I’m taking a break today from telling some stories of discovering my own influences, and through them the possibility of this project combining words (mostly poetry) with original music. Instead, let’s return to one of this Project’s themes “Other People’s Stories.” Today’s piece is by William Carlos Williams, and it tells a story of a morning for a 30-something young father. The mood this poem is coming from is ambiguous on the page: it could be read as joyful, even if gently self-mocking, or it could be seen as an earnest Whitmanesque celebration. Since the poems here are performed — and more so, performed in the emotional environment of music — I had to make a choice of mood. I think it’s wistful, and I took that choice largely from the short song the poem tells us the poem’s speaker sings in the midst of it.
Parenthood, particularly first parenthood, is often a very significant life event. The urge to have a child, to reproduce in the emotionless language of biology, can be partly an expression of the parents seeking to extend and duplicate themselves. The reality of the child and child-rearing, conversely, is to reign in one’s autonomous self. Depending on one’s personality and role in the household, it may mean to act as a caretaker to the helpless and needy infant, or to find much of the home’s attention is now on the newcomer. The romance of the ideal baby can be immanently real some moments, and the endless labor and new roles just as real other times.
If the mood is ambiguous, the story Williams’ “Danse Russe” tells is told directly. It’s morning, the rest of the household is still asleep. Three others are mentioned as the sleepers: “my” wife, “the” baby, and someone named Kathleen, who has been identified biographically as a nanny the Williams’ family employed. Let’s be honest about the slight tells of the “my” and “the.” My is possessive, the isn’t. Kathleen’s named presence means there’s one other caretaker here. However privileged* we may view what was, in biographic fact, the presence of child-care, I’ll note that the speaker, the father, is plausibly then even more separated from the child. He is obligated and estranged in mixed degrees.
As the poem opens, he’s inside, physically in the household, but not with the others, and the house in his image has a sense of the outside world in morning mists and a cosmic sun. What does he do in this quiet early-morning time?
“To dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free.” Yes Bob ‘n’ Bill, but then the baby wakes up.**
He dances and sings, though one hopes it is a large house and he’s sotto voice and light on his feet. We’re told he’s naked and before a mirror. He indulges in a short Whitman’s sampler catalog of his unencumbered body,*** fully himself, able to bask in himself. Is he having a full-on Robert Bly drum circle moment here? Maybe. Let’s give Bly the poet his due here, he was often able to see a layer below the simple image — and Williams has chosen to show us this, even if we don’t know for sure why he makes this choice, and he doesn’t direct us to all his feelings, save for one, the one the dancer sings: loneliness. He concludes from the song that it’s best to be lonely, it’s his fate from birth (for being male?) From Williams’ own life I can assay he was certainly willing to be lonely, proudly stubborn in his self, but his story here, his image, is not without wistfulness mixed with self-justification. He, the poet, can help us see this. Who knows how much he, or we, can do with that knowledge? I tried to emphasize in performance that there’s a small refrained phrase in this short poem. Do you notice it when you read the text, linked here, or listen to the performance below? Three times the poem begins “If I….” What do we know of the I? What shall the I be?
Williams ends with his own “who knows?” Is he self-evidently, or by his own claim, “The happy genius of my household?” “Genius” here I think is meant in the mode of creator and progenitor, not in the IQ test sense.
I choose to think this is not a rhetorical question, that it’s truly at issue. He’s asking to cheer himself on: I’ve made the purchase of this house, I am the father of this child, I’m half the choice of its life — even if I’m also separated from this household and baby, and I feel that separation as loneliness. So many first-time parents feel in thought, bound and estranged, in all their variety of roles, partners, resources, and situations: “Am I happy?” And their best answers are “Halfway.” And then, “Shouldn’t it be all the way?” Who shall say? Well, William Carlos Williams dances and sings, and he says the distance from halfway is loneliness.
Today’s musical portion to go with Williams’ words I jokingly told my wife this morning is “shoegaze,” the genre named not just for the lack of audience eye-contact but for the number of floor-stationed effects pedals to be employed. You can hear that performance of “Danse Russe” while waving your shirt in the air with the graphical audio player below. What, there’s no player to be seen? Now you’ve got to rebutton that shirt? No, you can use this highlighted alternative link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*Live-in childcare was more common at unexceptional levels of income in the early 20th century. A substantial number of young immigrant women worked in this role.
**I slightly modified this image generated from a text prompt using the test version of a new Adobe product, Firefly. Adobe promises that it uses only licensed art from it’s stock library to “train” the algorithm. Much controversy these days about AI, but of course poets have been using words to invoke images for some time.
***The contrast here between childbirth and breastfeeding roles and their intimate demonstration of bodily connectiveness strikes me. Did Williams intend this? I don’t know, but it’s there for me to sense. As a family physician, Williams would have certainly known intellectually of those differences.
2 thoughts on “Danse Russe — While William Carlos Williams dances naked”
Without going into detail, there is so much of the poem, “Danse Russe,” to which I can relate. Good selection and good job, Frank.
“Is he having a full-on Robert Bly drum circle moment here?”–laughed out loud here. Such good close-reading.