(Original Summer Reading Challenge details here)
William Carlos Williams, Paterson, revised edition prepared by Christopher McGowan (New York: New Directions, 1995)
Kwame Dawes, Wisteria: Twilight Poems from the Swamp Country (Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2006)
Williams’ long poem (‘poem’ is hardly an adequate word, but I don’t know what else to call it) was originally published in five books – 1946, 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958. From the back cover blurb: ‘Paterson it its five books “follows the course of the Passaic River,” Williams once said, and in its course the city of Paterson, New Jersey, becomes both a place and a man: a symbolic figure in which the personal and the public merge.’ I’ve read it over several months, starting just before the Summer Reading Challenge began in June. Despite it’s binding as a whole, for me it is only understood in fragments, just as its writing is fragmentary, verse taking its turn alongside prose in the form of news accounts, encyclopaedic entries and letters. For me, Paterson is a town glimpsed in part: I cannot make out the whole. Instead, it is a montage of images and episodes, the verse only understood as a book of aphorisms (of which there are many). As I was reading it, I would on occasion tweet some lines, under the hashtag #amreading, which is pretty much the only response I can muster. These lines from a few pages into Book 1 seems most appropriate: ‘The language, the language/fails them/They do not know the words/or have not/the courage to use them.’ I think it is a book that would repay many readings; but with so many other books I would like to read still stretching out before me, it is unlikely that I will give it the attention it deserves.
The poems of Wisteria, like Paterson, are unified by the movement of time through landscape; in this case, the town of Sumter in South Carolina. I would guess that William Carlos Williams appropriated many other, unacknowledged, voices for his long work; in Dawes’ collection, the poems give voice to very specific stories of women and men, named in the Acknowledgements at front of the book, who lived through the era of Jim Crow. However, as he points out, “These poems are not transcriptions of their voices, but a rendering that comes through our shared language of the Middle Passage and the many journeys we have all taken.” The back cover blurb mentions that overused word ‘redemption’, but I’m not sure that’s what is sought here, nor perhaps should it be. In the poem, ‘Vengeance’, which lends its name to the fourth section of the book, Old Testament style revenge (or perhaps something else) sits uneasily with Christian forgiveness:
‘I placed a curse on a white man, once;/ a silent curse I told to no one,// and you will never know the sweet/satisfaction of seeing him go blind// … For days, I woke with something oddly/pleasant, a lightness of hope renewed,/making the day an anticipated joy…// … The taste of vengeance is too sweet/for a heart of Christ. I repent. I sin.’
The lightness of hope here comes, not from New Testament forgiveness, but from the sweet success of vengeance. The almost-final declaration of of ‘I repent’ is followed by an ambiguous, ‘I sin’. It is not clear to me whether the ‘I sin’ follows on as the confession of repentance, or the inevitability of its re-occurence. The title poem ‘Wisteria’, of a ‘Circumspect woman/you carry your memories/tied up in a lip-stick-stained/kerchief in a worn straw basket’ ends with the italicised, and I am assuming her verbatim, words: ‘I don’t like ’em/never did, never could...’ . These words come near the beginning of the book, and may sound harsh, but by the time one reaches the end of the collection, with poems ranging from inter-family alienation to memories of klan processions –‘The torches dance in a circle/round the only electric light/in this wayside snorting./Hear the horses snorting, feel the thump in my heart/and my Mama hold me/and saying, “Never mind, girl,/they just making circles…”’– it is hard to grudge her the sentiment.
This is an excellent collection, the poetry lyrical, somehow both understated and full-on. The summer reading challenge was meant to include three books recommended from other people’s lists; this is one of the three books from my own list that I would recommend to anyone.