The Sad Flaneuse
By Rachel Wetzsteon
What should a contemporary poetic voice sound like? One possibility is the voice of Rachel Wetzsteon, a New York poet who died by her own hand in the final days of 2009, and whose 2006 collection, Sakura Park, is among the most enjoyable and moving books of modern American poetry. Wetzsteon’s slim but rewarding oeuvre is a happy exception to Craig Raine’s claim that “poetry is always tempted by diction whose sell-by date has long since been passed.” Even the titles of her poems attest to her contemporaneity: “Homage to Eddie Izzard”; “Too Many French Movies”; “Short Ode to Screwball Women.” Where a disconcerting number of gifted contemporary poets are still drawn to cobwebbed poetic matter (for heaven’s sake, no more poems about Horace!), Wetzsteon’s poetry is more obviously personal, having been for her, a way of exploring her life as much as it was that life itself.
Though she published two collections in the 1990’s (The Other Stars in 1994 and Home and Away in 1998), Sakura Park, which appeared in 2006, remains the go-to book for new readers. Set in the Morningside Heights neighborhood where she lived, the poems essentially offer a chronicle of Wetzsteon’s own life expressed through a recognizable poetic persona that is intelligent, ironic and urbane. Emotionally, the range is impressive. From the witty and somewhat guarded ease of “The Mystery of Cigarettes” (“Why do I buy one / pack at a time? To keep the / sexy guilt coming?”) to the brutally honest and broken-hearted insights of “Love and Work”:
A chilling vision of the years ahead
invades my thoughts, and widens like a stain:
a barren dance card and a teeming brain,
a crowded bookcase and an empty bed…
Or “Seventh Sunday”:
I have character to spare, it is
no comfort; I will write us down,
making nothing happen, it won’t repair
this ache of failed induction, these eyes
that live for sunlight, though the sky stays dark.
Here and elsewhere, Wetzsteon confidently takes up a subject matter saddled with clichés and prejudice and turns it into a defiant idiom; though they cry out for tautology and sentimentalism, Wetzsteon’s themes of love, solitude and life in the big city are expressed in surprising, unfamiliar ways that are both quick-witted and quietly despairing. More often than not the poetry is self-exposing; in “But for the Grace,” a poem that opens with an account of a “crazy friend across the country” complaining about her life, Wetzsteon confesses:
I let her rave for hours, thinking, Rough
break, poor kid, but get over it! But who am I
to criticize? Her tale’s my own, though I’m private enough
to wrap my secrets in veils of frilly
banter, thick webs of gauzy bravado. Later I’ll tell
her story to friends and we’ll agree
she’s cracked past mending. One person’s hell
is another’s anecdotal heaven.
The poem becomes a kind of confessional apologia, as Wetzsteon finally admits to being drawn to the “dignity of full disclosure, the glory of loud, / mad lovers who lay their hearts on the line / and carry their hearts through the scandalized crowed / crying, Like it or not, this mangled thing is mine.”
The “gauzy bravado” notwithstanding, Wetzsteon is a poet of extraordinary intimacy, which makes reading her poetry, assuming you don’t object to that sort of unabashed inwardness, an uneasy, self-conscious experience. This “mangled thing,” after all, is ours too. “New Journal,” one of the best poems in Silver Roses, Wetzsteon’s posthumous new collection, begins as a meditation on a penchant for keeping notebooks: “I could not stay away, / pined for each unwritten-down day […] now the book is flooding me / with all the ravings it might be.” Will it be a “pep talk or picked scab”? A “chronicle of botched focus” or a “box of fantasies or facts”? What began as an exploration of a habit, becomes as the irregular stanzas accumulate, the painful realization of a life unlived:
graphic graph-paper confessions
of nights laminated or purged,
lurid or dry recounting
of lists or hopes or errors or dreams,
prized sayings divided by asterisks
or secrets divined by no one,
choose me, impose a method, so that
tonight I write something more
in my brand-new, virginal journal
than today I bought a journal;
help me to fill this big blank book of days.
