Photo illustration by Miki Lowe
C. K. Williams stumbled into his poetry career by accident. When a college girlfriend asked him to write a poem for her, his path became clear. But he felt frustrated by the cryptic ways in which poets got to their point. “It’s like a code,” he explained in 2000. “You say very little and send it out to people who know how to decode it.” So he started experimenting with form, switching from short, compact poems to meandering, conversational lines. “By writing longer lines and longer poems I could actually write the way I thought and the way I felt,” he said. “I wanted to talk about things the way a journalist can talk about things, but in poetry, not prose.”
That earnest and upfront probing is at the forefront of “Brain,” published in The Atlantic in 2010. Williams considers the possibility of a soul that exists apart from the brain, sounding slightly, at first, like a college student in a heated late-night discussion with his dorm-mate. “Then all at once my being like this in my brain, this sense of being my brain became unbearable to me,” he writes. But Williams doesn’t lose the art in losing the airs. In fact, he leads the reader to a profound point: a meditation on the loss inherent in being human, with material limits, and the sweet hope that the possibility of a soul can inspire.