The Descent of Winter

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.

Brian A. Bremen: On "The Descent of Winter"

This sense of "our own otherness" finds its expression in the first entry of William's The Descent of Winter (1928), where Williams asks:

"What are these elations I have

at my own underwear?

 

I touch it and it is strange

upon a strange thigh. "

Here Williams's use of quotation marks and italics makes a strange beginning even stranger. Certain only of the ownership of his underwear and the fact that he is touching it, Williams's voice remains detached from any sure point of reference, including his sense of himself. This idea of referentiality is picked up in the very next entry, as the "steward" removes the bed to which the sign for "Berth No. 2" referred, and

only the number

remains

·2·

 

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the white-enameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

The sign--"·2·"--divorced from its referential surrounding enters the realm of what Jameson elsewhere calls the "schizophrenic," becoming "ever more material--or, better still, literal--ever more vivid in sensory ways" even though "meaning is lost." Using Lacan, Jameson explains that "the experience of personal identity over months and years--this existential or experiential feeling of time itself--is also an effect of language" in that language "has a past and a future" and "because the sentence moves in time." Because the schizophrenic has no knowledge of "language articulation" in this way, "schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, dislocated, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the 'I' and the 'me' over time."

The materiality of the signifier, however, shifts our experience of language toward being that of a "substantial abstraction," and as such the material receives Williams's emphasis in the image--"an oval disc / of celluloid / tacked // to the white-enameled / woodwork / with // two bright nails." Immediately, however, this isolated "image" is made continuous with the simile--"like stars / beside // the moon." I think we need to read this simile--perhaps an attempt to posit meaning in order to "relieve the tension" of this "schizophrenic state"--as a projection by the authorial subjectivity that completely "destroys" the original object. As Williams says later in The Descent, the "realization" of poetic vividness "has its own internal fire that is 'like' nothing. Therefore the bastardy of the simile." The use of simile is a resort to that "crude symbolism" of given associations, and so Williams criticizes himself in his next entry (as it appeared in The Exile in 1928):

There are no perfect waves--

Your writings are a sea 

full of misspellings and

faulty sentences. Level. Troubled.

 

A center distant from the land 

touched by the wings of nearly 

silent birds that never seem 

to rest, yet it bears me 

seriously--to land, but without 

you.

 

This is the sadness of the sea--

waves like words all broken--

a sameness of lifting and falling mood.

With "me" and "you" being carried farther apart, with writing that is "a sea full of misspellings and / faulty sentences," Williams's second simile--"waves like words all broken"--forms part of yet another "faulty sentence" that begins now to work against a smooth understanding of the analogy. With this confusion of "waves" and "words," Williams returns to the scene's materiality--"watching the detail / of brittle crest"--holding out hope for the formation of some "coral island" that will rescue him, only to confront the reader in the next entry with the following image:

and there's a little blackboy 

in a doorway 

scratching his wrists

 

The cap on his head

is red and blue

with a broad peak to it

 

and his mouth 

is open, his tongue 

between his teeth--

Unlike the sign "·2·" the "little blackboy" remains free of any associated ideas or images, and so maintains his own materiality to both reader and author. What Jameson referred to as the "schizophrenic image" is here an other who maintains his own "tenacious otherness" against Williams's subjectivity. In other words, by maintaining that tension between "I" and "me," between sign and suspended referent, Williams also maintains the separation of subject and object. In this way, Williams says, "I will make a big serious portrait of my time." By fitting together these "blocks" of poetry--like the "brown and creamwhite block of Mexican onyx" or the "rock shingles of Cherbourg"--Williams confronts the reader with the unsituated materiality of his own poems, "like stones fitted together and that is love." Williams explains that, "there is no portrait without that has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it every day." By presenting his "portrait" in a "prose" that defeats codification and simple understanding, Williams enables his "hero" to live in the dialectic he creates between his "prose" and his "poetry." A "hero who does not live, a man"--Williams's "love" here is very much like Benjamin's mother who in "reflecting" her baby's behavior, provides that "recognition" needed by the infant. Williams's poetry, in "reflecting" his world with as little subjective imposition as possible "speaks" of the need for that love "every day" in the datelines of each separate entry.

