C.K. Williams



                                                      Helen


1

More voice was in her cough tonight: its first harsh stripping sound would       weaken abruptly,
and he'd hear the voice again, not hers, unrecognizable, its notes from       somewhere else,
someone saying something they didn't seem to want to say, in a tongue they       hadn't mastered,
or a singer, diffident and hesitating, searching for a place to start an
      unfamiliar melody.

Its pitch was gentle, almost an interrogation, intimate, a plea, a moan,
      almost sexual,
but he could hear assertion, too, a straining from beneath, a forcing at the       withheld consonant,
and he realized that she was holding back, trying with great effort not to
      cough again,
to change the spasm to a tone instead and to avert the pain that lurked out at
      the stress.

Then he heard her lose her almost-word, almost-song: it became a groan,
      the groan a gasp,
the gasp a sigh of desperation, then the cough rasped everything away,       everything was cough now,
he could hear her shuddering, the voice that for a moment seemed the
      gentlest part of her,
choked down, effaced, abraded, taken back, as all of her was being taken
      from him now.

2

In the morning she was standing at the window, he lay where he was and       quietly watched her.
A sound echoed in from somewhere, she turned to listen, and he was
      shocked at how she moved:
not enough moved, just her head, pivoting methodically, the mechanisms       slowed nearly to a halt,
as though she was afraid to jar herself with the contracting tendons and       skeletal leverings.

A flat, cool, dawn light washed in on her: how pale her skin was, how dull
      her tangled hair.
So much of her had burned away, and what was left seemed draped
      listlessly upon her frame.
It was her eye that shocked him most, though; he could only see her profile,       and the eye in it,
without fire or luster, was strangely isolated from the rest of her face, and
      even from her character.

For the time he looked at her, the eye existed not as her eye, his wife's, his       beloved's eye,
but as an eye, an object, so emphatic, so pronounced it was separate both
      from what it saw
and from who saw with it: it could have been a creature's eye, a member of       that larger class
which simply indicated sight and not that essence which her glance had
      always brought him.

It came to him that though she hadn't given any sign, she knew that he was       watching her.
He was saddened that she'd tolerate his seeing her as she was now, weak,       disheveled, haggard.
He felt that they were both involved, him watching, her letting him, in a       depressing indiscretion:
she'd always, after all their time together, only offered him the images she       thought he wanted.

She'd known how much he needed beauty, how much presumed it as the       elemental of desire.
The loveliness that illuminated her had been an engrossing narrative his
      spirit fed on;
he entered it and flowed out again renewed for having touched within and
      been a part of it.
In his meditations on her, he'd become more complicated, fuller, more       essential to himself.

It was to her beauty he'd made love at first, she was there within its       captivating light,
but was almost secondary, as though she was just the instance of some       overwhelming generality.
She herself was shy before it; she, too, as unassumingly as possible was       testing this abstraction
which had taken both of them into its sphere, rendering both subservient to
      its serene enormity.

As their experience grew franker, and as she learned to move more
      confidently towards her core,
became more overtly active in elaborating needs and urges, her beauty still
      came first.
In his memory, it seemed to him that they'd unsheathed her from the hazes
      of their awe,
as though her unfamiliar, fiery, famished nakedness had been disclosed as
      much to her as to him.

She'd been grateful to him, and that gratitude became in turn another fact of
      his desire.
Her beauty had acknowledged him, allowed him in its secret precincts, let
      him be its celebrant,
an implement of its luxurious materiality, and though he remained
      astonished by it always,
he fulfilled the tasks it demanded of him, his devotions reinvigorated and
      renewed.

3

In the deepest sense, though, he'd never understood what her beauty was or
      really meant.
If you only casually beheld her, there were no fanfares, you were taken by
      no immolating ecstasies.
It amused him sometimes seeing other men at first not really understanding
      what they saw;
no one dared to say it, but he could feel them holding back their       disappointment or disbelief.

Was this Helen, mythic Helen, this female, fleshed like any other, imperfect
      and approachable?
He could understand: he himself, when he'd first seen her, hadn't really; he'd
      even thought,
before he'd registered her spirit and intelligence, before her laughter's       melodies had startled him—
if only one could alter such and such, improve on this or that: he hardly
      could believe it now.

But so often he'd watched others hear her speak, or laugh, look at her again,
      and fall in love,
as puzzled as he'd been at the time they'd wasted while their raptures of       enchantment took.
Those who hadn't ever known her sometimes spoke of her as though she
      were his thing, his toy,
but that implied something static in her beauty, and she was surely just the       opposite of that.

If there was little he'd been able to explain of what so wonderfully
      absorbed him in her,
he knew it was a movement and a process, that he was taken towards and       through her beauty,
touched by it but even more participating in its multiplicities, the
      revelations of its grace.
He felt himself becoming real in her, tangible, as though before he'd only
      half existed.

Sometimes he would feel it wasn't really him being brought to such       unlikely fruition.
Absurd that anyone as coarse and ordinary as he should be in touch with
      such essential mystery:
something else, beyond him, something he would never understand, used
      him for its affirmations.
What his reflections came to was something like humility, then a gratitude
      of his own.

