The poet Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Neb., in 1914, though what’s best known about him is that on July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned with the keys still in the ignition in a parking lot on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Kees had often spoken of killing himself and had once planned, with James Agee, to write a book on famous suicides; together they came up with a wonderful title, “How-Not-To-and-Why-Not-To-Do-It,” though the project came to nothing. Both men were too busy plotting their own deaths.
Kees’ friends in San Francisco, the future New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael among them, knew that Kees had been in a desperate state of mind and were in no doubt that he’d flung himself into the Pacific. But his body was never found, and others chose to believe that he’d vanished out of his own life (recalling the character Flitcraft in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”). Perhaps, it was speculated, Kees had fled to Mexico like Ambrose Bierce, another notable American melancholic who disappeared. Some years later, Kees’ mother was convinced that she’d seen her son on the deck of a passing ship in Sydney Harbor.
From such stuff legends are woven, and the mystery and tragic romance of his end have invested Kees with a doomed F. Scott Fitzgerald glamour and helped turn him into a cult, a poet whom readers, and other writers, fall upon like a secret discovery they cherish thereafter. That this is so, of course, depends not only on what did or didn’t happen one foggy summer day in San Francisco in 1955; before that, there was a remarkable literary career.
During the years of World War II, Kees, having left the West, was in New York, writing film and book reviews for Time, a small intellectual cog in the Luce publishing empire memorably evoked in Kenneth Fearing’s brilliant noir “The Big Clock.” With his lean matinee idol looks (back in Nebraska Kees had known the movie star Robert Taylor, then called Spangler Arlington Brugh) and bitterly ironic mind-set, Kees could almost have emerged out of the pages of Fearing’s novel.
Kees published regularly in the New Yorker and the Partisan Review (no mean combo). He was a jazz pianist and a painter who exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists. He became art critic of the Nation and was friendly not only with Agee but with the cartoonist Charles Addams, novelists Anton Myrer and Conrad Aiken, poets Allen Tate and Kenneth Rexroth and critics Hugh Kenner, Manny Farber, Harry Levin and Edmund Wilson. He was never without important connections. Out West again in the early 1950s, he wrote a film script with Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records. In San Francisco he made art films and organized revues and performance events that prefigured the arrival of the Beatnik era. He co-authored “Non-Verbal Communication,” a fascinating and provocative documentary book, illustrated with his own photographs. There were always dozens of projects.
This busy, public and increasingly restless and manic freelance energy never salved a hurt inner-life reflected in his poems. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the eerie, indelible handful of poems about a character named Robinson that were published in the New Yorker in the 1940s. In the first of these, simply titled “Robinson,” Kees evokes the empty apartment of this ghostly alter-ego:
The pages in the book are blank,
The books that Robinson has read.
That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.
All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.
Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.
Outside, the birds circle continuously
Where trees are actual and take no holiday.
In “Aspects of Robinson,” we meet the character face-to-face, skating fast over life’s surface, as if trying to escape the secret fear that he might not exist:
Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes towards
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side
In “Relating to Robinson,” the poet-narrator thinks he sees this friend, or phantom, and pursues him through the New York streets:
Just as I passed,
Turning my head to search his face,
His own head turned with mine
And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes
That stopped my blood.
His voice came at me like an echo in the dark.
The very urban Robinson poems dance with repetition, with lightness and humor; yet their effect is desolate, and unique to Kees. Elsewhere his work can recall Auden (whom Kees professed to dislike) and Eliot, and also the late-1930s thrillers of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, writers who filled exterior worlds with threat and menace. Kees pursued this to an ultimate degree. “Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read / Beneath the innocence of morning flesh / Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed,” he writes in “For My Daughter,” another of his best-known poems. “Parched years that I have seen / That may be hers appear: foul, lingering / Death in certain war, the slim legs green. / Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting / Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel / Bride of a syphilitic or a fool. / These speculations sour in the sun. / I have no daughter. I desire none.”
