September 5, 2012

Review by Maryann CorbettAspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees

ASPECTS OF ROBINSON: HOMAGE TO WELDON KEES
edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Howell

The Backwaters Press
3502 N. 52nd Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68104-3506
ISBN: 978-1-935218-21-0
2011, 378 pp., $25.00
www.thebackwaterspress.org

One almost has to begin at the end of the story: In the early morning hours of July 18, 1955, a car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. The car belonged to Weldon Kees, and the man was never seen again, although his body was not found. The theory that he could have run away from his life, disappearing into Mexico, never dies completely. But most who consider the question accept that he was depressed and that he probably committed suicide.

And in the end is the beginning, because the body of poetic work Kees left behind–three books of poems–was of stunning quality, and the abandoned car gave the story a not-quite closure that left room for legend. Five years after the poet’s disappearance, Donald Justice had brought out an edition of Kees’ collected poems, with a second edition in 1975 and a third in 2003. From that first publication, and from the 1969 publication of the Berg and Mezey anthology Naked Poetry, has flowed the steady stream of poets, critics, and teachers who were stirred by Kees’ poems, by the photographs of the man, by his mystique.

The book being reviewed here is about that stream of influence. It exists, as the editors explain in their introduction, because so many people share the experience of having discovered Kees and having “remembered this as an event, a door opened suddenly…” and so many describe his influence on them as “suffused with the deliciousness of a secret.” The reader best equipped to appreciate Aspects of Robinson is one who shares that delight, and probably one who has either a copy of the Kees collected somewhere nearby or else a better than average familiarity with the body of work. I’ll confess that I started reading without that delight or that familiarity. But I’ve come to the delight in the course of reading the book, along with a certain amount of necessary background reading.

The homage of the subtitle takes two forms: the first section of the book, made up of nineteen major essays on Kees, and the second, entitled “Poems and Comments,” which includes 87 poems that were in some way sparked by Kees, his work or his story, each with commentary by its author. The feeling of intellectual heft is much more readily apparent in the first part, as is the electricity of direct contact with Kees during his life. Important pieces like Justice’s introduction to the collected poems, Howard Nemerov’s introduction to Weldon Kees: Reviews and Essays, 1936-55, an essay by Joseph Brodsky, and close readings by Robert Knoll and Dana Gioia keep company with the reminiscences of his publisher, Norris Getty, of William Jay Smith, who met him during his wartime service, and of Pete Hamill, who is convinced he saw him alive in Mexico City in 1957. There are also specialized essays like Michael Peich’s, about the first Kees “collected,” the limited edition produced by Stone Wall Press.

Part one of the book is most useful to the reader who is still somewhat new to Kees, who needs the background, who needs to get a purchase on the reasons Kees so powerfully influences so many other poets. Part two is the record of that influence. The editors’ introduction tells us that the collected poems are those they found by diligently searching for everything “dedicated to, about, or influenced by Kees.” They mention finding “over one hundred poems by that many poets or more….”

Read by itself, any given poem-and-comment in part two might seem fragmentary, even slight. Most entries are two or three pages long. Most of the poets commenting never met Kees, and many of the essays begin with some variant of the sentence “I first encountered the poetry of Weldon Kees when….” The typical essay mentions graduate school and the seventies. There is no typical poem, exactly, but quite a few riff on the poet’s disappearance:

He didn’t jump, of course, nor did he go
to Mexico—that was just a ruse to fool us
who fall so easily into ruinous nostalgia.
No, Kees went north, up the coast

into the mist and the pines. He didn’t stay
in one place, that much I know—no solitary
dinghy room with Hopper curtains wheezing.
He’d dreamed that gray nightmare long ago….

