“Empty Houses”: Remembering Rachel Wetzsteon
“Empty Houses”: Remembering Rachel Wetzsteon
I wish I had known Rachel Wetzsteon better. I’m quite certain that given time I would have. I met Rachel through mutual friends, and I regularly saw her in poetic haunts like the cave-like Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan and fluorescent nine-hour critical seminars on the works of Auden and Larkin (she was an Auden scholar, and the influence of both is evident in her own exquisite poetry). We often found ourselves huddled against the elements in a small circle of smokers. I admired her poems very much, was entranced by a number of them, well before I met her. As editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, I asked if I might publish a paper she had delivered on happiness in the poetry of Philip Larkin, a seemingly peculiar, if not downright perverse, topic, and one that she handled in the most persuasive manner. The essay is about unusually stoic kinds of happiness, ones that might seem merely a variety of sadness to some. We batted the piece back and forth, and we arrived at the final version before too long. Sadly, it was not published before she died, though it appeared not long after. In the essay, she wrote:
I will confess a hopeless preference for the happiness described in [Philip Larkin’s] “Born Yesterday,” whose eloquent, hopeful zeal for fresh starts and luminous praise of the ordinary feel like Larkin’s attempt to formulate an even more rewarding and plausible version of happiness, and thereby to counter the problems—the passing of time, the difficulties of human relations—that so many of his poems bemoan. In “Born Yesterday,” Larkin finds a happy medium between “Nothing and paradise,” joy’s absence and its fragile or otherworldly abundance; and if we are skilled and vigilant and flexible enough readers to pay attention to this important, quietly profound poem, we will be enthralled.
The “hopeful zeal for fresh starts and luminous praise of the ordinary” must have sustained Rachel for a long time. We know this because we feel it in her poems. Adam Kirsch wrote in the Contemporary Poetry Review that “in a perfect world, Rachel Wetzsteon would be one of the most popular poets of her generation. You would see people in the outdoor cafes along Upper Broadway reading copies of Sakura Park the way pilgrims to Greenwich Village carry Scott Fitzgerald or Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Yet even in this perfect world it is likely that the poet would continue to suffer in some degree. Kirsch considered the “roles Wetzsteon likes to watch herself play. Her sensibility is equally informed by Baudelaire, the prince of flaneurs, and Kierkegaard, the prince of ironists. . . . Like them, she perversely prefers suffering to happiness, because suffering leads to self-consciousness.” Perhaps there is a very real price to be paid for wresting such superb poetry from the agonies and tedium of life.
I was scheduled to read with Rachel, along with Ben Downing and Adam Kirsch, at the venerable Grolier Club in New York City at the beginning of December, 2009, less than a month before her death. The event was planned to celebrate the publication of the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets , an alphabetical account of emerging poets, in which she appears very nearly at the end (followed only by Wiman, Wunderlich, Yezzi, and Young). On the evening of the reading, I was told that she had phoned in the small hours to say she was quite ill and regretted she would be unable to attend. Something about that troubled me, though on the surface it didn’t seem terribly out of the ordinary, given that it was flu season. That evening, young poet Callie Siskel read one of Rachel’s signature poems, “Pemberley,” which takes its title from Mr. Darcy’s estate in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a place as essential and exquisite as the man. Rachel’s Pemberley is empty, but haunted. It conjures all of the allure and melancholy of that “perfect world” that never was, and likely never will be: “I learned empty houses are excellent teachers.”
I consulted the entry for my journal the day I learned about Rachel’s death:
____ called me early this morning to say Rachel Wetzsteon killed herself on Christmas. I’m looking at a picture of her right now, the one she selected for use in the Swallow anthology. At first she seems to be on the gangway of an airplane (at least that’s what I thought for a long time), the kind they probably still use for smaller craft, poised to fly off to Paris and Rio. But no, that’s romantic of me to see that. It’s something else. On closer inspection the angled white surface upon which she leans is a beached dinghy or rowboat of some kind on its side. She’s in a stylish black hat with gloves, an overcoat, and a silk scarf, all black, gazing down from a somewhat self-conscious and possibly uncomfortable pose.
I once imagined her inhabiting the worlds she created in her poems, but maybe they also served as mirrors. One of the Swallow anthology poems is “Love and Work,” in which she describes a woman torn between her intellectual and artistic aspirations on the one hand and the demands of remaining sexually attractive and socially desirable on the other, a maddening and impossible position:
In an uncurtained room across the way
a woman in a tight dress paints her lips
a deeper red, and sizes up her hips
for signs of ounces gained since yesterday.
She has a thoughtful and a clever face,
but she is also smart enough to know
the truth: however large the brain may grow,
the lashes and the earrings must keep pace.
. . .
There is an inner motor known as lust
that makes a man of learning walk a mile
to gratify his raging senses, while
the woman he can talk to gathers dust.
These are uncomfortable observations, and perhaps even more uncomfortable truths. Whatever happiness she sought and enjoyed, it must not have been enough. Still, I always see her smiling and laughing. Surely she was just amused by the usual horseplay and badinage familiar to poets in groups, but those glimpses are enough to convince me that happiness dwelt alongside incredible, and ultimately unbearable sadness. We are very lucky to have her poems. May they live a long, long time.