From Actual Air (Open City, 1999)
“A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”
The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—
There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.
To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;
Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full
And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,
You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.
Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees;
Bees passing in and out the moon,
Bees escaping out the moon,
Bees returning through the moon,
Silver bees intently buzzing,
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
And I, a drone,
Lying on my back,
Getting drunk with that silver honey,
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.
“Time Does Not Bring Relief; You All Have Lied”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
“Dialog Outside the Lakeside Grocery”
The grocery had provided him with
boxes of rotten lettuce
He was loading them onto a
yellow pick-up truck
He was a frail white man and
wore a plaid woolen shirt and
I was sitting in a gray chevrolet
“I have eight adult geese and
twenty-six ducks,” he said
and i said
“I’ll bet you have a big management
problem,” and he said
“They’re no trouble at all. My
wife raised two of them in the house.
When she goes near their pen
the geese waddle towards her
and nibble the lettuce out of her
“I’d never think of killing them”
“They keep me out of the bars”
“Publication – is the Auction”
Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man—
For so foul a thing
Possibly—but We—would rather
From Our Garret go
White—Unto the White Creator—
Than invest—Our Snow—
Thought belong to Him who gave it—
Then—to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration—Sell
The Royal Air—
In the Parcel—Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace—
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price—
William Carlos Williams’ final and posthumous book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) opens with a cycle of ten ekphrastic poems that describe (and subtly interpret) ten paintings by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
These poems are, in my estimation, some of Williams’ finest. Possibly the most famous of these poems is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a devastating observation of how inclined we are to look away from miracles.
Another of Williams’ Brueghel poems, “The Dance,” which takes The Peasant Dance as its subject, is also widely-anthologized; however Williams’ poem “The Dance” was published in The Wedge (1944). Williams’ “The Dance,” which begins “In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess, / the dancers go round,” is frequently and incorrectly cited to have been published in Pictures from Brueghel (a cursory internet search shows this misinformation appears in Harper’s, as well as the last resort of lazy high school students, Shmoop). Williams did publish a poem called “The Dance” in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, but this “Dance” is very much one of those other poems (this “Dance” begins “When the snow falls the flakes / spin upon the long axis,” for the record). That The Peasant Wedding is another subject of Pictures of Brueghel may also account for the spread of this misinformation (which can be resolved simply by opening the second volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, which includes both The Wedge and Brueghel). But I find myself going on a bit too much about this simple mistake.
Let’s get to the poem:
“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”
William Carlos Williams
Disciplined by the artist
to go round
in holiday gear
a riotously gay rabble of
peasants and their
the market square
featured by the women in
they prance or go openly
toward the wood’s
round and around in
rough shoes and
kicking up their heels
“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” echoes the sensual depth of Williams’ earlier poem “The Dance” (1944), which emphasized the hips and bellies and shanks of those dancers who are “swinging their butts” (!) to “the squeal and the blare and the / tweedle of bagpipes” as they prance about.
The word “prance” is repeated too in “Wedding Dance” — and not only do our partygoers prance, they even “go openly / toward the wood’s / edges,” the edge of civilization where civilization gets made.
At the other edge of the painting, the foreground, are some of the boldest of Williams’ “riotously gay rabble.” But should I call them “Williams’ ‘riotously gay rabble'” or Brueghel’s? I think that it is Williams’ interpretation that matters here, but Brueghel gives him the material with which to grapple.
Look at those colors, look at those codpieces! Look at the hands, twisting, gripping, artfully fingering!
Williams captures the painting’s sexual energy not just in lines that highlight the “ample-bottomed doxies” who fill this market square, but also in the vivacious images of “mouths agape” and heels a’ kicking. The poem pulses with an energy proximal to the painting, an energy simultaneously alien and native, highlighting not only the difference in the two art forms—poetry and painting—but also the space between the viewer and the thing being viewed.
Enhancing the poem’s ekphrastic powers of imagery and feeling are the subtle rhymes of Williams’ “The Wedding Dance.” While one can find the odd (very odd) rhyme or three in WCW’s poetry, “The Wedding Dance” makes for one of the poet’s more direct concessions to poetry’s most common formal feature. The second stanza gives us “gear” slipping into “their,” picked up again in the fourth stanza’s “headgear,” and more subtly touched on in the final lines of stanzas six and seven, “breeches” and “heels.” Hell, “edges” in the fifth stanza basically rhymes with “breeches.” This thread of slant rhymes approximates the off-kilter, elliptical dance Brueghel depicts. Williams kneads guttural g sounds and harsh rs into his poem, roughening his poetry to match his rustic subject. And yet there’s just the right measure of sensuality that slips through the poem, just enough to get the rough words wet.
Like any successful ekphrasis, Williams’ poem transcends a mere physical description of art. He does describe The Wedding Dance in Open Air, yes, but the description does more than relay the physical contours of Brueghel’s art, or Williams’ analysis of Brueghel’s art—William gives us something of the painting’s spirit, captured in language, sound—another way of feeling something beautiful. Oya!