Sunday, February 9, 2014

To Elsie

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy--
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure--

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags-succumbing without
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum-
which they cannot express--

Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she'll be rescued by an
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs--

some doctor's family, some Elsie--
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us--
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

1 comment:

  1. Williams found himself in a culture devoted to success via purposive action; and it is toward the devastating consequences of that idealization of ascendancy that he turns in the well-known "To Elsie." A pure product of America, one of the famous Jackson Whites of northern New Jersey, Williams's hulking half-mad maid Elsie expresses with her "broken / brain the truth about us." Addressing herself "to cheap / jewelry / and rich young men with fine eyes," she embodies the national desire for quick, easy wealth. The myth of success, with which Williams had been imbued in his youth, has now become part of his mature demonology. For Elsie expresses the truth about a culture in which aspirations are not fed by an organic relation to the physical environment. As Williams argues, most Americans, like the original settlers of the continent, believe that this world is a dunghill.

    Our dreams of heavenly tranquility, our straining after a paradise above, separate us from the real sources of life under our bootsoles; the result is dehumanization. At the end of "To Elsie," Williams delineates his culture with the image of a driverless car.

    The pure products of America have gone crazy: abstracted, swift-moving, brutal. The driverless car is another modern version of Pluto, god of avarice and rape, the mythic embodiment of man's dream of dominion. It is from this narcissistic dream that Williams's poems attempt to jolt us awake.

    From William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. Copyright 1970 by James E. Brolin.