(from “Robinson at Rest” by Sebastian Matthews)

The richest of the poems and comments are those in which the poet goes into detail about the nature of his or her debt to Kees. (And it is much more often his debt, I notice, though I’ll resist speculating about the reasons.) Some of the comments, like Gerald Locklin’s, are direct and useful summaries of the Kees ambiance a poet was striving for:

the inclusion of popular culture that one finds in the noir of ‘Crime Club’; the use of traditional forms, somewhat modified, to encompass the highly topical references that one finds in nearly all of his poems, especially the Robinson poems…the use of a persona…the use of jazz and jazz venues…the use of paintings as quasi-ekphrastic starting points for our personal reflections…the mixing of perfect and imperfect rhymes…the postmodernist…mixing of levels of diction and discourse….

Also instructive are the summaries of the Kees mystique, the state of mind that the man represents–as Derek McKown puts it, “the terrible logic of paranoia, the empty mask of the last man at the backyard barbeque.” At other times, though, the poet’s/poem’s connection to Kees seems tenuous indeed, as in the case of Ted Richer’s “Naked Poetry”:

And I started to think (over the years) about my office mate at the University of Arizona (I never saw him) and I began to think that my office mate at that time (found dead and difficult to identify) might have gone to Nogales, from time to time, like I did. I wanted to get away from my wife and he wanted “to get away somewhere and re-read Proust”…Maybe all of this is just coincidence. Maybe not.

And though R.S. Gwynn’s “In Place of an Elegy”–a poem about a friendless, forgettable student who died–is very dark, I would not have identified it as a Kees-derived darkness without the author’s explanation, “I had just recently discovered Weldon Kees’ poetry in an anthology (Untermeyer?) and was very much under his spell.” But Dana Gioia’s close reading in part one corrects me, pointing out that the Gwynn poem “emulates both the prosody and process” of Kees’ poem “Round.” Discovering these back-and-forth relationships between the parts is a bonus of continued dipping into the book— though an index would have made those relationships easier to find.

Readers can certainly enjoy the book’s part two even if they are not looking for such scholarly substance. That section is a themed anthology enriched with history and anecdote. But one almost forgets that it’s a collection of poems. Everything about the book seems to draw attention away from the poems as independent works of art–valuable, varied, worth study though they are–and to focus on each one only as an artifact of Kees’ hold on a poet’s mind. The real value in collecting such pieces is that it lets us see the accumulated bulk of Kees’s influence on the poets of (at least) two generations. It also gives us a better grasp of the relationships among those poets. Some of the essays take note not only of Kees’ poems but of the poems of homage; Gioia discusses Gwynn, for example, and David Wojahn talks about Larry Levis’s “My Only Photograph of Weldon Kees,” which also appears in part two on its own.

The collection also lets us see how shifty the shape of Kees’ influence is: While quite a few poets mention his best-known works, like “For My Daughter,” “1926,” and the Robinson poems, many of them also point to rarely anthologized poems like “La Vita Nuova” and “The Beach in August.” And while most continue to hold up the bleak poems, some note that as they age, their allegiance has moved to the hopeful ones like “To Build a Quiet City in His Mind” and “Small Prayer.” In reading this section especially, it pays to have the collected poems close by. And in reading this section especially, I wished for an index, the tool that could have let us find out which of the lesser-known poems have had greater influence than we knew.

And among the influences greater than we knew are the images of Kees. Two have become iconic: the photographs that appear on the book’s front and back covers. Both are profile shots. In one he is coolly blowing a smoke ring; in the other he twists his body away from the viewer and gazes toward the unsettled ocean. This is the photo that David Wojahn describes as “a still from a noir flick, and in it you can almost feel the shadows lengthening, the soundtrack therein commencing its sinister wail; something terrible is going to happen, soon.” Aspects of Robinson helped me understand why this is the Kees whose hold on poets is strong, after more than fifty years.

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Maryann Corbett is the author of Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, forthcoming from Able Muse Press, as well as two chapbooks. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in River Styx, Atlanta Review, The Evansville Review, Measure, Literary Imagination, Poetry East and many other journals in print and online, as well as the anthologies Hot Sonnets, The Able Muse Anthology, The Best of the Barefoot Muse, and Imago Dei. Her poems have been shortlisted for Best of the Net, the Morton Marr Prize competition, and the Able Muse Book Prize, and have won the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize.