Weldon Kees and the Postwar World

Weldon Kees belongs to the circle of American authors who left us early, in some cases by their own hand: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hart Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace. He was part of a particularly doomed cohort, poets born in the year of World War I, 1914. Randall Jarrell took his life in 1965, wading into traffic. John Berryman committed suicide in 1972. Only William Stafford escaped the curse of that year among poets of significance, living out his natural span.

Weldon Kees disappeared on a July day in 1955, leaving his car parked beside the Golden Gate Bridge, with no note behind. No trace of him was ever found. The assumption, and finally the legal conclusion, was that he had committed suicide. He certainly left the world he’d been living in, where his growing reputation was still being made. Perhaps that fact alone was all the statement he wished to make. We can’t, though, dismiss him with that—the presumption that, with whatever private demons haunted him, he was after all dismissing us. The poetry compels us to give him attention, and it draws us back not only to the man but the time in and of which he wrote.

Kees came of age in a singularly troubled time. Born into the Great War, he came of age in the Great Depression, the age of totalitarian dictators, and World War II, with its unexampled loss of life and its horrific pendants, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. The postwar decade was one of revived prosperity, and, for America, dominion over much of the globe. But it was also a time of strife, with great revolutions in Central and East Asia, the collapse of the old imperial order, and, above all, a deep and pervasive anxiety. The atomic age, with its rapidly developing and proliferating thermonuclear arsenals, presented not merely the religious imagination but the practical political world with the prospect of apocalypse. Politicians and generals prepared for nuclear conflict, even as such conflict portended a world without conceivable victors and a planet perhaps unfit for human habitation. Humanity was presented, for the first time, with a situation that could neither be accepted nor avoided. How to live in such a situation, for those most sensitive and alert to it, was a challenge without an apparent solution.

Weldon Kees was multiply gifted, and the restlessness with which he pursued his gifts was not only evidence of a rare energy but of a desperate effort to describe and embrace a world that, in the simplest terms, made no sense. He painted—well enough to be exhibited with the major figures of Abstract Expressionism at their signature gallery, the Peridot—; he photographed; he made documentaries; he played and composed jazz. He illustrated a book called Non-Verbal Communication in collaboration with a California psychiatrist, Jurgen Ruesch, as if to suggest the bankruptcy of words in the moment he faced, and that the bare testimony of images that was perhaps all that remained. Yet, at the same time, he was and remained primarily a poet.

Kees published two collections in his lifetime, The Last Man and The Fall of the Magicians. The first title suggests his own stance in the face of the gathering and then breaking war, the second his bitter response to those, particularly the scientists, whose labors had brought about the end of history: the moment, that is, from which humanity could no longer imagine a future. Kees left behind what might have been a third manuscript, which his editor, Donald Justice, arranged as Poems 1947-1954, and some miscellaneous work from various points of his career. The whole makes for a slender volume, 180 pages in all, but not an insubstantial one for a career cut short at forty-one. It was all the poet wished to say, and, although we might desire more it is, in its fragmented way, somehow complete. It leaves us where we still ourselves are, at an edge.

The earliest poem printed, dated 1936, suggests many of the themes Kees would develop throughout his work. Its setting is the quintessential community center of the 1930s, a movie palace in which people sat anonymously in the dark and passively consumed a packaged fantasy; its title, “Subtitle,” suggests the subordination of word to image that both defined and subverted his poetic project. The tone is alternately ironic and savage; the dead end is already at hand, and, as the poem’s speaker notes, there are “No exits”:

We present for you this evening
A movie of death . . .

Look for no dialogue, or for the
Sound of any human voice: we have seen fit
To synchronize this play with
Squealings of pigs, slow sounds of guns,
The sharp dead click of chocolatebar machines. . . .

Sit forward, let the screen reveal
Your heritage, the logic of your destiny.

The talkies were still relatively new at this time, and the seductiveness of spoken dialogue was, in a manner we now lack (or simply take for granted) a fascinating and deeply manipulative part of a film’s verisimilitude and the more intimate, ‘natural’ acting style it enabled. Kees’ film replaces this—replaces language—with a suggestion of animals (or humans?) being led to the slaughterhouse, guns rumbling in their lethal sequence, and the fatal click of a mindless technology that offers pleasure but, like the exitless theater itself, locks one into a space without escape, a destiny without hope.

This is still a young man’s poem, with a certain rhetorical overbearing and a didacticism that hammers its point home too bluntly, but also with a more careful ear in places and a poet’s shrewd capacity for deploying imagery: we may note how the pigs, the guns, and the chocolate machine resonate with each other, cinching the sense of a general trap closing. The “guns” are as yet far away, in a Europe still, as Robinson Jeffers would put it in a premonitory poem of his own “mix[ing] its cups of death,”2 but, as the chocolate machine’s click indicates, already present and ‘consumable.’

Speech, for Kees, is not only inadequate, but existentially compromised, corrupted by history, and imposing itself on perception at its very source: for we not only speak but see through words, entangled at the root with what they say. In “Variations on a Theme by Joyce,” the opening clause of the poem’s repeated line, “The war is in words,” suggests the snare of language, which both prefigures action and defines possibility. The “war,” that is, is here before it happens in the linguistic imagination through which it takes shape, and in that sense both fully present and never-ending. The overwhelming sense of the 1930s, particularly after Munich, was that the war dreaded since the advent of Hitler was not only inescapable but already underway, lacking only the bloodshed that would soon certify it. Nor, as Kees understood, would America’s oceans shield it: distance was nothing to the imagination, and navies not the defenders but the bringers of war.

Pearl Harbor was a year and half off when Kees wrote “June 1940.” This was the month of the fall of France, leaving only a beleaguered Britain to face the Nazi onslaught. Despite a still considerable isolationist sentiment on both the left and the right, America was gearing up for war against both major Axis powers. Kees, like Jeffers, saw only horror in the prospect. Enumerating those who had opposed the wars of their times—“Flaubert and Henry James and Owen, / [Randolph] Bourne with his crooked back, Rilke and Lawrence, Joyce”—he, too, excoriated the politicians and quondam pacifists now turned warmongers: “The beaters of drums, the flag-kissing men, whose eyes / Once saw the murder, are washing it clean.” Those who could yet see clearly protested now in vain, for, as the poem concludes, “An idiot wind is blowing; the conscience dies.”

That isolationism could be an honorable position, indeed as Kees suggested the true defense of “conscience”—has become virtually unrecoverable in the wake of an American triumphalism that, however skeptically some may view our present wars of empire, valorizes World War II as the good and necessary fight for core Western values against the legions of barbarism. But Kees could not set aside the broader context of age-old violence and brutality of which the approaching war seemed only a vaster extension that effaced the very notion of value and brought everything down to itself, “Where the horror of history from cave / To camp to the coffins of yesterday / Burns to a single ash” (“To the North”). Nor was even the bravery of England’s fight sufficient against the blood-dimmed tide. In “A Cornucopia for Daily Use,” a poem that employs interpolated dialogue, Kees concludes by invoking one of the most celebrated evocations of England as the hope of mankind with a deflating parry that suggests the supersession of value by process:

TWO STRANGERS: We have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

AN OLD MAN: I think I see a new process here, a beginning perhaps; the beginning
of the end.

The “strangers” declare they have already built Jerusalem in Blake’s land, perhaps referring to the Churchillian democracy that Orwell, writing at the same time, thought worth defending with all its flaws; but the old man sees something else at work, the impersonal force he calls “process” that unfolds as fatality, and, without the volition and choice that notionally makes for history, leads only to a final impasse. It is of the perception that Yeats had had of “things” in the saddle, riding men, but now applied to a conflict of even greater scale.

