Nothing To Do With Dante
By Kathleen Rooney
Gold Wake Press
I tried the experiment of reading all four of the Robinson poems together, re-arranging them in a new order; so that they add up to a single poem, in a sense.
-Weldon Kees to Judith and Anthony Myrer, February 24, 1951
Weldon Kees was a mid-20th century writer who was recognized and forgotten and then slowly rediscovered in successive waves of renewed interest. His poems are brilliant and unique, welding together extremes. They are unblinking and devastating glimpses of humanity, America and the world. At the same time, Kees’s structural and tonal control is perfectly modulated. You want to read his poems over and over for the sheer pleasure of how Kees says a thing. Reading a Kees poem is like suddenly shuddering from cold on a warm summer day.
It’s hard to give a sense of Kees with anything less than a full poem. He works on you by accretion and iteration. You can’t pull out a couple of lines and say, “This is what he does.” Here are the first and last stanzas from his late poem “The Umbrella” where you can get a small sense of Kees’s voice:
Because in the hot countries
They worshipped trees; because
Under the sacred figs, Gautama
Became a god; because of the rain,
Because the sun beats down.
Because we followed orders, building a tent
“Of ten curtains of fine twined linen,
And blue and purple and scarlet.” And because
The ark required protection, with four pillars
Holding the curtains up, and “the veil
Shall divide unto you between the holy place
And the most holy.” –I planted the seed
Of an elm and watered it. Rest
In the shelter of this shade. Black spines
Of metal and a tent of cloth
Are blooming where a tree stood up.
* * *
Over the empty harbor, gray and motionless,
The clouds have been gathering all afternoon, and now
The sea is pitted with rain. Wind shakes the house.
Here from this window lashed with spray, I watch
A black umbrella, ripped apart and wrong side out,
Go lurching wildly down the beach: a sudden gust
Carries it upward, upside down,
Over the water, flapping and free,
Into the heart of the storm.
In between these two stanzas, Kees recounts, with increasing dislocation and loss, the history of the umbrella, from the sacred uses in the first stanza, a growing degradation (“Tussels, fringes, frills of lace, glass beads,/Sequins, artificial flowers, ostrich feathers,/God knows what else”) to the eviscerated and windblown wreckage of the last stanza.
Weldon Kees himself fascinates as much as his poems. He attracts you and yet you cannot entirely get hold of him. Like a great literary character, we see his depths but cannot sound them. He easily becomes something of an obsession.
Now Kathleen Rooney has written a book that engages both Kees and his poems. It’s not a study, though it’s clearly the result of a lengthy consideration of the man and his work. It’s not a biography either, though it is, in a sense, biographical. Rooney calls Robinson Alone “a novel in poems” (“I wrote and revised this book (on and off, but still) for about ten years…It kept changing shape, and I call it a novel in poems because I was dealing with a narrative arc and a structure that are like those you’d find in a long work of fiction”). It’s also a bit more than that.
Robinson Alone takes a character that appears in four of Kees’s poems (“Robinson,” “Aspects of Robinson,” “Robinson at Home,” and “Relating to Robinson”) and narrates (in poems) his life from hometown to enigmatic disappearance. In Kees’s Robinson poems, Robinson is a doppelganger of sorts, and also a diagnosis of 20th century America, a place where maybe the apocalypse has come and gone and nobody noticed. Ghostly and uncanny, Robinson exists as an almost absence (he’s present as absent) in an urban landscape of consumer goods, vacuity and desolation. He’s Robinson Crusoe coming across a footprint not his own on an island only he inhabits.
You don’t need to be a Weldon Kees scholar, or have read any his poems, or even have ever heard of him to read and enjoy Rooney’s Robinson Alone (the title is from a line in Kees’s first poem about the character: “Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.”). The book stands on its own. Following Robinson’s trajectory through its incidents and encounters pulls you in and makes you want to read straight through. In his letter to Judith and Anthony Myrer (above), Kees may have envisioned his Robinson poems as one whole—the poems have a kind of unity when read together—but at most there’s only an aftershock of a story. Rooney, on the other hand, really has concocted a connected series of poems that work like fiction (where you want to know “what happens next”). Books like this can be fun to read, but they have a tendency to fall short as either fiction or poetry. Rooney’s book is the rare exception that satisfies the demands of both. The poems hold their integrity and work individually, and they also advance stepwise, creating a narrative arc that works as a story. It really is a string of poems containing a novel.
