C.K. Williams (Photo © Mary Cross, 2009. Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

In “Jew on Bridge,” the final poem of Wait, his most recent collection, C.K. Williams pops the question:

All right then: how Jewish am I? What portion of who I am is a Jew?
I don’t want vague definitions, qualifications, here on the bridge of the Jew.

I want certainty, science: everything you are, do, think; think, do, are,
is precisely twenty-two percent Jewish. Or six-and-a-half. Some nice prime.
Your suffering is Jewish. Your resistant, resilient pleasure in living, too,

can be tracked to some Jew on some bridge on page something or other
in some city, some village, some shtetl, some festering shvitz of a slum …

This is vintage Williams: long lines kept afloat through the conversational speed of his diction. His fluency hides a problem, though. He’s not asking how Jewish he is. He’s asking how he is Jewish, what’s Jewish in him.

All right, then, can we cast Williams as a Jewish poet? If we are to judge by the evidence of Wait—and his 2006 Collected Poems—he doesn’t draw on many Jewish sources. The man is widely read, and many of his poems take as their occasion a famous book or a famous writer (“I think of a troop of the blissful blessed approaching Dante”). While some of them are Jewish, their numbers are few. Wait cites Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ortega y Gasset, Goethe, and Zbigniew Herbert. Nary a Jew among them.

As Williams has gotten older, his poetry, which was once known for its unflinching dedication to the concrete, has become comfortably abstract, buoyed along by what he calls “spurts of cogitation, these suppositions strung/ like air on air.” The poet who can consider rats in the backyard (“devious, ruthless,/ rapacious, and every/ day I loathe/ them more.”) can also imagine “traversing the maze of my brain: corridors, corners, strange,/ narrow caverns, dead ends.” Those strings of suppositions are not particularly Jewish in their structure, their themes, or their inspiration. Williams has always expressed a strong desire for social justice and a liberal’s hatred of violence, especially the redemptive violence of the religious extremist or the millenarian revolutionary. Many Jews would agree with him, but that’s hardly conclusive. So would many non-Jews.

“Jew on Bridge” is not typical, then. In its associative leaps and bounds, it is thick with Jews. It begins with a tiny incident—hardly an incident—in Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s hero Raskolnikov passes a Jew on a bridge. He concentrates all his prodigious anti-Semitism on this one lone, nameless soul. After pondering this unknown Jew on an unknown bridge over the Neva, Williams turns to another Jew on a bridge, this time in France. He thinks of the poet Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, in 1920. A Romanian fluent in Russian, possessed by German, and completely at home in French, Celan escaped from a Nazi labor camp and ended up in Paris, only to commit suicide there in 1970. In his brief, tormented transit, Celan wrote the most important German poetry of the second half of the 20th century, all of it shaped and deformed by the Shoah.

English and German fragments of Celan’s most famous poem, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”) appear and reappear in “Jew on Bridge”:

He stood on the bridge over the Seine, looked into the black milk of dying,
Jew on bridge, and hauled himself over the rail. Dein aschenes Haar
Dostoevsky’s Jew, though, is still there. On page something or other.

The real Jew, tortured by the particular history of the European past, is dead. The literary Jew, a compass of all disgust, remains.

And Williams, standing somewhere between these Jews on their respective bridges, wants to know where he fits in. He is adamantly secular and uncomfortable around the religious. He might occasionally be “lonely for God,” but let’s be honest, only occasionally. As he presents it, he is perhaps too American—too far away from the European root—to count.

But Williams finds his way into the doleful history of European Jewry through an elegant sleight of hand. His father, like Celan, was named Paul. His grandfather was named Benjamin, which brings to Williams’ mind Walter Benjamin, the great German litterateur. Benjamin—the German, not the grandfather—killed himself in a Spanish hotel while trying to flee the Nazis.

Two suicides, two Jews, two relations. Williams brings Celan and Benjamin into the family through the accidental alchemy of their names. He brings himself into the circle through a profoundly melancholy sense—whose cynicism is only half a joke—of a common fate: “Aren’t we all in that same shitty hotel on the bridge in the shittiest world?” It is not clear whether that “we” is confined to Jews or extends, in a sweeping existential gesture, to the whole human race.

Most likely it is the latter. Williams locates his greatest affinity to Benjamin in the German’s exquisite ear for suffering, in what Williams describes as Benjamin’s shame at human brutality. Nevertheless, Williams is uneasy with the grand existential gesture. By killing himself, Benjamin has tried to overcome mankind’s shame by erasing “all the names that ever existed” including those that maintain the Jewish past. He has annihilated us all.

Where can Williams go from there? It must have been difficult to end this poem, one in which Williams—born in New Jersey in 1936—attempts to attach himself to the catastrophic fate of Mitteleuropa. Nothing could be less Jewish, less evocative, than his own name, and so he rolls others off his tongue, those names that have driven his meditation from the get-go:

Celan on his bridge. Raskolnikov muttering Dostoevsky under his breath.
Jew on bridge. Raskolnikov-Dostoevsky still in my breath. Under my breath.
Black milk of daybreak. Aschenes Haar. Antschel-Celan. Ash. Breath.

Ash and breath. Ash vs. breath. The poet will breathe and write in spite of the camps.

While there is something both stirring and pretentious in this—is suicide really the point?—we Jews do believe in survival through names, and Williams is nothing if not a poet of memory. Williams has always been strongest when elegiac. He has written many poems in which he meditates on lost friends, lost loves, or, as in this description of his old, now “inner-city” high school, lost possibilities:

Come dusk, the classrooms emptied,
the books shut tight, those forsaken treasures
of knowledge must batter the fading blackboards
and swarm the silent, sleeping halls,
like shades of lives never to be lived.

He is a skilled mourner, to be sure. His Jewishness lies in how he mourns.

“Jew on Bridge” tempts you to read Williams backwards, from Wait to his first book 40 years ago. If you do, you can see that he has always been sitting shiva for the whole 20th century. He has had a strong tendency to view its public disasters through the scrim of the Holocaust. The first poem in his first book was dedicated to Anne Frank. He has written poetry about Auschwitz and translated Abraham Sutzkever, the Yiddish writer once described as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.” Although he can be quick to generalize from the particular experience of the Shoah to the plight of humanity in general, Williams is also capable of evoking that experience in its uncomfortable specificities:

You’re in a room. Dark. You’re naked. Crushed on all sides by others naked.
Flesh-knobs. Hairy or smooth. Sweating against you. Shvitzing against you.

Such writing requires empathy, and empathy is a product of the moral imagination, the ability to identify with another’s situation. Williams has both to spare, sometimes to a self-lacerating fault.

The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has suggested that the important thing is not a person’s identity but his or her identifications. Williams, like many of his generation and like many after, finds his secular Jewishness right in the heart of the Shoah. However limited that identification might be—it misses many aspects of Yiddishkeit—it is capable of producing deep commitments and memorable poetry. Whether it can continue to do so remains to be seen. Whether it should do so is another matter completely.