“A Way of Arriving” – Paying Tribute to Rachel Wetzsteon
“A Way of Arriving” – Paying Tribute to Rachel Wetzsteon
I did not know Rachel Wetzsteon well. I only ever met her at the West Chester Poetry Conference, where we both participated in two nine-hour seminars, one on the poetry of Philip Larkin and one on that of W.H. Auden (as recalled by other contributors to this special tribute). But Rachel was a person whose personality struck you; even if I knew nothing of her private life other than what emerges from her poetry, I had the feeling—perhaps the illusion, but a powerful one—that I knew her. The news of her death therefore upset me greatly. As is clear from the testimony of those who did know her well, the news was shocking but, tragic to say, it did not come out of the blue. The pain that brought about this sad event was, of course, evident to anyone who read her poetry. However, I think it important to say that her poetry communicates a great deal more than just this personal agony; those qualities that struck me in her person and which helped to create the sense of a direct bond with her are equally evident in her poetry, and it is these qualities—which are often, despite everything, essentially affirmative—that I wish to pay tribute to here.
It is noticeable that so many of her those who knew her well refer to her laughter: “That laugh,” Rachel Hadas says simply in her poem, and anybody who ever met her will know immediately what she is referring to. Of course, no one would wish to deny that laughter can often conceal deep personal pain, and this clearly was the case with Rachel Wetzsteon. Nevertheless, the sense of humour and the accompanying vitality were real enough. They are evident in so much of her poetry. She pays tribute to a number of great comedians in her poems, from Woody Allen to Eddie Izzard, from the Marx brothers to the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s and early 40s. She is often very funny in her poetry. At times this comic sense is, as various critics have noted, similar to that of Dorothy Parker:
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.
(“Love and Work”)
This, of course, is an edgy, urban wit, which is often the reverse of cheerful. It can serve as a kind of laconic anesthetic against the pains of a life; it is the same tone we hear in a poem like “Learning from the Movies”, where she refers to a world where “if something can go wrong / it will” (in another poem, she says that she was raised in “a place where the worst that can happen / happens every day”). The very flipness of this pessimism may seem to serve as its own antidote, but in the end it doesn’t deceive us. Indeed, the ironist herself can weary of the pose:
And if irony is a burrowing inward, a bright light coming upon room after room in the mind’s dark mansion, it meets its opposite in tears, the weary, beery relief of spilling your secrets and crying Out with it, I have burrowed long enough.
The notion that the dazzling wit is no more than a mask is stated explicitly in the poem with the significant title “And This Time I Mean It”:
Soon, though, I wondered whether
there were two of me living in one house:
one who did the breathing
and one, all smirks and eyebrows, who cracked the jokes.
However, that is not the whole story. The humour in her poetry is not always so bitter or so edgy. In her delightful ghazal, “Homage to Eddie Izzard”, she takes delight in a comedy of pure zaniness:
Do earwigs make chutney? Do spiders make gravy?
Is the hall enthralled by nonsense? Yes: his, tonight.
This is Izzard’s kind of comedy but there is often a strong dose of this absurd surrealism in her own imagery, as in a poem like “Sanity Clauses” (a title that pays homage to the Marx Brothers):
If Miss Havisham takes her dress to the cleaners
If I like the letter scenes less than the waltzes,
If the speaking lion’s a lifelong challenge,
If I get these silly lists out of my system . . .
There may be a touch of the frantic in all this but there is also an element of sheer joyful creativity at its heart. It is important to state that she had a sense of happiness and a clear yearning for it. This was evident in the paper she gave at the seminar on Philip Larkin, with the seemingly perverse title of “Larkin and Happiness”, which has since been published in Contemporary Poetry Review. In this essay she concentrates on a poem of Larkin’s with the title “Born Yesterday”. Discussing this title, she declares that it provides a “hint” as to how Sally Amis, the baby whose birth is celebrated in the poem, might achieve a number of desired virtues “by cherishing fresh starts as well as certain traits of character that enable us to feel we were ‘born yesterday,’ open to anything, even if we are forty or sixty or eighty years old.”1
Wetzsteon makes a direct connection with another Larkin poem, “Trees”, which concludes with the poet interpreting the voice of the newly green trees as they sway in the wind: “Last year is dead . . . Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” She shows very acutely how Larkin, reputedly so somber and downbeat, is in fact one of the great poets of spring. She herself, as I will try to show subsequently, was another.