To build this Robinsonian narrative, Rooney has filled in the character created by Kees with Kees’s own life. As far as I know, Kees never self-identified with Robinson. But for his readers, it’s practically impossible to appreciate Kees’s poetry, and not be intrigued—or obsessed—with Kees himself. Joseph Brodsky said about the writer “He is a poet of remarkable totality of approach toward the world and his very self.” Kees and his work are a package deal. It’s inevitable that we see something of Kees in Robinson. Talking about Robinson is one way of talking about Kees, and how he embodies an aspect of his time. Rooney’s approach, creating a Robinson-Kees hybrid, doesn’t really need to be justified—it works—but there’s a larger validity in having Kees wear a pantomime Mask Robinsonian. They illuminate and reinforce each other.
The book starts with a poem that takes place in Beatrice, Nebraska (“Robinson’s hometown”) that establishes the book’s sensibility and a first glimpse of Robinson:
has nothing to do with Dante. You say
it with an accent: you say it Be-at-trice.
A dirt road lined with leafless trees.
Smokestacks. Some background.
A slight white kid in white kid shoes
& a dress with ruffles & three pearl
buttons. Structures skidded against
the flat flat plains, all rising vertical
sightlines man-grown or man-made.
“Some background” and “structures” are perfect, pointing out the generic blankness Robinson finds in his Midwest birthplace, but also the first glitter of the nihilism that Robinson will find more and more in himself. Beatrice was, of course, Kees’s own hometown. He got away as quickly as possible, but was always inescapably from there. After this beginning, most of the poems that follow are in the same register, speaking for Robinson or from his outlook. It’s a viewpoint (like Kees’s) that develops into something like: “almost everything in the world is so horrible we might as keep up a pretense that it’s all delightful.”
These poems—the majority of poems in the book—are written in the third person, though it’s an intimate third person. Interspersed, though, are poems in the first person, in Robinson’s own voice. These are all titled “Robinson sends a letter to someone” and are subtitled Cento I through Cento XV. Centos are poems composed of passages from other authors, a kind of collage of found poetry. In this case, the centos in Robinson Alone are all drawn from Kees’s own letters, poems and other writings. These extracts are seamlessly stitched together to sound like correspondence. They produce an image of Robinson’s own voice, of how he wants to sound to others:
For some reason or another I seem to have a car.
Though the interior must have been used
exclusively for hauling porcupines & railroad spikes.
Looks a little like an unmade bed in a Bowery fleabag.
Drove down to the Cape—
Live here in a state of almost unimagined sloth;
occasionally totter over to the piano to play “Someone
to Watch Over Me,” or walk across the dunes to swim
& beachcomb, or to the Tennis Club to play ping pong.
The lightness of tone here, amused and mocking, appears sincere enough. This is the Robinson that Robinson lets others see. These letter-poems appear to be immediate and intimate, but as the book proceeds, an increasing desperation leaks through. Writers never hide more thoroughly than when speaking in the first person.
The book is made up of three sections. The first section takes place in New York City, where Robinson has moved. Already, he is casting about for a project, a way to make some worthwhile thing. (“He’s got to make a plan—//to make a drawing of a hand/without looking at a hand.”). He’s restless. Even as he soaks up and immerses himself in urban and literary life, disillusion starts to creep in (“Do not disappoint, he demands/of the city. Do not be fooled,/he commands of himself”). He may be living in New York, but he’s still a visitor, a tourist. He sees the sights—the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, the 1939 World’s Fair—and goes to parties (he’s part of the Smart Set), to Provincetown, to a Western-themed bar, and in general hobnobs, but the presiding feeling is of Robinson solo, walking outside, observing through windows, looking out from a rooftop. Other people are shadowy (from “After the holiday:” “dead tree after dead tree,/white curb after curb curbs//the vigor of the season…He should hurry home./yet even when hidden,/Robinson stands out. Gold/flashing at the back of the mouth”). He sends letters to “someone,” which really means no one. Other than his wife, another Midwestern transplant, Robinson is alone, becoming tired of the east coast, falling out of love with the city.
