A plunge into the still, cold lake of self

REPAIR By C.K. Williams Farrar, Straus and Giroux 69 pp., $12

Some poets are perfect for reading at the beach. Others are better beside a still lake. C.K. Williams is the latter.

Williams's work is not something one can breeze through. His long, dense lines force readers to slow down and let the language seep into their skin. It's a bit like wading into very cold water. The movement is inch by inch, ankle to knee to hip. The poems must be unpacked layer by layer.

Williams's approach has not changed in "Repair," his eighth book, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Readers must still lower themselves gingerly into his poems. Take, for example, these lines from the book's opener, "Ice":

The astonishing thing that happens when you crack a needle-awl into a block of ice: the way a perfect section through it crazes into gleaming fault-lines, fractures, facets;

dazzling silvery deltas that in one too-quick-to-capture instant madly complicate the cosmos of its innards.

Williams has not made it easy for someone to dive in, but as the work progresses, one often finds the cold inviting. And there are a few warm springs. A poem to his grandson, "Owen: Seven Days," is a good example:

... when I look into his eyes darkish grayish blue

a whole tone lighter than his mother's

I feel myself almost with a whoosh dragged

into his consciousness and processed processed processed

his brows knit I'm in there now I don't know

in what form but his gaze hasn't faltered an instant

Williams's concerns, despite his sometimes difficult surfaces, are fairly universal: He writes of self-doubt, isolation, of trying to find his place in the world. "Repair" is about bridging the gap between what we are and what we want to be. It's about the lifelong process of accepting the face we were given instead of the one that will never be. From "Glass":

Is how we live or try to live supposed to embellish us? All I see is the residue of my other, failed faces.

But maybe what we're after is just a less abrasive regard: not "It's still not there," but something like "Come in, be still."

"Repair" has some strong poems, including "The Train" and the lovely, lyrical "Droplets." At his best, Williams is insightful, vulnerable, unblinking. He explores the hidden mental realms behind people's outward actions, and he leads us fearlessly behind the mind's closed doors. Often his poems are hauntingly stark, but the collection itself is a bit inconsistent.

At times the language becomes too abstract, too esoteric, as if the speaker can't get outside of his own thoughts. In other places the work becomes too self-absorbed, too unconvincing, as in the long poem "The Poet," where Williams wonders about a long-lost acquaintance.

Some readers will be quick to say that "Repair" is not Williams's best book. What he says about love is a bit too pat, and his familiar themes have appeared in sharper, more memorable poems.

"Repair" does not invigorate as much as it could, but it does give ample glimpses into why Williams has become a major poet. His work, like an early-morning dip in icy water, does make the nerves and skin tingle.

*Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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