Poetry: C. K. Williams, 'Dissections'

originally published November 2002


Audio: Hear C. K. Williams read "Dissections" (2:48)

Also by C. K. Williams:
Brain (2010)
Two Poems (2005)
The Dress (1999)



Not only have the skin and flesh and parts of the skeleton
of one of the anatomical effigies in the Musée de l'Homme
been excised, stripped away, so that you don't just look at
but through the thing--pink lungs, red kidneys and heart,
tangles of yellowish nerves he seems snarled in, like a net;

not only are his eyes without eyelids, and so shallowly
embedded beneath the blade of the brow, that they seem,
with no shadow to modulate them, flung open in pain or fear;
and not only is his gaze so frenziedly focused that he seems to be
receiving everything, even our regard scraping across him as blare;

not only that, but when I looked more closely, I saw he was real,
that he'd been constructed, reconstructed, on an actual skeleton:
the nerves and organs were wire and plaster, but the armature,
the staring skull, the spine and ribs, were varnished, oxidizing bone;
someone was there, his personhood discernible, a self, a soul.

It was terribly disquieting, all that lonely dolor, that secret grief.
I felt I was intruding, then, I don't know why, it came to me to pray,
though I don't pray, I've unlearned how, to whom, or what,
what fiction, what illusion, or, it wouldn't matter, what true thing,
as mostly I've forgotten how to weep ... Only mostly, though.

Sometimes I can sense the tears in there, and sometimes, yes,
they come, though rarely for a reason I'd have thought--
a cello's voice will catch in mine, a swerve in a poem, and once,
a death, someone I hardly knew, but I found myself sobbing, sobbing,
for everyone I had known who'd died, and some who almost had.

In the next display hall, evolution: half, then quarter creatures,
Australopithecus, Pithecanthropus, Cro-Magnon,
sidle diffidently along their winding uphill path toward us.
Flint and fire, science and song, and all of it coming to this,
this unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.

C. K. Williams has two new books out this spring: a poetry collection, Wait, and a critical study, On Whitman. His previous collections have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He teaches at Princeton University.

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