Moreover, this "schizophrenia"--which as Jameson explains is a descriptive and not a diagnostic term--is characterized by the same lack of identity and intense experience of the present that Williams valorizes throughout the work, most notably in his several discussions of Shakespeare, whose poetry Williams confronts in the "yellow leaves / and few" that are juxtaposed with "a young dog" jumping "out / of the old barrel." In the entry entitled "Shakespeare," Williams explains this "schizophrenic" style:

The difficulty of modern styles is made by the fragmentary stupidity of modern life, its lacuna of sense, loops, perversions of instinct, blankets, amputations, fulsomeness of instruction and multiplications of inanity. To avoid this, accuracy is driven a hard road. To be plain is to be subverted since every term must be forged new, every word is tricked out of meaning, hanging with as many cheap traps as an altar.     The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them--clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.

"To be plain" is to speak according to known conventions, and the purpose of Williams's "terms" is to expose that "machine of absurdity" to its impenetrable "core." Cut loose from these conventions, a "poem is a soliloquy without the 'living' in the world" and the poet must learn to defeat his own sense of subjectivity and "be nothing and unaffected by the results, to unlock and flow, uncolored, smooth, carelessly--not to cling to the unsolvable lumps of personality (yourself and your concessions, poems) concretions--." Like the "sagas," Williams's poems must "seem to have been made on the spot," and by lifting his "signs" literally from their surroundings, Williams can achieve sagalike magnification:

And in runningpants and 

with ecstatic, æsthetic faces 

on the illumined 

signboard are leaping 

over printed hurtles and

"1/4 of their energy comes from bread"

 

two

gigantic highschool boys

ten feet tall

But, as Williams asserts, "this is modern, not the saga. There are no sagas--only trees now, animals, engines: There's that." The condition of "schizophrenia" is still a painful one, and it remains far removed from that state of "intersubjectivity" that Benjamin asserts.

The "context" of commercial exploitation forms the grounds that rob the modern of "the old dignity of life," and most often the "schizophrenic" signs that Williams presents are connected either with buying and selling, or with the political, as in "Coolidge" saying "let there be imitation brass filigree fire fenders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molassescandygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces!" By uprooting the "grammars" that enable us to connect signifier and signified, Williams juxtaposes abstract nouns with concrete images in order to resituate the meanings of "abstractions" such as:

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 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

This "subtext" of convention and economic exploitation--along with the ideal of forming some new relationship beginning in that schizophrenic split between sign and signifier, subject and object--all coincide to "organize" the context in which we must read both "A Morning Imagination of Russia" and the story of the poem's "hero." The "hero" of The Descent, of course, is "Dolores Marie Pischak ... born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs 2 ozs." Williams once remarked that he got his poetry "out of the mouths of Polish mothers," and the sections describing "Pischak's place" mix the broken, Polish accents of its inhabitants with "the feeling of Fairfield" that is neither romanticized nor nostalgic. "Here one drinks good beer," and "the stupefying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything--dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong." But even "A dell with a pretty stream in it below the garden and fifty feet beyond," is right next to "the board fence of the Ajax Aniline Dye Works with red and purple refuse dribbling out ragged and oily under the lower fence board." Dolores's older sister "has jaundice," and her father--"A man who might be a general or president of a corporation, or president of the states. Runs a bootleg saloon. Great!" Still, "This is the world. Here one breathes and the dignity of man holds on.. . . Peace is here--rest, assurance, life hangs on. Oh, blessed love, among insults, brawls, yelling, locks, brutality--here the old dignity of life holds on--defying the law, defying monotony."

As in "To Elsie"--"something is given off," in Fairfield even if it is "only in isolate flecks"--and Williams hints at the "love" that could potentially "cure" the "fragmentary stupidity of modern life" in his visit to Dolores's home. Here, at the heart of "Pischak's place" is Benjamin's "recognition scene"--the infant Dolores nursing in her mother's arms:

She lies in her mother's arms and sucks. The dream passes over her, dirt streets, a white goose flapping its wings, and passes. Boys, wrestling, kicking a half inflated football. A grey motheaten squirrel pauses at a picket fence where tomato vines, almost spent, hang on stakes.     O blessed love--the dream engulfs her. She opens her eyes on the troubled bosom of the mother who is nursing the babe and watching the door. And watching the eye of the man. Talking English, a stream of Magyar, Polish what? to the tall man coming and going.