The final line is devastating, the bitterness real. Kees had no kids, and his wife Ann (who nonetheless survived him) went mad shortly before his disappearance, a contributing factor no doubt. The life, then, like Sylvia Plath’s, endorses and amplifies the energy of writing that should come with a health advisory. “I’d heard it said by Michael Hofmann / that ‘Collected Poems’ would blow my head off, / but being out of print / and a hot potato, / it might be a hard one / to get hold of / more than a case of shopping and finding / nothing on the shelf between Keats and Kipling,” wrote Simon Armitage in “Looking for Weldon Kees,” the first of a sequence of Kees-inspired poems that provided hinges and reference points in his landmark 1992 collection “Kid.”
Kees is back in print now, thanks to the scholarship and proselytizing of poets like Armitage, Donald Justice, Hugo Williams, David Wojahn and Dana Gioia, and to splendid publishing on the part of the University of Nebraska Press, which issues, not only the key text, “The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees,” but also “Selected Stories of Weldon Kees,” “Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation: Letters 1935-1955" and “Fall Quarter” (a novel that kept almost getting published in Kees’ lifetime and never was).
Also available is “Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees” by James Reidel, a recent, well-written biography that, while never quite solving the central Rosebud mystery of why this glamorous man turned so dark, ensures the Kees cult will continue to spread.
Down the years I’ve collected various Kees editions. Favorite among them is the original University of Nebraska Press paperback, first issued in 1962, with a greenish cover that shows Kees under the Golden Gate Bridge with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, gazing into the water. This particular book was sold to me by a dealer in Helsinki who explained that it had once belonged to the acclaimed young Finnish poet Keijo Lappalainen, himself a suicide. Going through the book, I found that various Kees lines were lightly, almost lovingly, underlined, including: “Sleep is too short a death.” Be warned -- Weldon Kees played it for real.
Richard Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
THE SHORTLIST: ALSO NEW IN PAPERBACK AT BOOKSTORES
“Wideawake Field” by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“The prostitutes in Kabul tap their feet / beneath their faded burqas in the heat / For bread or fifteen cents, they’ll take a man to bed -- / their husbands dead, their seven kids unfed -- / and thanks to occupation, rents have risen twentyfold, / their chickens, pots and carpets have been sold,” writes Griswold in “Occupation,” observing and re-styling historical event with a wry, laconic voice that is also intensely moving. In this, her first verse collection, Griswold -- who is an accomplished, indeed obsessed, foreign correspondent -- oscillates between the intimate and the political with the same sparing exactness. The poems are short, readily understood, sometimes brutal, at other times lyrical, but always operating with economy and, often, great power.
“The Ancien Regime and the Revolution” by Alexis de Tocqueville (Penguin Classics)
The questions of liberty and fraternity that obsessed Tocqueville still preoccupy us, as Hugh Brogan notes in his introduction to a new translation of this historical classic. Tocqueville, a Frenchman who loved what he’d seen in America, wrote with surprising even-handedness: He was as merciless toward the excesses of the French Revolution as he was toward the tyranny that preceded it. But what makes him still worth reading is his surprisingly modern methodology and the clarity and sharpness of his epigrammatic style. “The French want equality in freedom, and, when they cannot get it, they still want equality in slavery.” Great.
“Twentieth Century German Poetry” edited by Michael Hofmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Hofmann, the swashbuckling poet and translator who introduced Simon Armitage to Weldon Kees (see above), presents an anthology that sweeps from Rilke and Celan to the present day. German poets, by virtue of their country’s tormented history, have been forced to engage with the world in a unique way, most often as a counter-force, Hofmann argues. The result has been poetry that challenges while being determined to be understood. “This is all there is, and it’s not enough. / It might do to let you know that I’m hanging on. / I’m like that man who carried a brick around with him. / To show the world what his house used to look like,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, featured here in Hofmann’s own translation. This book features hundreds of such gorgeous, limpid moments.
