MAY 30, 2017
SOME MYSTERIES are so multifarious, they give would-be detectives the sense that no matter how closely they look, there will always be more to see. Some poems are so complex, they convey the same feeling. In The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence, poet and critic John T. Irwin looks intensely at both the unsolved disappearance and the poetry of the brilliant but criminally underrated midcentury writer, artist, reviewer, and musician Weldon Kees.
The details of Kees’s disappearance are well known to his cult following: after months of telling friends that he was contemplating either committing suicide by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge or slipping away to begin his life over anonymously in Mexico, Kees’s car was found abandoned on July 19, 1955, in the sightseers’ parking lot on the Marin County side of the bridge. His body was never recovered, and the police, when they searched his apartment, found only his cat, Lonesome, a pair of red socks left soaking in the sink, and two books prominently displayed on the bedside table: Dostoyevsky’s The Devils and Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. He appeared to have taken his watch, wallet, and sleeping bag, as well as his savings account book, which showed a balance of $800.
Yet Kees himself remains relatively little known, frustratingly to those who love his work, of whom this reviewer is one. His poetry stands out as exceptional for its wit, its intelligence, its erudition, its formal elegance, its stylishness, its critical sensibility, and its dark sense of humor. In his introduction to Kees’s Collected Poems, Kees fan Donald Justice writes that Kees is “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that “the bitterness may be traced to a profound hatred for a botched civilization, Whitman’s America come to a dead end on the shores of the Pacific.” The disappointment and aggravation that Kees expressed for an American way of life that he believed could be more beautiful and noble was relevant when he was writing in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and still has much to offer a contemporary reader struggling to stay afloat in the confusing drift of history. Take “June 1940,” from his 1943 collection The Last Man, which concludes:
It is summer again, the evening is warm and silent.
The windows are dark and the mountains are miles away.
And the men who were haters of war are mounting the platforms.
An idiot wind is blowing; the conscience dies.
Irwin, too, seems motivated by a passionate admiration for the poet and a desire to bring wider attention to both his life and work. Irwin writes poetry under the pen name John Bricuth, and his other books under his own name include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fiction: “An Almost Theatrical Innocence”; Hart Crane’s Poetry: “Appollinaire lived in Paris, I live in Cleveland, Ohio”; The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story; and Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir. Kees’s modish darkness and macabre humor sit squarely in his area of expertise, and this pairing of author and subject feels harmonious.
In his preface, Irwin refers to the book as “the eventual fulfillment of a lengthy admiration and a long-standing promise” that he made to himself upon his discovery of Kees, whose work he found “so good and so original” that he vowed on the spot that he would write about his work “before I was finished as a critic so that anyone who was interested in twentieth-century American poetry […] would never be in the position of not knowing Kees or his poems.” Later he declares Kees “the most interesting poet of his generation,” that interestingness being due, in no small part, to his disappearance.
Therefore, Irwin’s goal consists of interpreting Kees’s poetry, yes, but equally of interpreting his self-inflicted demise as “an existentialist demonstration of the self’s absolute freedom through the performance of that supreme act against the self’s own interest,” and as “an aesthetic, an artistic gesture meant to resonate” with other such events, including the vanishing of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico and Hart Crane from the stern of the steamship Orizaba returning from Mexico to New York City.
It’s a wise policy to remember, when considering a poet who took their own life — Plath, Berryman, Crane, and so forth — that a person who commits suicide is not just a suicide; in other words, they are best not reduced to that single act or instant. Thus, at first, especially to readers unfamiliar with how death haunted and disgusted Kees’s poetry can be, it might feel a bit unsettling to watch Irwin close read and even praise Kees’s highly orchestrated self-erasure using the same methods he applies to the literary study of his poems.
