[(essay date winter and spring/summer 1999) In the following essay, Sheldon discusses the autobiographical elements of Williams's 1951 poem The Desert Music.]
William Carlos Williams had never journeyed into Mexico until after World War II; "Dr. Williams spent two days in 1906 escorting a patient to San Luis Potosí but had not attempted to explore farther, a fact that seems surprising in view of his lifelong interest in Latin American culture" (Gunn 234). In 1950, Williams and his wife Flossie crossed the border "for only an evening while he and his wife visited their old friend Robert McAlmon in El Paso" (Gunn 234). That brief experience, although related flatly in Williams's The Autobiography, became the basis for his multivoiced poem The Desert Music (1951), which represents a genuine rebirth for his late poetic career. It is the work of a mind whose journey reflects mental distances, not physical distances. Here, we must be clear that Williams is a poet as well as a thinker. His work is greatly influenced by his theorist friend Kenneth Burke, who
denies the idea of a stable self and posits instead the idea that we are made up of a 'Babel of voices.' ... Consequently, our action within history is real, though our understanding of that history is at best an imperfect interpretation of an imperfect interpretation.(Bremen 135)
Williams's The Desert Music is indeed a departure for the famous poet, then recovering from a stroke. The poem initiates Williams's "Babel of voices"; it works as an imperfect communication of an imperfect perception of what it means to be a poet (to extend Burke's terms), as well as a self-evaluation of Williams's identity as a poet (or, more accurately, identities--as poet, doctor, Hispanic American, and American).
The Desert Music is recognized by critics as quite new for Williams; indeed, it is frequently called a "cubist self-portrait" (Marzán 258). Additionally, critic Drewey Wayne Gunn praises it as "one of Williams's most important poems" (234). Gunn goes on to state that "attention to detail partly explains why the poem is one of the best written by an American about Mexico" (235), but local color was not ultimately Williams's real concern in the poem. Rather, Mexico became a point of isolation in which he must define the nature of poetic inspiration for himself; William Carlos Williams, the poet, is the poem's central character. The poet reinvents himself in a Mexico made real by his own observations and intuition; this reinvention is the poem The Desert Music.
Surprisingly, the poem begins its narrative out of sequence. The poem begins when "--the dance begins" (1), invoking the image of a human embryonic form, apparently asleep on one of the bridges that connect Mexico with the United States. In 1963, critic Cecil Robinson saw the figure as a headless corpse, but every critic since then has insisted that the figure is merely sleeping. In The Desert Music, Williams observes that the law would define the form as "nothing / but a corpse, wrapped...