In Falling Ill (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), C.K. Williams takes his most personal and introspective journey as he faces a terminal cancer diagnosis. In these thoughtful, skillfully crafted poems, Williams, who died last year at 78, records his thoughts and reactions as he deals with unsettling symptoms and struggles to understand how his body can be failing when his mind and spirit seem so strong. The poet, whose honors include the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, also wrestles with difficult questions, such as whether to share the news with others and how to move forward as the precipice grows nearer. As he navigates the stages of illness and grief, he is at times wistful, sad and angry. The absence of punctuation heightens the sense of urgency. Yet despite the steady march toward the end, the speaker never becomes maudlin. Instead, he finds moments of joy and affection, as when he considers the unforgettable presence of loved ones who have passed on: “Those of you who’ve gone before how precious/ you remain how little your essential nature/ has altered and insofar as it has I can’t grasp/ how you might be other than you ever were.”
Günter Grass, too, faces end-of-life questions in his final book, Of All That Ends (Houghton Mifflin). The book brings together poems, short prose pieces and drawings by the renowned German novelist and Nobel laureate, who died last year at 87. Grass’s wit is on full display as he explores not just what he is losing — his teeth, his beloved friends — but in how the approach of death and the writing process itself spur him to live as fully as he can. Covering a wide ground — childhood memories, observations about nature and society, reflections on writing and love — the book provides a quirky final portrait of this beloved and controversial writer. Grass knows how to balance his interior and exterior worlds and how to tell stories in miniature; scattered throughout are tight, fragmentary poems that provide lovely bursts of imagery. Grass finds some benefits to the losses that come with age, such as the inability to sleep, which gives him time to work: “the flickering voice;/ that’s what we gain in old age:/ sleep is a waste of time.”
One Man’s Dark (Copper Canyon), by Maurice Manning, is a gorgeous collection that, despite the title, is full of light and grace. Set in the Kentucky landscape of Manning’s youth, the poems beautifully transform everyday moments as he recalls the people, places and philosophies that have shaped that area and his understanding of reality, time and dreams. Often the poems start with a simple image drawn from nature — rain or birds sitting on a tree branch — yet within a few lines, the language becomes layered and hints at the constant intersection of the present and the eternal. The speaker grapples with faith, as in these lines where he encounters homeless wanderers and says: “Their presence, like that/ of God or lust or even grief,/ had drawn us out in wonder, but then,/ in shame, we’d trembled and turned away,/ and that, I think, is also part/ of faith, its imperfection.” In these pages, the speaker recalls the hard-working men, relatives and hapless school friends who influenced his ideas about life, religion and change. Their stories enrich and enliven the writing, which is filled with empathy and understanding. By the end of the book, both speaker and reader discover that, in some ways, everything is allegory, just as one man’s dark — or dark joy — can be another’s light.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.