But in actuality, Irwin’s approach makes perfect sense. For in the wake of Kees’s careful and theatrical vanishing, it’s well worth considering Kees not just as a poet and polymath, but as a performance artist, too, his leap from the Golden Gate being a kind of grand finale. He’s almost a reverse Philippe Petit, not death defying but death embracing. And Kees’s death is sad, certainly, but if you enjoy mysteries and detective stories even slightly, then his disappearance also stands as fascinating and unforgettable, almost beautiful and impressive even.
In the light in which Irwin seeks to cast it — which he argues convincingly is the light that Kees’s intended — the poet’s leap into the unknown stands as an eerie and irrefutable expansion of his legacy. In this sense, Kees is not merely a poet, but an acrobat of absence: a vanishing act of which he is the sole and eternal star. As Irwin writes, he “decided to stage his death as a mysterious disappearance,” and to decorate it with flourishes typical of his signature grim comedy and well readness.
Irwin writes with the courtly civility and cultivation of a bygone era, which is pleasing unto itself, and the book as an object continues this pleasure; at 120 pages, it’s a categorically slim volume, which speaks not just to Irwin’s economy of style, but also to his subject’s short life, which ended (as far as we know) at 41.
Irwin’s book reads like a book-length essay, meandering and digressive in the best possible ways, full of provocative taxonomies and factoids, like his list of “people who vanish” and his explanation that the Golden Gate Bridge has been, since its opening in 1937, the site of more than 1,500 suicides — or maybe as many as 2,000, if we include those whose bodies were never recovered. Making his case for Kees’s suicide as a well-wrought aesthetic act, he quotes an interview with one of the few people who have jumped but survived as stating that the Golden Gate has “a certain grace and beauty.” It’s a poetic place to die.
Irwin invites the reader to consider Kees as a magician of sorts, but a highly physical one, a David Blaine or a Houdini, using his body as the instrument and extension of his themes — almost like a once-in-a-lifetime performance. You can only do it once, but it’s a doozy.
Since it can feel unsettling — if apt — to see Irwin write about Kees’s death without grief, but rather with pure aesthetic and analytic concentration, readers might consider reading Kees’s Selected Poems (another slim volume) either alongside or before they read this book, the better to have more context and to feel like less of a ghoul; to do the prerequisite work before taking the master class on Kees’s demise that Irwin offers here.
And Irwin’s work truly is masterful, clear, and inviting. Currently the Decker Professor in the Humanities emeritus, Irwin has worked in the Johns Hopkins University English department since 1970, and if this book, with its scholarly yet loving and accessible attention to poetry, is any indication, he’s a treasure.
In chapter two, “An Almost Invisible Note,” he analyzes the themes of — and attitudes toward suicide in — the two books that Kees pointedly left in his apartment, Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (in which two of the main characters kill themselves) and Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life (in which the Spanish philosopher writes: “The very same reason which one man may regard as motive for taking care to prolong his life may be regarded by another man as a motive for shooting himself”). As Irwin combs concisely through these books’ motifs, he convincingly suggests that the “almost invisible suicide note that Kees left was meant to be read only by an act of intertextual interpretation, the type of reading required for evaluating a poet’s corpus, the written body that remains when his physical body has vanished.”
Fittingly, the next chapter performs an equally learned and admiring evaluation of Kees’s poetic oeuvre. Called simply “The Excellence of Weldon Kees,” this chapter takes the reader on an exhaustive — but never exhausting — tour of two of Kees’s most relevant (to this subject of aesthetically staged suicide) poems, “Round” and “A Distance from the Sea.” When done carelessly, explication can often come off as dry or self-indulgent — the explicator wowing himself if not his audience by his reading too much into a piece or by freighting a work with so much jargon that it disappears beneath the explicator’s scholarship. But Irwin is an awe-inspiring explicator, perhaps one of the best of our time, precise and astute, lucidly parsing allusions to Marvell, Rilke, Eliot, Camus, and more so easily on his part and in a way that’s easy — and fun — to read. It’s a joy to watch him show his audience what he sees.