So off they go, Robinson and his wife, Ann. In the second section, Robinson travels westward through what Kees called “the space between oceans.” This middle part of Robinson Alone is something of linking section. The events become a travelogue (like Kees’s poem “Travels in North America,” which covers his move from east to west). Motifs from the next section hint at their approach. Just as travel seems to put your life in parentheses (though of course it hasn’t, Time scuttles on), the poems in this migratory section, tend to be a bit looser, even less rooted, than those in the first and third parts of the book. There are a series of poems titled “Ann insists on reading the Burma-Shave ads aloud,” which are just that: those short advertising jingles staggered down the page.
Spreads it on
Pats it in
Shaves it off
See him grin
There’s something creepy in this deadpan recitation, but the real work of them is hidden in the title: “Ann insists on reading…” You can feel irritants working themselves in under the carapace of their marriage (“Robinson resents Ann’s placid sleep//A flaccid inanity keeps him awake://Now here is nowhere.”).
In the final section Robinson has landed on the west coast, mostly San Francisco. Although Beatrice, Nebraska may have nothing to do with Dante, in this last section Robinson finds himself both in the middle of his life and skidding toward a precipice that signals a descent. Ann succumbs to alcoholism and hallucinations. They divorce. Many of the poems in the last section touch on the wounds left. Robinson becomes outwardly increasingly manic, inwardly increasingly despairing, hopeless.
IN THE ONLY SELF-PORTRAIT
He’ll ever paint,
of ever getting the likeness right:
face white as a saint,
hair dark as a cave,
brown eyes fixed, alight,
bright as magnesium—
dips his favorite sable
into a kidney-shaped blob
of Red Gold Lake
bled from a crumpled lead tube
of Old Holland paint—
scores his own throat
with a dotted line
Studies the results in the shaving mirror.
Reaches for the turpentine.
The story ends not with a curtain, but a slow erasure, an almost mystery:
Writing takes space, recordings take time.
The place puts the policeman in mind of something he read recently,
About the collapse of a dead star.
About how it takes ages for the light to become motionless.
Seven years after a disappearance, a person can be pronounced dead.
But that’s nothing compared to the size of the ocean.
(“Robinson’s telephone rings”)
That’s the story. But there are several things that raise Robinson Alone to higher level. First, Rooney binds and intertwines her poems back through Kees’s own poems and life.
One of the early poems from the first section of Robinson Alone, ends:
Fanning himself with
chill air, Robinson
waits for a break-
through. The fridge
light coming on—
light clicking off.
Those last four lines lead back to Kees’s poem “1926,” which starts:
The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
The porchlight coming on again.
Rooney’s poem not only echoes “1926,” it recontextualizes the poem, tying it to Kees’s own psyche, his hunger to do something new, something good enough to measure up to the great modernists of the previous generation. All this is incipient in Kees’s poem, where it stirs a vague unease. In Rooney’s poem, it becomes a small, vertiginous drama of a Robinsonian moment.
In other poems, the imagery serves as a semi-transparent overlay of Kees himself, both revealing and obscuring him in the same way he does in his own poetry:
August light laps the sky-
scrapers like the tongue of a cat.
Monger hawk their catches
& gulls flipping from the east
& west spans look like someone
spilled a boxful of fake moustaches.
(“The waterfront near Vinegar Hell & Fulton Ferry Landing”)
The images here are beautifully vivid and fresh, the verbs have a dynamic physicality. But they are also appropriate to and revealing of Kees/Robinson. This requires more than just a talent for metaphor. It shows an immersion in Kees/Robinson’s perspective, an imaginative faith in his life and era. The witty last line, gulls that look like a spilled “boxful of fake moustaches” is a further visual allusion to Kees himself. Kees, a handsome man with large, dark eyes, is unimaginable without his stylish moustache. I wonder if the fake moustache here is one that Rooney is slyly wearing as cosplay, or some hirsute ventriloquism.
The last poem in the book “Robinson’s telephone rings,”
The Tuesday after he last was seen.
A policeman is there to pick the shrill think up.
Who is it? the couple of his friends ask as he cup it to his ear.
Then hangs up. There was no on there.
echoes Kees’s first poem about Robinson:
All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.
