Jul. 22, 2004

The Clause

by C. K. Williams

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Poem: "The Clause," by C.K. Williams, from The Singing. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.

The Clause

This entity I call my mind, this hive of restlessness,
this wedge of want my mind calls self,
this self which doubts so much and which keeps reaching,
keeps referring, keeps aspiring, longing, towards some state
from which ambiguity would be banished, uncertainty expunged;

this implement my mind and self imagine they might make together,
which would have everything accessible to it,
all our doings and undoings all at once before it,
so it would have at last the right to bless, or blame,
for without everything before you, all at once, how bless, how blame?

this capacity imagination, self and mind conceive might be the "soul,"
which would be able to regard such matters as creation and destruction,
origin and extinction, of species, peoples, even families, even mine,
of equal consequence, and might finally solve the quandary
of this thing of being, and this other thing of not;

these layers, these divisions, these meanings or the lack thereof,
these fissures and abysses beside which I stumble, over which I reel:
is the place, the space, they constitute,
which I never satisfactorily experience but from which the fear
I might be torn away appalls me, me, or what might most be me?

Even mine, I say, as if I might ever believe such a thing;
bless and blame, I say, as though I could ever not.
This ramshackle, this unwieldy, this jerry-built assemblage,
this unfelt always felt disarray: is this the sum of me,
is this where I'm meant to end, exactly where I started out?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet, novelist and short story writer Stephen Vincent Benet, born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1898). He's best known for John Brown's Body (1928), a novel in verse about Civil-War era America. Both that and his 1943 historical poem Western Star (1943) won the Pulitzer Prize. He said, "Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams Bianco, born Margery Williams in London (1881). The Velveteen Rabbit is the story of a young boy who loves his stuffed rabbit so much that it comes to life.

It's the birthday of novelist Tom Robbins, born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina (1936). He's known for his elaborately goofy novels, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994) and Villa Incognito (2003). He taught himself to read when he was five years old, and around the same time he started dictating stories to his mother. One of the stories was about a pilot who crashes on a desert island and discovers a brown cow with yellow spots. Robbins recently said, "I wouldn't find that story out of place in what I'm doing now, and so I guess I haven't changed all that much."

He went to Washington and Lee University in Virginia, but he was kicked out of his fraternity and then dropped out of school after he threw biscuits at the housemother. He spent the next ten years hitchhiking across the country, and it was during this time that he began to write seriously. He started his first novel, about a man who discovers the body of Christ in the Roman catacombs and brings it back to the state of Washington, where he lives with his friends at a roadside zoo and hot dog stand. That story became Another Roadside Attraction, which came out in 1971.

Another Roadside Attraction didn't sell very well at first, but when the paperback edition came out in 1972, sales gradually began to increase. Word of mouth picked up, and by the late '70s more than 700,000 copies had been sold. Most of his readers were in their teens and twenties, and they couldn't afford to fork over fifteen or twenty dollars for a novel, so his next few novels came out simultaneously in hardback and paperback, and Robbins became known as the king of the "paperback literati." Another Roadside Attraction was followed by Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1974) and Still Life with Woodpecker (1980).

Robbins said, "Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature."

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