The great American poet C.K. Williams (1947-2015) writes in characteristically very long lines. He was a very engaged poet, for example with the nuclear disaster at Three Miles Island in Tar. He earned many awards and honors (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize). I read a seemingly simple poem called Zebra:
Kids once carried tin soldiers in their pockets as charms
against being afraid, but how trust soldiers these days
not to load up, aim, blast the pants off your legs?
I have a key-chain zebra I bought at the Thanksgiving fair.
How do I know she won’t kick, or bite at my crotch?
Because she’s been murdered, machine-gunned: she’s dead.
Also, she’s a she: even so crudely carved, you can tell
by the sway of her belly a foal’s inside her.
Even murdered mothers don’t hurt people, do they?
And how know she’s murdered? Isn’t everything murdered?
Some dictator’s thugs, some rebels, some poachers;
some drought, world-drought, world-rot, pollution, extinction.
Everything’s murdered, but still, not good, a dead thing
in with your ID and change. I fling her away, but the death
of her clings, the death of her death, her murder, her slaughter.
The best part of Thanksgiving Day, though—the parade!
Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Kermit the Frog, enormous as clouds!
And the marching bands, majorettes, anthems and drums!
When the great bass stomped its galloping boom out
to the crowd, my heart swelled with valor and pride.
I remembered when we saluted, when we took off our hat.
The poem starts with a funny observation about tin soldiers and how ‘these days’ we are so supersticious as to mistrust our charms. Even the zebra on his key-chain can’t prove his innocence to the lyrical I. Okay, the zebra is lifeless (why murdered? why does he project this violence? the I must be traumatized…) and can’t bite anybody’s balls. Also, her femininity, proven in a crude transgenderconfused-unfriendly way by pointing out the foal inside her belly. And ‘even’ murdered mothers which confuses the flow of argument.
Then the relativism, the cynicism, the world-rot. The fear to hold a part of the murdered world against our ID card or our money, as if these would get infected. But of course I can’t get rid of the zebra, the more I try, the more it clings and the more it depresses me, the more it makes me cynical and wanton, larrikin, utterly annoyed.
And that is why after the cesure in the poem he enjoys the grotesque parade. Valor / pride /crowd / salute. That is exactly what makes us forget the evil of the world.
One thought on “Reading: Zebra by C.K. Williams”
Comments are closed.