Jim Coughenour's Reviews > The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees by Weldon Kees
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's review
Jul 10, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: reconditepoetry
Read in June, 1999

Like many others, I found my way to Weldon Kees (1914 - 1955) via Donald Justice, who almost single-handedly rescued Kees from obscurity. Don Paterson (in his anthology, 101 Sonnets) called Kees one of the "most unremittingly bleak poets ever to wield the pen." Or in the image of Justice, "The wall cracks; the stain spreads; he does not budge from his chair."

Kees was a man of many talents — not only as a poet, but as an abstract expressionist painter, an art critic, a jazz musician, an organizer of aleatoric happenings, and a novelist. But essentially, he is a man of mystery, disappearing in 1955, presumably one of those inscrutable suicides whose last step was off the orange steel cables of the Golden Gate bridge. James Reidel, in his recent biography Vanished Act, illuminates but does not resolve the mystery. If you want an immediate introduction, check out Dana Gioia's excellent essay "The Cult of Weldon Kees." [http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ekees...]

Kees was a formalist, of sorts. His poetry has a stern, almost classical polish, but is deliberately destabilized by his subversive technique. His sonnet "For My Daughter" paints a shattering picture of horror and renunciation in 14 lines. And like almost everyone else who knows his poetry, I'm drawn to his terrifying "Robinson" poems, which convey the desperate, discriminating, highly-strung spirit of the man. Here's one of my favorites:

Aspects of Robinson

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin: a thin
Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.
Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.
The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.
This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.

Robinson on a roof above the Heights; the boats
Mourn like the lost. Water is slate, far down.
Through sounds of ice cubes dropped in glass, an osteopath,
Dressed for the links, describes an old Intourist tour.
—Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times.
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.

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 toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

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.

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