BOOK REVIEW / Strung out over the abyss: 'A Dream of Mind' - C K Williams: Bloodaxe, 6.95

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WITH his previous book, Flesh and Blood, C K Williams established himself as one of the finest American poets now writing. It linked him to the Whitman who wrote, 'My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself', not only by the long lines that Williams uses, but also by the confidence that his own experience will touch a reader hardly different from himself.

What immediately impressed was the urgency behind the leisurely lines, the way they registered how 'we're compressed into this single span of opportunity', and his ability to make sense of every stray detail and chance encounter. Like Whitman, he is drawn to what others turn away from: the tramp whose ankles are 'scabbed and swollen', or a dog run over, 'tearing, frenzied, at its broken spine'.

I quote from Flesh and Blood because it seems to be locked in a dialectic with his new book, A Dream of Mind. Their titles alone suggest this opposition. Though his new work includes things just as painfully physical - in the poem 'Harm', for instance, where another tramp exposes 'scarlet testicles . . . blown up . . . with some sorrowful disease' - the slant is more interior. And while Flesh and Blood was concerned with properties of mind, A Dream of Mind makes the psychological and the abstract tangible. We meet phrases of magisterial awkwardness such as 'chunks of feeling', 'blocks of time', 'parcels of experience' and 'bulk of otherness', but the awkwardness is deliberate. Williams needs thought to become solid before he can set to work on it.

The title sequence takes this method to an extreme, in 16 long poems stripped of plot, incident, almost everything except the style which Williams has so painstakingly evolved. Without narrative, we are left with a weird cumbersome locomotion; all the same, there's something compelling about the performance. 'Shells', for example, begins: 'Shells of fearful insensitivity that I keep having to disadhere from my heart, how dream you?' - a first line it's hard to imagine a poem recovering from, and yet it draws a new music out of its creaky, mournful phrases.

These may prove to be the real heart of the book, but for the moment my money is on the first three sections. The first includes 'Harm' and, among other extraordinary poems, a story from Herodotus which puts Williams's narrative skills to good use. After professions of friendship, and Pythius's plea for one of his sons to be exempted from the war, 'Xerxes commanded that the beloved elder son of Pythius be brought to him and cut in half, / and that the halves be placed along the roadside for his army to march out towards Greece between'. That final severed preposition is placed with deadly accuracy and forms a gory frame through which we look back at the story.

The second section is a sheaf of separate stories about jealousy, bound together by Williams's determination to leave nothing unexplored. His honesty allows space for compassion, even humour. 'Signs', for example, has him figuring out how he knows that his friend's wife has a lover: 'a certain tenderness of atmosphere, of aura, almost like a pregnancy, with less glow, perhaps, / but similar complex inward blushes of accomplishment.' The halting pace of the first line and the acceleration of the second is typical of the way in which Williams catches the rhythm of perceptions.

The longest poem, which weaves together two stories, makes up the third section. In treating relationships, death and poetic ambition, this poem explores the 'grievous cosmic flinchings from reality' in life as well as art. The bulk of its 200 or so long lines hinges superbly on the title phrase, 'She, Though'. It's this attention to the tiny joints and ligaments of speech that justifies Williams's dilatory method. His clumsy abstractions and even the repellent verbs of a line like 'to touch, touch into, hold, hold against, to feel, feel against and long towards again' are risks worth taking in an attempt to forge a new language of perception.

Though many will prefer his previous book for its breadth of experience, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend A Dream of Mind for its unflinching gaze into what Shelley, another poet of mind, calls 'the dark abyss of how little we know'.