“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe (Picador)
For those who might have grown weary of Wolfe’s increasingly turgid fiction, here’s a reissue to remind them that he was once the coolest, most vibrant reporter on the planet. The subject -- Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the cross-country trip on a school bus painted in Day-Glo, the whole hippie/acid thing -- was a giveaway, and Wolfe dove right in, sentences screaming and paragraphs ballooning, to create a defining picture of the late 1960s. This, one of the books that invented the nonfiction novel, is just as good as it ever was, even if these days some might be inclined to feel more sympathy with Kesey’s intentions than Wolfe’s irony. The circle of time has turned, giving this unforgettable book yet another layer.
“The Biplane Houses: Poems” by Les Murray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“Fragrance stays measured, / stench bloats out of proportion: / even as rat-sized death, / not in contact with soil, is soon / a house-evacuating metal gas / in our sinuses; it boggles our gorge -- / no saving that sofa: / give it a Viking funeral.” Les Murray, the veteran Australian poet, is a sorcerer, a bravura wordsmith who can be funny or emotional or aphoristic by turns. “No one can face their heart / or turn their back on it.” It’s not so much Murray’s range that’s astonishing -- although it is -- as his consistent dazzle and approachability.
“The War of the End of the World: A Novel” by Mario Vargas Llosa (Picador)
Here, in what may be his masterpiece, Vargas Llosa tells the story of the rise and tragic fall of the city of Canudos, a place without law or money that became an outpost for the damned and a caldron of the revolutionary spirit in 19th century Brazil. “The man was tall and so thin he seemed always to be in profile,” goes the book’s wonderful first sentence, drawing us into a thunderous and tragic epic. First published in 1981, this is a vividly achieved historical tapestry, and already a Latin American classic.
“Doveglion” by Jose Garcia Villa (Penguin Classics)
Known as the “Pope of Greenwich Village,” Villa was an Asian American poet who lived and published in New York, and, in a famous photograph taken at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, was featured alongside Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Gore Vidal. Villa advanced no cause, except that of poetry itself. “Great art is never born at room temperature,” he wrote, and, “The future of bad poetry? Wonderful!” This original paperback, collecting all of Villa’s published work, and much of his unpublished stuff too, reintroduces a writer determined to be clear and startling and moving in spite of his often experimental agenda.
“A Book of Memories”; “Fire and Knowledge” by Peter Nadas (Picador)
“A Book of Memories,” first published in English translation back in 1994, is one of those huge, compendious novels that seems to be about everything. The book interweaves three parallel stories of love and betrayal which reflect and refract upon each other, creating an echoing and reverberating effect. Nadas, a Hungarian, worked on this sensuous tour de force for years, and Susan Sontag (no less) reckoned it the greatest novel written in recent times, comparable to Proust and Robert Musil. “Fire and Knowledge” collects short stories and essays in which Nadas -- whose style is accessible, and soul-baring, if chewy -- reflects on melancholy, fate and writing.
“House Held Together by Winds” by Sabra Loomis (Harper Perennial)
“I was not to be counted on, was the lesson / I was learning,” writes Loomis in “The Trouble I Have in High Places.” “Not normal, my words were bad, / and harmful to the natural sympathies of the world. / And I could be straightened out by a man, he said / but who would do it, who would take me on?” These heady poems chart a childhood of rebellion shadowed by a perspective of grown-up sadness. It’s most likely that Loomis never did get straightened out, and her controlled writing shocks you with its remembered pain and emotion. The lovely lines of “Ziffy-Sternal,” for instance, recall violence of a stepfather, launching out with his fists in a way that would be remembered forever: “The children understood / their wilderness had been trampled on.”
“Castorp: A Novel” by Pawel Huelle (Serpent’s Tail)
The Polish writer Pawel Huelle’s surprising and very clever novel plucks a single line from Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and riffs on it to recreate the student life of Hans Castorp, later to be confined to that famous tuberculosis sanatorium high in the Alps. “Castorp” tells a story of love and, eventually, murder that beautifully re-creates the atmosphere of middle-Europe before World War I. The best thing here, though, is Huelle’s voice, which dances us lightly, ironically and with humor through a narrative in which the priggish Castorp is often oblivious to the events and disasters unfolding around him.
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