was first published. It goes without saying that the United States of 2010 is quite different. Think, for a moment, of all the things that have contributed to the maturation of our society since 1992—The OJ Trial, The First Gulf War, Hip Hop, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, CDs, Napster, Microsoft, Ipods, Cell Phones, Iphones, 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, Columbine, Virginia Tech, The Second Gulf War, Hanging Chads, Global Warming, The Internet, Email, Reality Television, Barack Obama, Y2K, Starbucks, Tiger Woods, Big Oil, Modern Medicine, Bernie Madoff. Add in a witty turn of phrase or two and you've got an updated version of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire. Still, there's a valid and valuable reason for presenting this list. With all that has occurred in the last eighteen years are we still the global leaders in denial? There's no denying that a close look at CK Williams' It Is This Way With Men will provide insight on this topic, and possibly insight on why people insist on perpetuating bad puns like the one at the beginning of this sentence.

The men that populate CK Williams' poem, whether they are CEOs, soldiers, or night shift workers, each face the crippling weight of being a man. They can put on happy faces, hiding their fears, doubts, and anxieties from the people they love, but this will eventually catch up with them. These men attempt to provide, reassure, and protect, even as all redemptive beauty slips away from their lives like seaweed carried out with the tide. Williams starts off with a hard charging analytical simile: "They are pounded into the earth / like nails; move an inch, / they are driven down again." We quickly know that man is not in control; Williams is so forceful that readers cannot deny the inherent weaknesses of man in the face of a world relentlessly pursuing not only his body, but also his soul. If he struggles or rebels, man must be put in his place until "the earth is sore with them." Williams shifts the focus from man to where he is being pounded and struck into painful submission. It is not Earth's fault that man is suffering his horrifying fate. In fact, Earth is a surrogate for much of man's pain, becoming "a spiny fruit / that has lost hope / of being raised and eaten." While it has become common to view humans as culprits in the destruction of Mother Earth, Williams displays the shared futility of human beings and the land they inhabit. Readers could see this as a denial on Williams' part to acknowledge mankind's share of the blame in Earth's deterioration, but as the poem moves denial is sharply peeled away.

What about mankind's culpability? Surely, we are to blame for the evils we perpetuate upon each other and our world? Before assigning blame, Williams begs that we take a closer look at man. Through the poet's eyes men, "they too are wounded. / They too are sifted from their loss / and are without hope." Well if that doesn't make you excited and proud to be a human then I don't know what will! Obviously I'm kidding, but this is a seriously bleak assertion from Williams. First he identifies our scars. They could be our own, they could be from previous generations and handed down to us, or they could be a startling mixture of both. Then Williams notices that we are "sifted from (our) loss." This line puzzled me on my first reading of the poem, but I've come to believe that it represents both a separation from our losses and a marking by these losses. The inability to forget is both the greatest blessing and most painful curse of being human. What we had and lost clearly reminds and remains with us. Finally, Williams concludes that we are hopeless; this is his diagnosis. If we, as a people, are as good at denial as Robert Bly surmises then we must possess hope, even if it is a miniscule sliver of hope. At the root of denial is the faint belief that someway, somehow things will get better. It might be a weak, roundabout philosophical argument on my part, but I'm holding out hope that CK Williams is wrong about us, and I'm willing to accept Bly's ideas on American denial to fortify my argument.

From Williams' viewpoint, the hopeless man decomposes in a clear, biological manner. "The core / softens. The pure flesh softens / and melts. There are thorns, there / are the dark seeds, and they end." It does sound rather similar to the aging process we go through as humans, minus the part about thorns. As the body ages, the physical changes include a softening of the skin, weight gain in the center, age spots on the skin, wrinkles, less energy and strength, even the loss of memory and mental function. But do we lose our ability to feel? If our core is softening then we could assume that Williams is targeting our hearts with that line. The heart is widely accepted as our symbolic emotional center. If our hearts soften then we lose the ability to feel. The implications of such a change on a human being are incredibly wide reaching; no more romance or love of any kind, no more regretting past indiscretions or hurtful words better left unsaid, no more thoughts about the legacies we leave for future generations. All of those results aside, consider that when our "core softens" we also lose the ability to live in denial. There would be no reason to deny anything; we would become robotic. It would make complete sense that we would seems to be swallowed by the ground with our thorns and dark seeds, unceremoniously written off with the line "and they end."

I've given this poem a great deal of thought, so much thought that at times I knew I was thinking too hard about the poem and reading things into the poem, but in the end I couldn't let it go without a fight. Seemingly gritty and simple, the poem is multilayered and imbued with complicated philosophical questions. Like many great questions and like many great poems, we don't need a definitive answer to enjoy CK Williams' It Is This Way With Men. All we need is to draw upon our own experiences, the times when we felt like some forces in the world were pounding us into the Earth like nails, or the times when we took a moment to look around us and see others pushed to their breaking points in dire conditions. The wealth of experiences we carry with us as human beings are not all rosy, but the pain is what makes it all real. We have cultivated the ability to deny many things, but because of the balance of good and bad, joy and pain, we read this poem and realize that there is no denying that at times this poem will be true for us and at times it will be as far from the truth as humanly possible.

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