The remainder of the poems in The Last Man make little overt reference to the war, which came without violent disturbance for most Americans, who pursued their lives with blackouts confined to the coasts and rationing offset by wartime prosperity. They convey nonetheless an insistent note of cultural exhaustion and despair: “The empty and disordered porches hold / The summer’s burdened and uneasy death” (“Early Winter”); “the air / Whispering death” (“The Forests’); “Falling night / Will cover all” (“Fugue”). The tone clearly owes something to Eliot, who is directly conjured in “Obituary,” but the sense of menace presses hard on that of internal disorder (“assassins dash everywhere,” “Stale Weather”; “The paths are guarded by the violent,” “Midnight”). The feared invasion takes place not from without but from within, and the final the conquest is indistinguishable from surrender. In the climactic poem of the sequence, “The View from the Castle,” Kees describes civilization as a ruined redoubt, mortgaged beyond repayment and rotted beyond repair, and ready to rejoin a blood-soaked earth:

This is the castle then, my dear,
With its justly famous view.
There are other historic sights in store—
Battlegrounds, parks we might explore,
The hundreds of monuments to war;
Now that you’ve seen the castle, my dear,
We’ll see them before we’re through.

The poems of The Fall of the Magicians continue the themes of The Last Man, with its sense of civilization as a charnel house and propaganda replacing speech until animals alone can sense the truth. In “The Contours of Fixation,” dogs note that “the odor of blood has a certain appeal” as they crawl home to masters “who are not quite dead,” thus connoting a war whose ultimate distillate, bloodsmell, is both its defining measure and its ultimate goal. Leaders, similarly, have assumed the aspect of chimeras whose voices trail off into the howls of their sacrificial victims:

Applauded monsters, issuing their lies,
Leap from the mirrors of your home
Toward the late news, accompanied by screams.
(“Moving Target”)

The “monsters” not only reflect us, but, ‘leaping’ from our mirrors, they claim us as themselves, and not even the poet who names them escapes identity: there are no innocent parties, and even the victims are only the unlucky. This is not to say that there are no distinctions of guilt, however, and in “Report of the Meeting,” Kees focuses on the agents of science, who in an era of destruction bemuse us with the promises of elixirs to extend life. Their subject is an aged lion on whom the perfected potion will be tried after endless trials in which “white rats // Learned methods of success or went insane” and the men in their white coats “Experimented with the brains of larks.” The ultimate experiment fails; the lion dies. The undaunted scientists, refusing according to their métier to concede defeat, continue to study the problem; meanwhile, they “Cut up the lion, placed its parts in pans,” and, acknowledging their setback, avoid “the streets for days.”

“Report on the Meeting” twists its irony in several ways. The scientists who work to prolong life while death surrounds them on all sides are, in fact, its chief enablers, since the lives they work to save at the expense of creatures great and small are precisely those whose destruction their weapons of war have facilitated. Whether we may read this as well as a commentary on the atomic bomb, or associate Faustian science with the “magicians” whose fall the book’s title denotes, no other group comes in for such specific and searing condemnation.

This is not to say, however, that any others are exempted. In “June 1940,” Kees had quoted Wilfred Owen to the effect that “All a poet can do today is warn”—that is, discharge the office of a prophet, however vainly. By The Fall of the Magicians, art is no longer a sufficient plea, and Kees bids his own fellows goodbye (including, of course, himself):

Farewell, colleagues of the sublime!
I greet the welcome papers blowing down a street
I know too well. Someone has wound the clock,
Which ticks like a bomb, and is not culpable.
(“Dynamite for Operas”)

The clock, perhaps, is that of prophecy, and the warning the poet sounds may, like a fire signal, only seem to bring the flames closer by announcing them. Clearly, Kees also has in mind the aestheticism that seeks to avoid ‘culpability’ by seeking refuge in a purely cognitive realm: Stevens may be his model here. Nonetheless, the product of such activity—of man figured as the “magician” of himself—“ticks like a bomb” as well.