Williams's "female psychology" of the concrete focuses on the event that "grounds" both his and Benjamin's psychologies--the act of nurturing and "recognition" by baby and mother. The "eye of the man ... [t]alking English" is the figure of Williams as doctor in The Descent, and his empathic "contact" with mother and child is echoed in the "contact" he achieves throughout the work, suggesting that "intersubjectivity" that will serve as "remedy."

This empathic "intersubjectivity" is achieved on a larger scale in "A Morning Imagination of Russia," and it is here that we see clearest the relationships between the "subtexts" of the "culture" and the "individual." The opening lines make clear that interplay between the individual and his surroundings, as Williams says:

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 

The mists were sleep and sleep began 

to fade from his eyes, below him in the 

garden a few flowers were lying forward

Gone are "the walls / against desire save only for him who can pay / high, there were no cities--he was / without money." This condition of economic poverty and existential richness will be later echoed in Williams's own statement that "I make really very little money. / What of it?," and the relationship between subject and city here is nearly as complex an empathic "identification" as we will find in Paterson:

The very old past was refound 

redirected. It had wandered into himself 

The world was himself, these were 

his own eyes that were seeing, his own mind 

that was straining to comprehend, his own 

hands that would be touching other hands 

They were his own!

Gone also is the "schizophrenic" estrangement that began The Descent--"'what are these elations I have / at my own underwear?'"--as the subject here "recognizes" both self and other, as well as the "self in the other." Moreover, his next act will be one of communication and cooperation, as "He would go / out to pick herbs ... 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". Jameson sees that "schizophrenic" condition of the "floating, material signifier" as "consonant with" the conditions of late capitalism, where commodity production is closely tied in with styling changes that obviate against notions of continuity in "a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind that all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve." While I am by no means making a case for Williams's Marxism in "A Morning Imagination"--he later called the poem merely a "sympathetic human feeling--non-political--roused by thoughts of Russia"--Williams does make this connection to capitalism and style in the lines:

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 passed in a rising calm

The "frame that was" is an "ideology" whose "grammar" determines the meaning (and price) of "this"--a floating signifier that remains open to perpetual redefinition according to the economic "grounding" it receives. Williams calls America a "Soviet State decayed away in a misconception of riches. The states, counties, cities are anemic Soviets," saying that "Russia is in every country" and that "The United States should be in effect, a Soviet State." While we will discuss Williams's politics more specifically later, we need to keep two things in mind here: first, Williams's "Soviet" is a participatory form of government that allows for full "identification" in an uncertain, local, cooperative effort--"he was himself / the scales. The local soviet. They could / weigh. If it was not too late. He felt / uncertain many days. But all were uncertain / together and he must weigh for them out / of himself." Next, I think Williams shares in the then common, progressive perception of Russia as a site for the achievement of democratic ideals. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the immediately perceived threat of the Bolshevik revolution by the leadership of the United States was that it would lead to greater democratic reforms:

Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State Robert Lansing warned that the Bolshevik disease, were it to spread, would leave the "ignorant and incapable mass of humanity dominant in the earth." The Bolsheviks, he warned, were appealing "to the ignorant mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters, . . . a very real danger in view of the process of social unrest throughout the world"; it is, as always, democracy that is the fearful threat. When soldiers' and workers' councils made a brief appearance in Germany, Woodrow Wilson expressed his concern that they might inspire dangerous thoughts among "the American negro [soldiers] returning from abroad." Already, "negro" laundresses were demanding more than the going wage, saying "that money is as much mine as it is yours," Wilson had heard. Businessmen might have to adjust to having workers on their boards of directors, he feared, among other disasters if the Bolshevik virus were not exterminated.

