- To Suffer to WaitReading Trauma in Two Poems
Es kehrt auch niemand heil zu seinem Gott zurück. (No one returns unscathed to his God.)—Nelly Sachs
The Sadness of the Artist
“A man may rot even here/,” says Gloucester toward the end of King Lear. But his son Edgar responds, “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all.”1 These final three words, “Ripeness is all,” have been troped in many poems, including C. K. Williams’s experimental sonnet “It Is This Way with Men.” In that poem, which appeared in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, the earth can only “ripen and ripen,” and thus men (and I gender my language intentionally) can never attain the “all” of ripeness that would round out their going hence and coming hither. Instead, men suffer without hope:
It Is This Way with Men
They are pounded into the earthlike nails; move an inch,they are driven down again.The earth is sore with them.It is a spiny fruitthat has lost hopeof being raised and eaten. [End Page 123] It can only ripen and ripen.And men, they too are wounded.They too are sifted from their lossand are without hope. The coresoftens. The pure flesh softensand melts. There are thorns, thereare the dark seeds, and they end.2
The terse facticity of these sentences; the melancholic repetitions; the laconic listing of core, flesh, thorns, and seeds; the truncated lines that never attain the sonnet’s pentameter all indicate what it means to suffer “without hope,” just as the spiny fruit that earth has become, wounded by the violence of men, has lost hope of feeding its people. The impersonal collective term “men” and the universal referent “the earth” define suffering as sublime, endless, generic. In such a historiography, suffering does not end when we end; others will be driven into the earth. The poem’s withholding of any kind of individual exemplification of suffering, the pre-dominance of the passive voice, the alternating anapestic and iambic trimeter in the first line all render resistance useless; “men” are subsumed by powers beyond control or comprehension; they are eminently nameless and expendable. At the poem’s end, they just end.
“In this terror [at the sight of] mass-produced death,” as Maurice Blanchot writes, “there is the sadness of the artist who honors well-wrought things, who wants to make a work and make of death his work” (et faire de la mort son oeuvre).3 The artist Blanchot has in mind is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work (at the time of the Great War) is in search of an art, Blanchot claims, that can “make of our end something other [autre chose] than an accident which would arrive from outside to terminate us hastily.”4 While Rilke’s quest is perhaps generic to all artistic endeavors, particularly to elegiac ones, it also responds to the traumatic accident, first by alluding to its spatial (“from outside”) and temporal (“hastily”) dimensions and second by proposing that such a trauma does not bring about a total breakdown of language but rather that a certain language—a poetic one—can make “something other,” autre chose, of it.5
How, then, does the poem before us respond to such a poetic ambition? It begins abruptly with the horrific ritual of violent oppression, with men reified into nails. The same violent rituals and protocols are intimated [End Page 124] by the first three half-rhyme couplets in the octave—“earth” and “inch,” “again” and “them/,” “fruit” and “hope”—and by the subsequent feminine half rhyme, “eaten” and “ripen,” each resonating with the half method/half madness of violence. The poem’s opening trimeter line performs the hammering; the second line breaks that rhythm in concert with the diminutive, unsanctioned movements of men; the third line repeats an anapest and the passive voice of the first line. In the fourth line the dimeter, near trimeter beat ends so faintly on the last syllable—“The earth is sore with them”—that men become almost forgettable. This is a...