Kees, from this perspective, has no ground to stand on as well. In partial response to this dilemma, he invents a persona in The Fall of the Magicians to which he will return in the poems that follow it. He calls him, simply, Robinson, and introduces him by indirection: he is the man who is not there. He has a dog, who stops barking not when Robinson arrives but “after [he] is gone.” There’s a house, too, well appointed, with a grand piano and “Rugs, vases, panatellas in a humidor.” Robinson has traveled; there’s a Mexican mirror that, “stuck to the wall / Reflects nothing at all.” There’s also a bed, and a photograph of a first wife. Nonetheless, we are not to assume that any of this is, unlike the trees rooted in place outside, “actual”:

The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

Robinson does rather conjure Stevens here, the sovereign intelligence whose personal bric-a-brac are simply extensions of his own imagination. Even the trees are, as we should be aware in our post-Stevensian world, only “actual,” that is, real-seeming rather than ontologically secure. The picture is similarly detailed but no more substantial in “Aspects of Robinson,” which finds Kees’ subject in New York:

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson.”

Robinson is activity, Robinson is assertion, but none of this makes a self. We find him, further, playing cards, taking a taxi, staring downwards from a rooftop, prepared to play golf, describing a tour of Russia, “afraid, drunk, sobbing,” and also in bed with a “Mrs. Morse.” The inventories go on, culminating in a meticulous account of his dress, his wardrobe, his various appurtenances, and finally “His sad and usual heart.” Even the latter, however, is no more than an “aspect” of him, simply another layer in a pile with no bottom. “This is Robinson,” as Robinson says, is not an affirmation of identity but the sum of its absence. We infer a well-tailored, well-traveled bourgeois who appears here and there doing this and that, and who answers to a certain set of syllables that connotes a name. But there is no more than that. It is not because there is no individual, substantial reality behind the set of attributes that passes for “Robinson,” but that there is no such reality for anyone because there is no longer any civilization to validate it. We are not, Kees suggests, self-authenticating persons in general, but figures composed, linguistically, materially, and morally, of the civilization that grounds and supports us—itself a larger fiction, but one sufficient for purposes of individuation. That civilization had existed, and produced the distinctive intelligences who populate Kees’ early verse—Joyce, Proust, Henry James—but it no longer props up the postwar world, having left only simulacra of itself. Robinson can visit the zoo, read his papers, and put on “The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself.” He can even contemplate suicide from a roof. But there is not enough of him to genuinely despair, and without despair he cannot even perceive his own derealization, the loss of that which makes persons possible.

“Robinson at Home” comes next, his various figurations appearing as a series of apparitions in sleep that depict the whole human circus:

Observant scholar, traveller,
Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave,
A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades,
A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,
A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

The waking Robinson identifies with none of these possible selves, but thinks only, “’There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize’”—that is, that he himself, as the sum of the sequence, leads only to further figuration. The poem leads merely to a frighteningly empty prospect in which the empty wind of being blows “long curtains” into a room occupied, finally, only by a void.

The last of the Robinson poems, “Relating to Robinson,” finds the poet—or at any rate the speaker of the poem—appearing to recognize Robinson on an empty urban street. The speaker knows Robinson is elsewhere, for it is summer and Robinson spends his summers fashionably; nonetheless, the resemblance is such that he “almost” calls out to him. Coming abreast, he turns to look at ‘Robinson’s’ face, only to be greeted by “terrifying eyes” that stop his blood. The figure speaks disjointedly with horror, but also with an implied familiarity (“’You must have followed me from Astor Place’”), the voice suggesting “an echo in the dark.” The speaker, that is to say, recognizes the No One who is both ‘Robinson’ and himself. He flees from the apparition, to find himself once more alone.

Robinson may also represent something else, Kees’ “last man” who is and is not the poet himself. He is, at any rate, inseparable from him—not a proof of existence, but of nightmare. The frightening double who appears in “Relating to Robinson” becomes a vaguely fragmented series in “Furies,” whose speaker notes “Not a third who walks beside me / But five or six more.” These latter, this “retinue / of shadows,” are a shape-shifting tribe of monsters, “A harelipped and hunchbacked dwarf / . . . / Who jabbers the way I do”; a sinister “clown” who turns into “a man with a mouth of cotton / Trapped in a dentist’s chair.” Each figure becomes more hideous than the last, returning the speaker to the terrors of childhood where “We enter a thousand rooms / That pour the hours back”—a labyrinth that leads only to the most inexpressibly primal terror of all.

Kees’ alienation leads him finally away from the human altogether. From “Obituary” on, his protagonists more and more often take animal and insect shapes until they lead to a world populated by them. “The Plague” represents this process, in which dying locusts suddenly appear, succeeded by unnatural varieties of species, “strange worms crawling; flies of a kind / We had never seen before / . . . / Queer fungi sprouting.” Even familiar creatures abandon their instinctive ways, until, at the last, a “hideous” swarm of frogs sit “silent and ominous” on each other to listen to “the sound of rushing wind.”

Kees finally settles on the one species both most dubiously domestic and ferally wild as his ultimate interlocutor, “A monstrous cat that seems / Far older than the oldest carp / In the waters under the earth,” and who introduces himself as “Your spiteful and envenomed shadow” (“Wet Thursday”). We might better think of his true provenance as mythical, a sphinx or a basilisk, the keeper of secrets he does not intend to tell, the face into which one dares not look. The strangeness and unutterability of the world is all that replies to the poet, who seeks the cat out in his lair with an offering in “Colloquy,” not expecting any reply but simply reduced to his predicament:

“I bring,”
I said, “besides this dish of liver, and an edge
Of cheese, the customary torments,
And the usual wonder why we live
At all, and why the world thins out and perishes
As it has done for me, sieved
As I am toward silences. Where
Are we now? Do we know anything?”

We recognize here the “echo” of Robinson, the modern man without qualities, who asks the question that is only a confession, and gets the response he deserves: “’Give me the dish.’”

If Kees projects his own alienation—both from his kind and from himself—onto menacing animal shapes, he does not forget the reality of man as the dominant species who subjects all others to himself. In “The Clinic,” he identifies himself with suffering laboratory animals (cats, again, in this case), being tortured by jolts of electricity:

Light in the cage like burning foil
At noon; and I am caught
With all the other cats that howl
And dance and spit, lashing their tails
When the doctors turn the current on.
The ceiling fries. Waves shimmer from the floor
Where hell spreads thin between the bars.

The poem proceeds through a catalogue of human ailments, presumably to be investigated by animal experiment, before returning to “that room / Where a room of cats danced, spat, and howled / Upon a burning plate,” and concludes, “I was home.” ‘Home,’ that is to say, is where the animal subjects are tortured into mimicking a human activity, dance, even as they writhe and howl with pain; home is “hell,” and there is nowhere else.

Blake is again invoked ironically in “Speeches and Lyrics for a Play,” not to suggest a new Jerusalem but an atomic ruin: “Geiger counter, clicking soon / In the forests of our noon, / What immortal eye will glimpse / These corpses, and our impotence?” But political references become sparser and sparser in the last poems, and the city, whether of the victor or the vanquished, is a dream of death:

To build a quiet city in his mind:
A single overwhelming wish; to build
Not hastily, for there is so much wind,
So many eager smilers to be killed.
(“To Build a Quiet City in His Mind”)

The wish for a city, for a worthy humanity, is still there, but the “wind” that permits nothing to stand rises again in the poet’s mind, first as an obstacle but then savagely embraced as the wish for a destruction that will at last engulf him too. The vision he has come to is one in which violence permeates everything, and can be turned finally only on oneself: no other exit is possible. The lines in “Place of Execution” take us, precisely, to the place to which Weldon Kees came at last:

If we walk along the empty foreground of the sea,
The wind is cold, and there is only darkness at our backs.

If the poet is the canary in the coal mine, then the fate of the cohort of 1914 tells us something about the world that emerged from the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar world of American empire. Like Kees, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman came to their own ends through a complex combination of circumstances, but a common thread of isolation and alienation runs through their work, and the title of one of Jarrell’s last works, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, epitomizes the sense of what Kees himself called in “The Clinic” the “desiccation” of modern life. At the juncture where we ourselves stand, with an empire that has metastatized around the globe, an ethos of empty consumption, and a social infrastructure that is crumbling visibly beneath us, Kees’ work is both a warning and a challenge.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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