4

The next night her cough was worse, with a harsher texture, the spasms
      came more rapidly,
and they'd end with a deep, complicated emptying, like the whining,
      flattening of a bagpipe.
The whole event seemed to need more labor: each cough sounded more
      futile than the last,
as though the effort she'd made and the time lost making it had added to the
      burden of illness.

Should he go to her? He felt she moved away from him, turning more
      intently towards herself.
Her sickness absorbed her like a childbirth; she seemed almost like
      someone he didn't know.
There's been so many Helens, the first timid girl, then the sensual Helen of       their years together,
then the last, whose grace had been more intricate and difficult to know and
      to exult in.

How childishly frightened he's always been by beauty's absence, by its       destruction or perversity.
For so long he let himself be tormented by what he knew would have to
      happen to her.
He'd seen the old women as their thighs and buttocks bloated, then withered       and went slack,
as their dugs dried, skin dried, legs were sausaged with the veins that rose       like kelp.

He'd tried to overcome himself, to feel compassion toward them, but,
      perhaps because of her,
he'd felt only a shameful irritation, as though they were colluding in their
      loss.
Whether they accepted what befell them, even he would think, gladly       acquiescing to it,
or fought it, with all their sad and valiant unguents, dyes and ointments, was       equally degrading.

His own body had long ago become a ruin, but beauty had never been a part
      of what he was.
What would happen to his lust, and to his love, when time came to savage
      and despoil her?
He already felt his will deserting him; for a long time, though, nothing
      touched or dulled her;
perhaps she really was immortal, maybe his devotion kept her from the
      steely rakings of duration.

Then, one day, something at her jowls; one day her hips; one day the flesh
      at the elbows . . .
One day, one day, one day he looked at her and knew that what he'd feared
      so was here.
He couldn't understand how all his worst imaginings had come to pass
      without his noticing.
Had he been looking a her all this while, or had he not wanted to
      acknowledge what he'd seen?

He'd been gazing at her then; in her wise way she'd looked back at him,
      smiled, and touched him.
She knew, she'd long known, what was going on in him, and another       admiration for her took him,
then another fire, and that, simply, he felt himself closer to her: there'd been
      no trial,
nothing had been lost, of lust, of love, and something he'd never dreamed       would be was gained.

5

With her in the darkness now, not even touching her, he sensed her fever's       suffocating dryness.
He couldn't, however much he wanted to, not let himself believe she was
      to be no more.
And there was nothing he could do for her even if she'd let him; he tried to       calm himself.
Her cough was hollow, soft, almost forgiving, ebbing slowly through the       volumes of her thorax.

He could almost hear that world as though from in her flesh: the current of
      her breath,
then her breastbone, ribs and spine, taking on the cough's vibrations, giving       back their own.
Then he knew precisely how she was within herself as well, he was with
      her as he'd never been:
he'd unmoored in her, cast himself into the night of her, and perceived her
      life with her.

All she'd lived through, all she'd been and done, he could feel accumulated
      in this instant.
The impressions and sensations, feelings, dreams, and memories were
      tearing loose in her,
had disconnected from each other and randomly begun to float, collide,       collapse, entangle;
they were boiling in a matrix of sheer chance, suspended in a purely mental       universe of possibility.

He knew that what she was now to herself, what she remembered, might
      not in truth have ever been.
Who, then, was she now, who was the person she had been, if all she was,
      all he still so adored,
was muddled, addled, mangled: what of her could be repository now, the       place where she existed?
When everything was shorn from her, what within this flux of fragments       still stayed her?

He knew then what he had to do: he was so much of her now and she of       him that she was his,
her consciousness and memory both his, he would will her into him, keep
      her from her dissolution.
All the wreckage of her fading life, its shattered hours taken in this fearful       flood,
its moments unrecoverable leaves twirling in a gust across a waste of loss,
      he drew into himself,

and held her, kept her, all the person she had been was there in his sorrow
      and his longing:
it didn't matter what delirium had captured her, what of her was being       lacerated, rent,
his pain had taken on a power, his need for her became a force that he could       focus on her;
there was something in him like triumph as he shielded her within the
      absolute of his affection.

Then he couldn't hold it, couldn't keep it, it was all illusion, a confection of
      his sorrow:
there wasn't room within the lenses of his mortal being to contain what she
      had been,
to do justice to a single actual instant of her life and soul, a single moment
      of her mind,
and he released her then, let go of this diminished apparition he'd created
      from his fear.

But still, he gave himself to her, without moving to her: she was still his
      place of peace.
He listened for her breath: was she still here with him, did he have her that       way, too?
He heard only the flow of the flow of the silent darkness, but he knew now
      that in it they'd become it,
their shells of flesh and form, the old delusion of their separateness and       incompletion, gone.

When one last time he tried to bring her image back, she was as vivid as
      he's ever seen her.
What they were together, everything they'd lived, all that seemed so fragile,       bound in time,
had come together in him, in both of them; she had entered death, he was
      with her in it.
Death was theirs now, she was herself again; her final, searing loveliness
      had been revealed.


C.K. Williams, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.