Williams's position with regard to the Left is a vexed and confusing one, and I think "A Morning Imagination of Russia" is just that: an "imagination" of the soviet, and not a substantial relationship to Communism. The appeal, as I think it always is for Williams, is to a more democratic form of government, one that will erase "the feeling / that there is a piece of glazed paper / between me and the paper--invisible / but tough running through the legal / process of possession--a city, that / we could possess--." What one gets from "A Morning Imagination of Russia" is "touch. The eyes and the ears / down on it. Close."--that "tactus eruditus" that Williams mentions in the "Della Primavera" and that Burke calls attention to in nearly all his writings about his friend. As Williams explains in "A Morning Imagination"--"It's in art, it's in / the French school"--but it is also potentially in America--"Russia is every country, here he must live, this for that, loss for gain. Dolores Marie Pischak." As Williams continues:

... Loss and gain go hand in hand. And hand in hand means my hand in a hand which is in it: a child's hand soft skinned, small, a little fist to hold gently, a woman's hand, a certain woman's hand, a man's hand. Thus hand in hand means several classes of things. But loss is one thing. It is lost. It is one big thing that is an orchestra playing. Time, that's what it buys. But the gain is scattered. It is everywhere but there is not much in any place. A city is merely a relocation of metals in a certain place.--He feels the richness, but a distressing feeling of loss is close upon it. He knows he must coordinate the villages for effectiveness in a flood, a famine.

The "mutuality" of "hand in hand" means "my hand in a hand which is in it": a child's hand, a woman's hand, a man's hand. It also means "loss and gain," and I read Williams's melancholy here as that kind of melancholy that Heinz Kohut says results from the transformation of "narcissistic energies," as "the cathexis is transferred from the cherished self to the supraindividual ideals and to the world with which one identifies." The sense of "time" that it "buys" is that sense of continuity over time that might "heal" Jameson's "schizophrenia." "It is a pure literary adjustment," Williams says, but it is not the sense of tradition that is the "supremacy of England." Rather, it is a sense of identity and difference one gets from "The very old past ... refounded / redirected." And so Williams ends The Descent with a reminiscence about his own family--his grandmother and grandfather, his brother, and, most important, his greatest avatar of the imagination after Shakespeare, his own mother.

Williams explains his "poverty" in the rich recollection of his family's history. Here economic distrust and betrayal mix with pride, love of Paris, and "identification":

When my brother was happy he would sing, walking up and down kicking out his feet: Si j étais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-a par ma foi! You made me think right away of him.

The Descent of Winter ends in the middle of winter--"12/18"--and it is only in the "imagination" of Russia that an empathic act of "identification" actually occurs, although the act remains potential in the scene between the infant Dolores and her mother. Ultimately, though, the environment we face here is one that "does not respond," and so we are left with images of "splitting" and "schizophrenia." One kind of "splitting," for example, occurs between the implied "I" that identifies with Mrs. Pischak and the bigoted "you" of "you sit and have it waved and ordered. . . . And nothing to do but play cards and whisper ... of the high-school girl that had a baby and how smart her mama was to pretend in a flash of genius that it was hers.... Or lets us take a ran up to the White Mountains ... Not Bethlehem (New Hampshire) any more, the Jews have ruined that like lice all over the lawns." The kind of "intersubjectivity" that Benjamin proposes is never fully accomplished in this work, and the "mutuality" that is Williams's "desire" and "love" never fully remedies the "schizophrenia" of separation. Still, Williams's "philosophical grammar" exposes those conditions of poverty and power that cause this lack of communication. The exposed "subtexts" of "culture" and "identity" are organized too fully, however, to allow "rapprochement" to occur. The "signs" of Fairfield remain in their schizophrenic state of materiality, and Williams remains as separate from his "self" and world as he was from his wife Flossie when he wrote The Descent.

The dialectic between poetry and prose that Williams creates in The Descent of Winter offers even fewer distinctions between the two forms of writing than the one in Spring and All, forcing the reader even more to find the "poetry hidden in the prose" and the "prose hidden in the poetry." In this freer exchange, the voice of the other gains expression as we hear those "Polish mothers" speak for themselves. Through our own empathic "identification" of and with the voices of the poem, we begin that process of "rapprochement" that Williams sees as ultimately frustrated in his world. In ending this chapter, then, I'd like to look at two more works from around the same time as The Descent and examine more closely both the forms of domination that Williams sees as responsible for this sense of separation, as well as some of the conditions that allow for both the possible achievement and the re-presentation of an act of "intersubjectivity."

From William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford University Press.

Lynn Keller: On "The Descent of Winter"

[Keller is comparing Williams’ The Descent of Winter with Robert Creeley’s Pieces (1968)]

This series of lyrics [The Descent of Winter] written during the fall of 1927 uses dates rather than titles and, like Pieces, records a scattering of the poet's immediate impressions--descriptions of autumn weeds or the passing of a freight train, casual thoughts about his likes and dislikes, bits of others' speech. Yet Williams describes common sights and ordinary people with such detailed care that the very particularity of his attention implies the significance of these humble subjects. Williams' imagery as well as his use of simile and metaphor give grand resonance to "trivia." A canna becomes the "darkly crimson heart / of this poor yard"; the town idiot is a figure of all aging men; a label above the poet's berth and the two nails fastening it are "like stars / beside / the moon"; and a sunlit beech tree glows "with a soft stript light / of love / over the brittle / grass." Mundane sights call to Williams' mind the most sweeping human problems: A pile of rubbish burning in a field of dead weeds prompts him to comment upon the suffering of the aged; a poor organ grinder forcing his tunes on passersby brings to mind "the meanness of love." Williams often suggests psychological, sociological, and historical patterns within which bits of local color can be understood; even the tiniest actions and objects have a place in cosmic patterns of descent and ascent, destruction and rebirth. Beneath the unassuming and fragmented surfaces of these poems lies a moralistic exhortation to the reader to search out underlying coherence: Williams is more than half serious that "someone should summarize these things / in the interest of local government."

For Creeley the "trivial" takes on importance in a far more inward, and more abstractly philosophical way. He less frequently transforms its scale or generalizes its meaning, since his intention is not, like Williams', to proclaim the dignity of the poor and commonplace or to correct conventional misconceptions about the unimportance of what is small and familiar. Creeley's descriptions, like Ashbery's, do not give sharper definition to what appears blurred or drab in ordinary living. Instead, he immerses himself in domestic and linguistic banality--"our businesses of the / evening, eating supper, talking, / watching television, then / going to bed, making love" --because this is the stuff of his life in which he can locate his own here and now. The whole volume addresses--and attempts to redress--the problem that "'Here' as a habit is what we are lacking here." "Grease / on the hands - " is a complete poetic unit simply because in the moment of writing it, Creeley is present experiencing his own body; that is its significance. While Williams, securely located in the present, demonstrates for his readers acts of attention or social perspectives within which "trivia" can be recognized as untrivial, Creeley pushes anxiously moment by moment and syllable by syllable to make contact with his "now," the material and linguistic contents of which happen most often to be "trivial."

Individual poems in The Descent of Winter are often unified by a propositional declaration that appears in either the opening or closing lines--e.g., "The justice of poverty / its shame its dirt / are one with the meanness / of love"; "What an image in the face of Almighty God is she"; "That river will be clean / before ever you will be." The presence of such summary statements reveals a "will to closure" that Creeley regards as "the whole pattern of intention in the Moderns"--"the ability to see beyond the world as given to some not idealization . . . but [a] very hopeful sense of resolution and [a will to] bring it to a coherence." According to Creeley, the world now "has become immensely larger or immensely more diverse and immensely more present" so that contemporary artists honestly engaged with "the real" have had to abandon aspirations for coherence.

From Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Descent of Winter"

The Descent of Winter, begun on board the SS Pennland in the fall of 1927 when Williams was returning to America, having left behind his wife and sons who were to spend the entire year in Europe, was originally projected as a book of love poems to be called Sacred and Profane. But in its final form, The Descent turned out to be a more hybrid work, a collage of love poems, prose diatribes about American capitalism, anecdotes about the delivery of babies, and so on. Williams never did publish it as a separate book; it appeared in Ezra Pound's Exile in the Autumn of 1928.

Like Spring and All, The Descent is characterized by a discontinuous structure in which meaning is created by the resonance of contiguous images. But the condensation of the later work is much more radical and most critics have found it excessively obscure. No doubt The Descent Of Winter is an uneven book; certain prose sections like "A Morning Imagination of Russia" are not so much incoherent as they are boring in their naive didacticism. On the other hand, the sequence contains some of Williams' most brilliant writing. Here is the opening:

9/27

"What are these elations I have

at my own underwear?

I touch it and it is strange

upon a strange thigh."

* * *

9/29

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.

 

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the whiteenameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

The italicized section introduces a note of auto-eroticism that modulates into the bleaker solipsism of the second lyric. "9/29" is like a hard-edged painting, but its general affinities are less with Cubism in its classical phase than with early Surrealism: the collages of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, or René Magritte. Here it is not primarily a matter of breaking up objects and viewing them simultaneously as an organization of flat planes. Rather, the objects themselves undergo surprising transformations. The poem's structure is one of contraction-expansion. First everything contracts: "the narrow bed / in a small room / at sea" gives way to the empty upper berth and then to the arabic number 2 above it, "on an oval disc / of celluloid." The image is minimal and stark, reflecting the emptiness of the observer's consciousness, his total isolation. But as he contemplates this unimportant object silhouetted against "the whiteenameled / woodwork," he suddenly sees it freshly; the oval disc, tacked up by "two bright nails," becomes a "moon" supported by stars. In this case, less is more. Having stripped his world of all its trappings, he can once again bring it to life.

In the poems and prose passages that follow, these opposing images--empty berth and moonlight--reappear in a number of altered contexts. We can trace one chain of contiguities from "waves like words all broken" and the "coral island" of "9/30" to the "large rusty can wedged in the crotch" of the locust tree in "10/28," to the woman alone on the "railroad bridge support" of "11/10." At the same time, the countermovement sets in: the "stars / beside / the moon" look ahead to the "orange flames," the "yellow and red grass," and the "leafless beechtree" that "shines like a cloud." And then a few pages further on, we meet:

Dahlias--

    What a red

        and yellow and white

mirror to the sun, round

            and petaled

    is this she holds?

In the end, it is this "vividness alone" that overcomes the poet's initial despair and solipsism. The sequence ends with the jaunty song of his Creole uncle: "si j’étais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-e par ma foi!"

The prose poems that alternate with the short lyrics of The Descent of Winter exhibit a discontinuity more radical than that of the earlier Kora in Hell. Here is "10/27":

And Coolidge said let there be imitation brass filigree fire fenders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces! the white porcelain trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape for the oven I don't know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces! the stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them, lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines, cherry red danger and applegreen safety. Any hat in this window $2.00 barred windows, wavy opaque glass, a block of brownstone at the edge of the sidewalk crudely stippled on top for a footstep to a carriage, lights with sharp bright spikes, stick out round them their faces! STOP in black letters surrounded by a red glow, letters with each bulb a seed in the shaft of the L of the A lights on the river streaking the restless water lights upon pools of rainwater by the roadside a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!

In this surreal cityscape, objects in shop windows, seen from what is evidently the window of the poet's moving car, take on strange configurations. The "imitation brass filigree fire fenders," for example, are related syntactically to the "yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood," but whereas the former, placed behind "insured plateglass windows," are items for sale, the latter seem to be part of a candy store or café. Again, the "white porcelain trough" made of baked clay is somehow related to the dark cloth with its orange and green strips, the conjunction suggesting a display case of household goods. But the reference to "artificial pneumothorax" allows us to perceive the white porcelain trough as part of some hospital scene or perhaps a medical supply store. The scene, in any case, dissolves and we next see a "stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them." Seen retrospectively, the yellow pine booths now turn into church pews, and, in this context, the white porcelain trough calls up the image of a baptismal font.

We cannot, in short, locate the items named with any certainty, nor is it possible to define their relationships to one another. The blurring of focus is intentional, for Williams' emphasis is on the mobility and mystery of the city, and the text thus becomes what Charles Olson liked to call an "energy discharge." So the colors of the cloth modulate into city lights--"lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines." The camera eye then moves farther away from the scene and we get a distance shot of "a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!"

