Marjorie Perloff: On "The Descent of Winter"

The Descent of Winter, begun on board the SS Pennland in the fall of 1927 when Williams was returning to America, having left behind his wife and sons who were to spend the entire year in Europe, was originally projected as a book of love poems to be called Sacred and Profane. But in its final form, The Descent turned out to be a more hybrid work, a collage of love poems, prose diatribes about American capitalism, anecdotes about the delivery of babies, and so on. Williams never did publish it as a separate book; it appeared in Ezra Pound's Exile in the Autumn of 1928.

Like Spring and All, The Descent is characterized by a discontinuous structure in which meaning is created by the resonance of contiguous images. But the condensation of the later work is much more radical and most critics have found it excessively obscure. No doubt The Descent Of Winter is an uneven book; certain prose sections like "A Morning Imagination of Russia" are not so much incoherent as they are boring in their naive didacticism. On the other hand, the sequence contains some of Williams' most brilliant writing. Here is the opening:

9/27

"What are these elations I have

at my own underwear?

I touch it and it is strange

upon a strange thigh."

* * *

9/29

My bed is narrow

in a small room

at sea

 

The numbers are on

the wall

Arabic I

 

Berth No. 2

was empty above me

the steward

 

took it apart

and removed

it

 

only the number

remains

.2.

 

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the whiteenameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

The italicized section introduces a note of auto-eroticism that modulates into the bleaker solipsism of the second lyric. "9/29" is like a hard-edged painting, but its general affinities are less with Cubism in its classical phase than with early Surrealism: the collages of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, or René Magritte. Here it is not primarily a matter of breaking up objects and viewing them simultaneously as an organization of flat planes. Rather, the objects themselves undergo surprising transformations. The poem's structure is one of contraction-expansion. First everything contracts: "the narrow bed / in a small room / at sea" gives way to the empty upper berth and then to the arabic number 2 above it, "on an oval disc / of celluloid." The image is minimal and stark, reflecting the emptiness of the observer's consciousness, his total isolation. But as he contemplates this unimportant object silhouetted against "the whiteenameled / woodwork," he suddenly sees it freshly; the oval disc, tacked up by "two bright nails," becomes a "moon" supported by stars. In this case, less is more. Having stripped his world of all its trappings, he can once again bring it to life.

In the poems and prose passages that follow, these opposing images--empty berth and moonlight--reappear in a number of altered contexts. We can trace one chain of contiguities from "waves like words all broken" and the "coral island" of "9/30" to the "large rusty can wedged in the crotch" of the locust tree in "10/28," to the woman alone on the "railroad bridge support" of "11/10." At the same time, the countermovement sets in: the "stars / beside / the moon" look ahead to the "orange flames," the "yellow and red grass," and the "leafless beechtree" that "shines like a cloud." And then a few pages further on, we meet:

Dahlias--

    What a red

        and yellow and white

mirror to the sun, round

            and petaled

    is this she holds?

In the end, it is this "vividness alone" that overcomes the poet's initial despair and solipsism. The sequence ends with the jaunty song of his Creole uncle: "si j’étais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-e par ma foi!"

The prose poems that alternate with the short lyrics of The Descent of Winter exhibit a discontinuity more radical than that of the earlier Kora in Hell. Here is "10/27":

And Coolidge said let there be imitation brass filigree fire fenders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces! the white porcelain trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape for the oven I don't know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces! the stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them, lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines, cherry red danger and applegreen safety. Any hat in this window $2.00 barred windows, wavy opaque glass, a block of brownstone at the edge of the sidewalk crudely stippled on top for a footstep to a carriage, lights with sharp bright spikes, stick out round them their faces! STOP in black letters surrounded by a red glow, letters with each bulb a seed in the shaft of the L of the A lights on the river streaking the restless water lights upon pools of rainwater by the roadside a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!

In this surreal cityscape, objects in shop windows, seen from what is evidently the window of the poet's moving car, take on strange configurations. The "imitation brass filigree fire fenders," for example, are related syntactically to the "yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood," but whereas the former, placed behind "insured plateglass windows," are items for sale, the latter seem to be part of a candy store or café. Again, the "white porcelain trough" made of baked clay is somehow related to the dark cloth with its orange and green strips, the conjunction suggesting a display case of household goods. But the reference to "artificial pneumothorax" allows us to perceive the white porcelain trough as part of some hospital scene or perhaps a medical supply store. The scene, in any case, dissolves and we next see a "stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them." Seen retrospectively, the yellow pine booths now turn into church pews, and, in this context, the white porcelain trough calls up the image of a baptismal font.

We cannot, in short, locate the items named with any certainty, nor is it possible to define their relationships to one another. The blurring of focus is intentional, for Williams' emphasis is on the mobility and mystery of the city, and the text thus becomes what Charles Olson liked to call an "energy discharge." So the colors of the cloth modulate into city lights--"lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines." The camera eye then moves farther away from the scene and we get a distance shot of "a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!"

Williams' modulation of light images is especially interesting. "10/27" begins, of course, as a parody of "And God said, 'Let there be light!'"; here there is only the artificial light of the "imitation brass filigree fire fenders." But such lighting has its pleasures too; in the poet's verbal landscape, it coalesces with the bright neon lights of the city, the traffic lights ("cherry red danger and applegreen safety"), the red glow made by the bulbs around the STOP sign, the moving lights of the elevated train, the "restless water lights upon pools of rainwater," and finally the "great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms," a house whose "center" is marked by "one yellow windowbright" of faces.

This is perhaps as close as Williams ever came to the language constructions of Gertrude Stein or of her French predecessors. The poet does not give us a realistic or even an impressionist picture of the night-time scene. Rather, he wrenches words from their usual contexts and places them in new relationships. The juxtaposition of light images is one example of such stylization. Another can be found in the patterning of spatial forms. The roundness of the white porcelain trough is repeated in the circular traffic light and the STOP sign. These objects therefore seem to occupy the same space although, literally, some are indoors, some outdoors; some close to the ground, some high up, and so on. Again, the "yellow pine booths" seem to occupy the same space as the white wooden cross, and the "insured plateglass windows" of the storefront dissolve into the dark windows of office buildings, the barred windows of the hat shop, made of "wavy opaque glass," and finally the "yellow" window of the isolated cheery house. The prose poem is a field of contiguities, what John Ashbery was to call a "hymn to possibility."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Marjorie Perloff: On "The Descent of Winter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marjorie Perloff Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage
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