He continues this tour of Kees’s poetry in chapter four, “The Dynamics of Inferential Mention,” which illuminates the influences of both Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane on Kees. Irwin draws on his considerable expertise on Crane (his 440-page book on the poet appeared from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011) to make the case that Crane was “both a poetic and an existential influence, as both a source of echoes and allusions in Kees’s poetry and an embodiment of the possible fate of an American poet in the twentieth century.” In his close readings of Kees’s poems “Statement with Rhymes” and “Travels in North America,” Irwin demonstrates that “the sort of arcane knowledge and subterranean linkings of information that characterize much of his poetry are not unexpected” considering Kees’s background and training as a reference librarian. So too does he make the case that Kees’s work bears the unmistakable stamp of what Crane referred to as “the dynamics of inferential mention,” a process by which “the associative logic of a poem depended as much, if not more, on the connotations of words rather than on their denotations.”
He explicates Kees’s “Guide to the Symphony” as well, highlighting the poet’s gift for satire and parody, but showing as well that Kees’s irony is never a smug joke, but rather tinged with frustrated hope, disappointment, melancholy, and anger. As with so many publicly and artistically comic people, Kees’s wit and lightness belie a deeper sorrow.
Chapter five’s title declares “Kees, A Learned Poet” and by this point in the short book, it’s clear that Irwin is a learned poet and reader, too, especially as he sorts through the abundant allusions in Kees’s poem “Abstracts of Dissertations.” Kees’s poems invite the reader in and remain enjoyable even if one doesn’t know, as Irwin does, the Latin poem called “Culex” (“The Gnat”), usually (though not necessarily correctly) attributed to Virgil. But what a pleasure to hear Irwin explain it. His stroll through this poem delights not merely for his rigorous attention to its various parts, but also for his holistic summing up that this poem and numerous others speak irrefutably to Kees’s desire to provide a record of “a feeling of futility about the entire project of human knowledge.” Libraries and even poems, Irwin suggests that Kees suggests, can seem — because of the loss and failure of both individual and collective memory and because of the vicissitudes of aesthetic fads and fashions — like mausoleums. But thanks to people like Irwin, we can sometimes raise these dead (no matter how mysterious their death) to new life.
The final chapter, “Relating to Robinson” assesses Kees’s famous four Robinson poems his “best work.” I agree so wholeheartedly that I wrote a book of my own called Robinson Alone in which I use these poems as a jumping-off point to create a novel-in-poems about Kees himself. Exquisite in their details, gorgeous in their urbane melancholy, and startling for their economy, these four poems — “Robinson” (1945), “Aspects of Robinson” (1948), “Robinson at Home” (1948), and “Relating to Robinson” (1951) — concern themselves with the life and anxieties of a cosmopolitan flâneur who seems to be a quasi-alter ego of the poet himself. Kees describes Robinson:
in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-
Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.
Irwin interrogates the lonely and isolated associations of the character’s name with Robinson Crusoe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and the Robinson character in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, who also serves as a kind of double for the narrator. He also concludes that, “In a Kees poem it is never a question of whether we win or lose. We all lose. We all die, and death is an annihilation. The only question is whether, having this knowledge, it is possible ever to win, whether there is any viable form of survival.”
People who live so much in their heads — and Kees’s poems are heady, dapper, and intellectual, well dressed in their learning — sometimes get stuck there. Kees definitely seemed to. In his biography of the poet, Vanished Act, James Reidel does an excellent job of charting the decline of a man growing depressed at a United States that continually let him down and at his own inability to find the success that he aspired to in his literary pursuits.
Here, in the book he promised himself he would finish before his career was through, Irwin slips deftly into the “bleak and exhilarating” mind of Kees the poet and Kees the suicide. He lets us see both his poems and his vanishing act anew and to consider the mysteries in each for ourselves. And that — as he argues for Kees’s poems and disappearance — is no small aesthetic achievement.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, was published by St. Martin’s Press in January 2017.