Robert J. Cirasa: On "The Descent of Winter"

"9/29" opens with a claustrophobic description of a ship's state room:

My bed is narrow

in a small room

at sea

 

The numbers are on

the wall

Arabic I

 

Berth No. 2

was empty above me

the steward

 

took it apart

and removed

it

 

only the number

remains

·2·

The numbers on the wall, grown magnified under a completely involved attention, especially shrink the sense of space, as does the contracting three-line stanza itself. Together, they confirm the equivalently heightened sense of time that the date/title suggests. But even out of this neurotic state, the concrete beauty of the number plaque manages to assert itself:

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the white enameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

Thus, the sequence begins with an intensely alive sensibility under siege, in retreat. "10/10" and "10/21 (the orange flames)" continue this remarkable complex of beauty and stress while shifting the emphasis a bit. Rather than the fugitive beauty of the number plaque at the end of "9/29," we encounter as foremost in "10/ 10" the beauty of a vividly colored flower:

Monday

            the canna flaunts

its crimson head

But as the overly time-conscious notation of the day perhaps suggests, this flower, especially its thrice repeated color, is languishing:

Crimson lying folded

crisply down upon

 

            the invisible

 

darkly crimson heart

of the poor yard--

 

the grass is long

        October tenth

 

1927

The entire affective state here might best be termed neurasthenic, and indeed the paradoxical coupling of a heightened sense of the immediate moment with the near amnesia of longer periods (such as those insinuated by the unmentioned intervals between poems/entries) is a classical symptom of clinical neurasthenia. So is the depressive fascination with a fire in "10/21 (the orange flames)" (explicitly identified in other printings of the poem as a rubbish fire). An entire nine-line, blockish stanza pensively mulls over the color and motion of the blaze:

                    the orange flames 

stream horizontal, windblown 

they parallel the ground 

waving up and down 

the flamepoints alternating

the body streaked with loops 

and purple stains while 

the pale smoke, above, 

continues steadily eastward--

Then in the second stanza it turns into an equally obsessive and now explicit grouse about the infirmities of old age:

What chance have the old? 

There are no duties for them 

no places where they may sit. 

Their knowledge is laughed at 

they cannot see, they cannot hear.

And on for eight more lines--"Their feet hurt, they are weak / they should not have to suffer"--until the speaker pathetically insists, "there should be a truce for them."

[. . .]

This same imaginative vitality then takes the theme of cultural ineffectuality and translates it into the paradoxically vivid Gerontion-like doldrums of "10/28 (On hot days)":

        On hot days

the sewing machine

                    whirling

 

        in the next room

        in the kitchen

        and men at the bar 

                talking of the strike 

                and cash

The relationship here between the elements of beauty and those of enervation is almost the exact inverse of the earlier "10/10." There, the literally beautiful canna seemed overwhelmed by a languorous affect; here the denoted lethargy seems buoyed by the beauty of the vivid physical impression, especially of the "whirling" sewing machine. We sense, then, that a certain equilibrium has been attained in this season of "descent"--exactly at its middle poem/date. Sustaining beauty is no longer the fugitive presence at the end of a poem, as it was in "9/29"; it is now the very substance of the entries.

And so, when "10/29" picks up the motif of class conflict from "10/28 (On hot days)" ("talking of the strike"), it parlays it into a forthright manifesto of the ascendant sensibility's own redemptive aesthetic:

The justice of poverty

    its shame its dirt

are one with the meanness

    of love   

 

Its organ in a tarpaulin

    the green birds

the fat, sleepy horse

    the old men

The precise details and vivid language of the second stanza are now aligned with the affirmation of the literal statement in the first, and the sense of confident consolidation is further reinforced by the first appearance since the opening poem of a visually regular stanza. This time, however, the more balanced quatrains stand in exact contrast to the shrinking triplets of "9/29." Everything serves to save from idiocy the detailed spectacle of a genuine human effort at enacted beauty:

The grinder sourfaced

    hat over eyes

the beggar smiling all open

    the lantern out

 

And the popular tunes--

    sold to the least bidder

for a nickel

    two cents or

 

nothing at all

    or even

against the desire

    forced on us

The final stanza, especially its last line, neatly suggests the incipient boldness of which even the hurdy-gurdy's necessarily minimal aestheticism proves capable. In "11/1," that boldness grows more plainly robust. There is a literally comic expansion of scene that sharply contrasts with the claustrophobic interior of the opening "9/29," and the grotesque gigantism of the decor in that poem also contrasts with the naturally large embroidery which some meadow reeds create on the night's horizon:

The moon, the dried weeds 

and the Pleiades--

 

Seven feet tall

the dark, dried weedstalks 

make a part of the night--

a red lace

on the blue milky sky

Within this idyllic enlargement of view and feeling, there is the sudden ejaculation of a creative imperative--"Write"--followed immediately by an abrupt contraction of the visual field:

Write--

by a small lamp

Then, the sudden sense of getting down to business expands into a deliberation upon the relative effects to be had with different measures of illumination; and the "small lamp" of the previous stanza retroactively acquires an ironic inadequacy as it pales in the presence of two immensely healthy boys revealed by the greater illumination of a billboard:

the Pleiades are almost

nameless

and the moon is tilted

and halfgone

 

And in runningpants and 

with ecstatic aesthetic faces 

on the illumined

signboard are leaping 

over printed hurdles and 

"1/4 of their energy comes 

from bread"

 

two gigantic highschool boys

ten feet tall

These two bounding youths with their "aesthetic faces" appear as something like the champions of both their own printed legend ("1/4 of their energy. . .") and the imaginative initiative which that very script and their own image represent. However commercial the billboard's origin, its reality is an exuberantly, gigantically aesthetic one.

Indeed, the boys are rather effective champions, for they and their slogan prepare us exactly for the appearance of an equally expansive title at the head of the next day's entry:

11/2 A MORNING IMAGINATION OF RUSSIA

One can almost see the unending Asiatic steppes at sunrise! The entry itself is just as expansive. In full proselike lines and at relatively huge length (the poem is over three full pages), a speaker opens the "IMAGINATION" by first translating the exterior immensity of the boys into a more subjective awakening and amplification of spirit:

The earth and the sky were very close

When the sun rose it rose in his heart   

It bathed the red cold world of 

the dawn so that the chill was his own

This sense of inner expansion immediately defines itself as part of the sequence's established lyrical emergence out of the fact of seasonal distress and into the mitigating beauty of its very wreckage:

The mists were sleep and sleep began 

to fade from his eyes. Below him in the 

garden a few flowers were lying forward 

on the intense green grass where 

in the opalescent shadows oak leaves 

were pressed hard down upon it in patches 

by the night rain. There were no cities

The brilliant colors especially recall and confirm the sensory boldness that had persisted in the crimson canna and whirling sewing machine of "10/10" and "10/28 (On hot days)." Then with hardly a pause, the speaker deploys the vaguely proletarian suggestions of the title, and constructs a broad cultural perspective that will incorporate the opening sense of personal liberation and govern the rest of the poem:

            . . .There were no cities 

between him and his desires 

His hatreds and his loves were without walls 

without rooms, without elevators 

without files, delays of veiled murderers 

muffled thieves, the tailings of 

tedious, dead pavements, the walls 

against desire save only for him who can pay 

high. There were no cities--he was 

without money--

Thus, the first stanza. Out of the opening claustrophobic, shipboard passage of "9/29," we have finally arrived in a newly liberated, revolutionary country. Here the decadent titillation of urban wealth is swept away by the restored delights of a peasant pleasure in the natural world:

Cities are full of light, fine clothes 

delicacies for the table, variety, 

novelty--fashion: all spent for this. 

Never to be like that again--

the frame that was. It tickled his 

imagination. But it passed in a rising calm

 

Tan dar a dei! Tan dar a dei!

 

He was singing. Two miserable peasants 

very lazy and foolish 

seemed to have walked out from his own 

feet and were walking away 

with wooden rakes

under the six nearly bare poplars, up the hill

The objective credibility of this proletarian utopia may, of course, be unconvincing. But the envisioning of it is a powerful projection of the imaginative strength that has literally been awakened in the sequence. In place, for instance, of the morose brooding over the fire in "10/21 (the orange flames)," we now have a whimsical moment of distraction that attaches the central sensibility to a whole new world order:

There go my feet.

 

He stood still in the window forgetting 

to shave--

 

The very old past was refound 

redirected. It had wandered into himself

 

And there is an equally refreshing moment a few lines later as the speaker nobly resolves to himself

                            ... He would go 

out to pick herbs, he graduate of 

the old university. He would go out 

and ask that old woman, in the little 

village by the lake, to show him wild

ginger. He himself would not know the plant.

It is with this lyrical, not political authority that our hero can convincingly conceive of himself with even a literally astronomical exaggeration:

Nothing between now.

 

He would go to the soviet unshaven. This 

was the day--and listen. Listen. That 

was all he did, listen to them, weigh 

for them. He was turning into 

a pair of scales, the scales in the 

zodiac.

This is not megalomania; it is simply the commensurate response to the claustrophobia and cosmic shrinkage with which the entire sequence had begun--to the "two bright nails / like stars / beside."

Given the extreme nature of the antithetical states involved here, it is probably equally inevitable that a certain siege mentality persist even beyond what appears to be something of a successful resolution for the sequence, as is in fact the case. Even amidst the revolutionary pride at discharging his own menial duties, the hero of this daydream cannot help but worry with paranoia:

He took a small pair of scissors 

from the shelf and clipped his nails 

carefully. He himself served the fire. 

We have cut out the cancer but 

who knows? perhaps the patient will die. 

The patient is anybody, anything 

worthless that I desire--my hands 

to have it--instead of the feeling 

that there is a piece of glazed paper 

between me and the paper--invisible 

but tough running through the legal 

processes of possession--a city, that 

we could possess--

 

                            It's in art, it's in

the French school.

"It's in art, it's in / the French school"--at once the alarm is the very height of a psychological hysteria and an aesthetic certitude; it is art in profound resistance to the forces of life which ennervate and denude the imagination. It is finally in these terms that the sprawling "A MORNING IMAGINATION OF RUSSIA" concludes.

Intensely aware of the precariously minimal nature of his revolutionary aesthetic advances, the speaker manages nonetheless to muster a heartening camaraderie with which to affirm the sustaining value of those efforts:

                            We have little now but 

we have that. We are convalescents. Very 

feeble. Our hands shake. We need a 

transfusion. No one will give it to us, 

they are afraid of infection. I do not 

blame them. We have paid heavily. But we 

have got--touch. The eyes and the ears

down on it. Close.

From The Lost Works of William Carlos Williams: The Volumes of Collected Poetry as Lyrical Sequences. Copyright © 1995 by Associated University Presses.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Robert J. Cirasa: On "The Descent of Winter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert J. Cirasa Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media