Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

Williams is notable for his psychological insights and character studies as well as for his strong, expressive manner. Bruce Bauer, writing about Tar (1983) in Poetry, noted that “one has the feeling, unusual when reading today’s poets, that [Williams] is truly interested in the lives around him.” If anything, his interest in humanity is more pronounced in Flesh and Blood.

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Williams adopts five different stances in the poems: He observes others; he participates in events; he seeks to explicate psychological states; given a situation, he imagines a scenario; and, least frequently, he is a watcher of nature.

Williams acts something like a sociological psychologist in many of his poems, presenting vignettes charged with human energy. He explains in “American Native” why the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poetry his father once read to him will no longer serve: “A teacher attempted to make us understand that our vision of exotics and minorities was so contaminated/ that we not only had corrupted ideas of history but didn’t know what went on under our noses.” Williams’s poems represent his personal struggle to find out. In “Crime” a robber is shot by police, and neighborhood children rush in to grab the dropped change; in “Pregnant” an unwed teen pushes the fetus in with her hands; in “Men” a garbage man viciously mocks a fellow worker who is in pain.

The meaning of Williams’s work is seldom in question. None of the difficulty that supposedly makes poems avant-garde is here, yet he never talks down. His art is concerned with revealed clarity. As an observer he is keen of eye and discerning of detail, discriminatingly weighing without seeming to do so. In “Love: Loss” he portrays an exact motivation in terms of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale. The “pretty post-teen princess gone to the grim gutter” approaches “the half-respectful wino” in pretense of wanting a smoke, but when “their solitudes emerge” her heart fails, and she turns, leaves, and “picks herself back to the silver pathto the boiling whispers.”

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Sometimes Williams as participant compares himself to mythological figures, as in “Medusa.” While in a Rotterdam “hookers’ bar” at the age of twenty, he watches a prostitute flaunt her wares, beg him, and, when he refuses, maul herself “My virginity,/ that dread I fought so hard to lose,” he says, “stone by stone was rising back inside me.” In “Peace,” another poem in which Williams is a participant, the opposite effect occurs. His wife and he go to bed, angry. Their bodies during the long, cold night are back to back, not touching. Then “toward dawn,though justice won’t I know be served, I pull her to me.”

Some poems are about the aged. “Love: The Dance” describes a septuagenarian couple performing “old-time ballroom swirls, deft romantic dips.” The poet sees them in archetypal terms, dancing “the waltz of life, the waltz of death,” and concludes, “and still the heart-work left undone.” It is children, parents, and lovers, however, that dominate the poems. For example, “Good Mother: The Street” shows the theme of a mother’s commitment and a child’s helplessness in terms both gentle and horrible. “Vehicle: Absence” and “Vehicle: Violence” use Williams’s “the way” device discussed earlier to compare carnal love with the loss of a loved one and violence with the “anger, pride, the primal passion to prevail” of boxers.

In “Bishop Tutu’s Visit to the White House: 1984” Williams imagines something he cannot see. Because of the bishop’s humanity and the president’s indifference, he presumes that the man of God “will be woundedhumiliatedmortified.” Another cultural exchange poem, “USOCA” (United States out of Central America), sounds a similar key. “Andean musiciansembarrassed” by so few rally attendees, show “smileslike precious doves of hope” when their music meets with mild applause.

“The Mistress,” “The Lover,” and “Twins” are about adultery. In the first, the public telephone upon which a man depends for a liaison has “been savaged”—the receiver “wires thrust back up the coin slot.” Desire and disappointment leave him “breathing like a bloody beast.” In the second, a wife is surprised to learn that her affair with her husband’s employee is common knowledge. While in a lady’s room stall she overhears the two men called “the blind pig” and “that sanctimonious, lying bastard,” and herself called “the horny bitch.” In “Twins,” unknown to everyone, a woman is carrying two fetuses. When the second is born she lets it die, believing that one is the husband’s, the other her lover’s. This poem and “Normality” appear in quotation marks, as though they are in the words of speakers other than the poet.

The strongest poem in Flesh and Blood is the final poem, “La Petit Salvié.” This poem should be read in whole stanzas so that the speculative argument that Williams presents regarding time and mortality can be apprised. Parts of stanza 14 show the bonding of artist to artist. Williams and Zweig read poems to each other, “out behind the house in canvas chairsin your apartment, a park in Paris—anywhere: sidewalk, restaurant, museum.” Envy (“you are unimaginably insecure”) and creative commerce ensue. Most important, kinship develops between them, with “envy sublimated into warmth and brothership.” Stanza 10, referring to Zweig after his death, ends in italics, quotes, and monosyllables: “ and I have a ghost I love and who loves me.’”

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