Williams' modulation of light images is especially interesting. "10/27" begins, of course, as a parody of "And God said, 'Let there be light!'"; here there is only the artificial light of the "imitation brass filigree fire fenders." But such lighting has its pleasures too; in the poet's verbal landscape, it coalesces with the bright neon lights of the city, the traffic lights ("cherry red danger and applegreen safety"), the red glow made by the bulbs around the STOP sign, the moving lights of the elevated train, the "restless water lights upon pools of rainwater," and finally the "great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms," a house whose "center" is marked by "one yellow windowbright" of faces.

This is perhaps as close as Williams ever came to the language constructions of Gertrude Stein or of her French predecessors. The poet does not give us a realistic or even an impressionist picture of the night-time scene. Rather, he wrenches words from their usual contexts and places them in new relationships. The juxtaposition of light images is one example of such stylization. Another can be found in the patterning of spatial forms. The roundness of the white porcelain trough is repeated in the circular traffic light and the STOP sign. These objects therefore seem to occupy the same space although, literally, some are indoors, some outdoors; some close to the ground, some high up, and so on. Again, the "yellow pine booths" seem to occupy the same space as the white wooden cross, and the "insured plateglass windows" of the storefront dissolve into the dark windows of office buildings, the barred windows of the hat shop, made of "wavy opaque glass," and finally the "yellow" window of the isolated cheery house. The prose poem is a field of contiguities, what John Ashbery was to call a "hymn to possibility."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press.

James Guimond: On "The Descent of Winter"

Williams often constructed his poems upon metaphors, analogies, and contrasts which stressed the formal relationships possible between nature and the human or artificial. Some of the first examples of these poems appear in "The Descent of Winter."

Dahlias-

What a red

and yellow and white

mirror to the sun, round

and petaled

is this she holds?

with a red face

all in black

and grey hair

sticking out

from under the bonnet brim

The poem's structure is simple and effective. Two bare, unexplained images are juxtaposed to make us aware of their unexpected similarity.

In other poems Williams stressed the contrasts between the human and the natural which could be created by the same bare, unexplained juxtapositions of images. The poem entitled "10/21" in "The Descent of Winter," for example, dramatically contrasts the destructive power of a fire burning up trash with a conservative human emotion, pity for the old. The verbs signifying the natures of the two forces, the natural and the emotional, are balanced in the poem to define one another. The flames stream and wave; they are streaked and stained with purple and flamepoints; the smoke "continues eastward--." These verbs describing the fire are all intransitive and express violent destruction. Those describing the old persons are passive, or verbs of being, expressing negations or static experiences.

From The Art of William Carlos Williams: A Discovery and Possession of America. Copyright © 1968 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Thomas R. Whitaker: On "The Descent of Winter"

"Paterson" contains no really immediate voices. We hear no living people in this somnambulistic city--not even the poet as actual man, suffering this condition and bringing it to articulation.

In "The Descent of Winter" the diary organization gives us that actual man. The Great American Novel had already explored the possibilities of a fiction in which the author would seem an immediate and improvisatory presence, and Kora in Hell and Spring and All had used seasonal frameworks. Now Williams combined verse and prose in a sequence that locates us in the day-by-day consciousness of the writer as one engaged in an actual descent into local and therefore universal ground. . . .

The structure of the whole, though quite imperfect, does give support to its parts. There are frequent cross-references and illuminating juxtapositions: the poems of 10/22, 10/28, and 10/29, for example, gain from their prose context; and 11/2 ("A Morning Imagination of Russia") is in the following prose related to Charles Sheeler, Shakespeare, and the local Fairfield. The entire sequence may be seen as enacting a descent from auto-erotic and barren isolation (9/27, 9/29) through expansive and fructifying movements toward a new discovery of community, the past, love, and the writer's vocation as earlier known by the "fluid" and "accessible" Shakespeare, "who had that mean ability to fuse himself with everyone which nobody's have, to be anything at any time."

From William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.