“Unwritten-down day”; “graphic graph-paper confessions” – these are some of the little jolts of formal virtuosity and inventiveness that makes Wetzsteon an addictive read, even when the subject matter is something painful like facing the buried or unlived life. “New Journal” is, for my money, on par with Larkin’s “Dockery and Son” (“Only a numbness registered the shock / Of finding out how much had gone of life.”) In fact her poetry, like Larkin’s, goes to some length to excavate an individual existence, substituting Manhattan for Hull and a guarded solitude for the Englishman’s less appealing misanthropy. Which isn’t to say that Wetzsteon’s solitude is not on occasion a little misanthropic. In “Paradigm Shift” she calls misanthropy her “default mode, my armor,” while lamenting the elusive nature of happiness: “it will not last, this blip of warmth.” If her writing, as A.E. Stallings recently pointed out in Poetry Magazine, “hurtles toward terror and truth,” it likewise runs away from happiness and joy. “I must face my fate like Estragon, asking, / What do we do now, now that we are happy?” she asks in “Halt!”, a particularly chilling line that distresses our conventional ideas of pursuing happiness. Grace Schulman, in her foreword to Silver Roses, argues that “Wetzsteon’s title…prepares us for light, and light is everywhere,” yet I’ve found that the lines and poems that linger are the darker ones. According to Schulman, Wetzsteon in her suicide note “reminded her friends that she had abundant joy in life.” The light and joy of her poetry is clear, but like the joy of life expressed in a suicide note, it seems swamped by darker urges and terrors.
In “May Poles” Wetzsteon laments the death of a poet-friend by facing up to “the scarlet henchmen of sad ways / who carved such trenches in your mind / but cannot touch the brilliant, kind / and joyful trace you left behind.” This may also be true of Wetzsteon, as Schulman will have us believe, but the residue of the poems belongs entirely to those sharp, piercing lines of desperation and sorrow: “help me to fill this big blank book of days”; “There is a most unwholesome kind of sickness / that sees help but refuses to be healed”; or these lines from “Three Poems After Montale”:
The violent thrum of error,
the catcalls of the wronged, the small
crimes of a life, and the liquid horror
of crimes to come — all
this gushes and spurts inside
me even in sleep, issuing from a source
I cannot stop anymore.
The impulse to rescue Wetzsteon from the Plath-like fate of being read strictly in the shadow cast by her suicide is understandable, even necessary. Her suicide shouldn’t be what validates her sorrow or desperation, feelings that arise from an engagement with life and with the self. In “Halt!” Wetzsteon confers upon herself the title “sad flaneuse,” a very apt designation for a poet whose work absorbs so much of Manhattan: from the Café Carlyle to tennis courts at Stuyvesant Town, and whose previous collection of poems opened with a telling Walter Benjamin epigraph on the nature of selfhood in the modern city:
Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that class for quite a different schooling. Then, signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a crackling twig under his feet in the forest.
In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard, the great ironist whom Wetzsteon quotes elsewhere, famously wrote that “the biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing,” adding later that the average man, unconcerned with his own self and content to, as it were, live in the basement of his own house, becomes indignant “if anyone suggests he occupy the fine suite lying vacant for him.”
Rachel Wetzsteon, I think, dared to occupy that fine vacant suite, and it accounts for the many profound insights of selfhood that one encounters in her poems. For her, as for Kierkegaard, the self was a synthesis, something always in the process of becoming: “this caffeine high, / this madcap tribute to Hepburn’s ghost, / this zeal for aqueducts and abbeys / compose a life, though someday they may rest / in cobwebbed attics, dear ruins of former selves.” The sad flaneuse, it turns out, was as much a flaneuse of the self as she was of the city.
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His writing has appeared in Words Without Borders Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation and The Critical Flame. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.