Kees disappeared in 1955, his car parked near the Golden Gate bridge. With his friends, he had talked about suicide or of escaping to Mexico. Theories of one or the other fate have been extant since, though suicide seems the more likely. Just as the book is in three sections, Kees and his Robinson are braided together with Rooney’s composite Robinson/Kees in a narrative plait, each strand supporting the other. Rooney has said about Kees’s poems: “Actually, one of the things that makes those poems so compelling and unsatisfying is that there are four of them. If Kees had followed the rule of threes, then they’d probably be known as the Robinson Trilogy, and that would be that: done. But there’s something about there being four of them that calls for addition. Four is a bad luck number in Japan associated with death. I think that I—and other people who’ve done individual Robinson poems over the years since Kees vanished—read the fact that there are four of them as a kind of permission or even an invitation to take over. Like he’s saying “Obviously, guys, I wasn’t finished.” Rule of three or not, Rooney’s book holds together nicely.
Even as she has fulfilled expectations at the narrative level, Rooney has not sacrificed the needs of the individual poem in assembling it. The poems sound great, lyrical with an aural precision and density. Here, for example:
Natty dresser, that
shopping. Just lost
his job; he’s not
Staring at finery
behind the plate glass
about to pass a florist’s
when he sees the sign:
consider the Lilies,
so he does: how they
grow; they toil not.
Neither do they spin.
Gives him the willies.
(“Robinson & the word”)
In a poem of short lines like this, missteps can’t be hidden. Rooney has said “…I tried hard to make Robinson Alone as playful—at least on a linguistic level—as possible.” That’s clear in this example. Notice the Stopping-job-shopping (the short o sound accompanied by p and b as equivalent plosives), Finery-sign (the fricative f and s ahead of the long i); lost-glass-florist (the placement of the lateral approximant l followed by the sibilant s), and the witty Lilies-willies (straight up rhyme). There’s even something attractive to the ear and mouth about Natty Dresser, the triple n, t and d up at the front of the mouth and against the teeth, then the –esser slipping towards the back and the soft palate, like a small phonic joke.
Here’s another example:
Here the street-noise fades,
grows dark, & Robinson’s
hearing becomes more keen
as the sounds of the city turn
vespertine: the soft susurrations
of seersucker trousers,
the nasal hum of crepuscular bugs.
(“Robinson regards the Snow Babies in Central Park”)
Keen and vespertine are lovely together as are the hushed s sounds in “soft susurrations/of seersucker trousers” echoed by “nasal,” “crepuscular,” and “bugs.” I love how these poems sound and feel and how they have been put together.
Has Rooney succeeded in telling us “what it means to be Robinsonian?” The answer is both “yes” and “it depends on what you mean by telling.” If the only true Robinsonian image is Robinson alone (or Robinson Alone?), then no image can satisfy the desire to see his plain figure in full sunlight. What Rooney has done in Robinson Alone is organize a flanking maneuver towards Robinson/Kees, a pincer that does not, because it cannot, close decisively on the elusive Nebraskan. But the movement of the book delineates the negative space around Robinson/Kees, and allows us to see him peripherally. It’s a view that comes with a certain odd feeling, like déjà vu. Maybe it’s presque vu.
But what stands out in this book, above all, is Rooney’s compassion for the agonist Robinson/Kees. Kees’s poems can be bleak and bitter, yet they are somehow addictive. The fun’s all in the saying. He wished everything were better, truer, than it was. But he knew it wasn’t. He held as unclouded a view of devastation as possible. Whether it was Midwest courtesy or an artist’s stoicism (“If I did not feel it was in bad taste, I would unburden myself” is what his closest friend of his final years in San Francisco, Michael Grieg, felt Kees was almost but never quite saying), Kees looked at an abased world with both troubled insight and bemusement but no apparent condemnation. He looked at himself without pity. He refused comfort with a Calvinist’s furor. He breaks your heart.
In Robinson Alone, Kathleen Rooney grants Robinson and Kees a measure of grace and sympathy Kees could not manage to give to himself. Being an optimist herself, Rooney has said in interviews that Kees himself must have been an optimist. How else could he be so disappointed? It’s a good point, but not one that I think any reader of Kees would come up with. Rooney’s book is finally an act of empathy, as well as a narrative sustained by individual poems of solid worth. It is, maybe most remarkable and rare of all, a genuine act of loving-kindness (caritas), from one artist to another.
Michael Gushue runs the micro-press Beothuk Books and is co-founder with poet Dan Vera of Poetry Mutual, a poetry incubator that sponsors events, publishes books and builds community among writers and audiences. His work has appeared online and in print, most recently in the journal Gargoyle and the online journal Locuspoint. His books are Gathering Down Women, from Pudding House Press and Conrad from Souvenir Spoon Books. He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC.