If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,--
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
again the yellow drawn shades,--
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius** of my household?
William Carlos Williams 1917
*Russian Dance (french). Just before writing this poem, Williams had seen a performance in New York City by the Ballet Russes, a company led by the producer and critic Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev.
**The pervading guardian spirit of a place.
This poem sits strangely with me, as some of the lines are completely uninteresting, while others I cannot shake from my head. So this interpretation situates the poem in Williams' development, and explores the value of the different parts of the poem--how the banal works with or against the supernatural to form a lasting impression for the reader.
It seems to me the key to "Danse Russe" is the supernatural link between the speaker's naked, grotesque, wild dance in his room and the final lines of the poem, "the happy genius," or guardian spirit of the house. Without these images, it would be nearly sickly poetic, with the baby asleep, the poet lonely, and the body outlined like a dancer. And yet now the poem is transformed into the dance of banchees, and its meaning is not the impression of the surroundings, but of a dream almost coming alive. Indeed, perhaps Williams juxtaposes the banally poetic with the disturbing in order to offset the supernatural in the poem.
Or perhaps he was just a young poet. After all, this is one of Williams' earlier poems; even early in his career, the poem shows a commitment to image over sentiment, form, character, mode, and most every other poetic device. The more heavy handed lines work towards this for sure -- "silken mists / above shining trees"--but it seems this poem rests its weight on the unsettling image in the middle. Somehow nudity waving its hands over his head conveys something very clear and impressive. It is not the character of the poet that leaps to mind, but a snapshot of him that twirls in our heads like, well, a ballerina. Williams develops the poem by an image, and this poem is perhaps one of the earliest in his poetic projects to make clear how cutting and lingering that can be.