Friday, May 14, 2010

Weldon Kees

Along with my Jack Gilbert kick, I've been reading the poems of Weldon Kees as well as the secondary material (very little of which seems to be available in book form), which is too bad. There's a pretty good book called Weldon Kees and the Mid-Century Generation: Letters from 1935 to 1955, which is structured in such a way that it seems more like a biography in letters. Normally, a writer's letters are collected and footnotes are rare except to sometimes identify confusing timelines. Robert Knoll includes more narrative about Kees than it does letters. I think otherwise it might not have made a full book, otherwise.Very interesting anyway. Kees seemed poised for mainstream uber-success at 41 years old when he simply disappeared.  His car, with the keys still in it, was found near the Golden Gate bridge, but with  no trace of whether he committed suicide or simply ran off to Mexico, as he talked of frequently in his last years. 

James Reidel's book Vanished Act: the Life and Art of Weldon Kees, is a more traditional biography which restates the (much more interesting and fuller) material Knoll used, but is worth your time as well. I'll finish it soon and have more to say, most likely.

Kees published stories and poems easily, and in the best journals, though his novels weren't published in his lifetime. He's still a recognized, that is, canonical poet for a single poem, For my Daughter, which most of you have read, I'm sure, or can find online easily enough, so I won't bother posting it. Kees painted as well, wrote documentary films, played barrelhouse piano, and took photographs of professional or show quality. But we know him for his poems, which are dark and odd and unlike his contemporaries.

The Coming of the Plague

September was when it began.
Locusts dying in the fields; our dogs
Silent, moving like shadows on a wall;
And strange worms crawling; flies of a kind
We had never seen before; huge vineyard moths;
Badgers and snakes, abandoning
Their holes in the field; the fruit gone rotten;
Queer fungi sprouting; the fields and woods
Covered with spiderwebs; black vapors
Rising from the earth - all these,
And more began that fall. Ravens flew round
The hospital in pairs. Where there was water,
We could hear the sound of beating clothes
All through the night. We could not count
All the miscarriages, the quarrels, the jealousies.
And one day in a field I saw
A swarm of frogs, swollen and hideous,
Hundreds upon hundreds, sitting on each other,
Huddled together, silent, ominous,
And heard the sound of rushing wind.

Kees' disappearance in 1955 contributes to what Dana Gioia calls his cult following, but I'd like to think there are more people out there reading his work and finding pleasure in its singular creepiness and the slow overtaking of your heart rate as a reader, something amply pushed by his pacing in this poem and in many others.

One person I know who's reading Kees is
Kathleen Rooney, of Rose Metal Press. Her chapbook of Robinson poems (Kees' New Yorker poems featured a persona he called Robinson) will be out from Greying Ghost Press, and in her book of essays, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, she hunts down Kees' haunts and habitations in New York City. Those poems and essays are all well worth your time and money. So there's Kathy and me. Anybody else out there reading Kees? Why?



    No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
    No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
    Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
    Only a suburban house with the front door open
    And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
    Passing. The corpse quiet dead. The wife in Florida.

    Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
    The torn photograph of a Weslyan basketball team
    Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
    The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
    The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
    The note: "To be killed this way is quite all right with me."

    Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
    Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
    And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
    Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
    Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
    Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

  2. Thanks for sharing that. Got me a new wrinkle in the cranium. Faint shades of Trakl in the Kees you posted, at least to my tyro ear.

  3. I like that poem, Randy.

    Gerry, the Trakl reference is interesting. I don't know when translations of Trakl came into the US (Wiki says a small sample came out in 1952, on further googling). James Wright translated some, and it could have been in the early 50s, and Kees might have seen them, but the bulk of them didn't come out till the 60s.