The Curious Tourist
For those who know where to look, therefore, Larkin is a presence within her own poetry. Rather more obvious is the voice of Auden, about whom she wrote a major scholarly study and whom she commemorates in a splendid poem, “In Memory of W. H. Auden”. For the poem she adopts the alcaic stanza used by Auden himself for some of his meditative poetry in the Horatian manner. The poem identifies Auden’s greatest quality in his “precision”: “you knew that passion without precision // is like some awful parody of a book / on how to succeed.” Although it has been said (often in a rather naïve fashion, purely on the basis of some of Auden’s own statements about himself) that he lacked a clear visual sense, Wetzsteon pays homage to the curiosity of his gaze:
took in the sights like a curious tourist:
the dull stare of immigrant faces,
the twilight glow of a watertower
caught your attention equally.
Indeed, she refers to his “keen eye”, declaring that even when it “became (or so some argue) / somewhat dimmer [. . .] the spark remained, and the wandering pupils.” As with Larkin, what is being celebrated is the freshness of vision—and it is no accident that one of the sights she refers to (“the twilight glow of a watertower”) is one that catches her own attention, and even serves as focus-point in one of her best poems about New York.
For it is the urban poet she celebrates here, and at the heart of the poem is a small imagined encounter between herself and her great forerunner in the city where they both lived:
There is one year—
my first, your fifth-to-last—in which our paths could
have crossed. I sometimes picture the scene:
stroller collides with old man in sneakers
and Saint Mark’s Place falls silent for a second.
That is the true Wetzsteon note: a miniature anecdote, which is also an imaginative projection of a desire, with a delicate blend of the marvellous and (strange, or perhaps not so strange, to say) the light-hearted. And, of course, the fact that New York is the setting is crucial to the success of these lines.
In one of the best things written on Wetzsteon’s poetry, Adam Kirsch pays tribute to the way her “poems manage to turn Morningside Heights […] into a theater of romance, an intellectual haven, a flaneur’s paradise” (Contemporary Poetry Review, 2007). He states that “it is heartening to see Wetzsteon affirm the city’s true glamour.” Reading this, one may feel bound to make all sorts of distinctions and reservations about her urban poems, not all of which obviously fall into this category, but I feel that what Kirsch says is essentially true of the best of them. They constitute a celebration of urban life on the whole, even if the lives of the residents depicted in them are frequently anguished ones.
More about the Pain than the Place . . .
Here I will add another personal note and say that, as co-editor of an anthology of poems about Venice, where I have lived for 29 years, I was first struck by a group of her poems about my own city. I discovered them too late to include in the anthology but if ever it runs into a second edition that will be amended. As visitors have been lamenting for the past five centuries at least, it is almost impossible to say anything new about Venice and the best one can hope is to find a new way of saying old things. Wetzsteon succeeds in this, in the Venetian sonnets included in her sequence “Home and Away”. The city becomes a “City of disease and faded pigments, / special case most golden and serene”, and she revels in its “fertile, glorious decline” (xviii). This evocation of Venetian decadence is not, as I have already suggested, in itself new; the oneiric tone she adopts to describe the city also belongs to a long tradition, going back at least to Byron’s “Childe Harold” and owing something, perhaps, to Dickens’s chapter entitled specifically “An Italian Dream” in Pictures from Italy. However, it works well within the sequence, which combines narrative intensity and a sort of visionary symbolism to intriguing effect; at times the imagery has a powerful Stevensian obscurity, as in these lines:
Every year they marry the sea and sky,
but you can see it happen every night
when darkness brings the elements together:
apogee holds nadir like a lover.
(“Home and Away” xiii)
However, while these sonnets caught my attention, it is fair to say that they often baffled me, and at times left me somewhat frustrated. The volume as a whole contains a number of poems that produced a similar effect. There are many fine poems but the symbolic imagery sometimes has a kind of willful purposiveness to it, which can become a little heavy-handed. The author herself was clearly aware of this risk, as she states in a poem entitled “Thoughts While Walking”:
I hate the travel logs that tell you
more about the pain than the place,
yet here I am again, narrating
the same old story to myself
time after time.
One too often has the sensation that the landscapes described—and this includes the Venice of “Home and Away” as well as the park-bench that opens and closes the sequence (and which provides the cover-photograph for the book), and also the hills, forests and lakes that appear in other poems—are essentially symbolic settings for “the pain” rather than actual “places”. The author’s own awareness of the fault may be disarming but doesn’t actually neutralize it. The symbolism has its own intensity—in particular, there is a strong sense of colour throughout the book, flowers being almost overpowering in their brilliance and fragrance—but the sense of place is occasionally lacking. At times the author herself expresses a kind of frustration with the tendency for everything to turn into symbol: “Sometimes a flute is just a flute . . .” (“Duet”).
Rachel in Manhattan . . .
The reason her third book, Sakura Park, is so much more successful is primarily because it is so firmly rooted in place. This allows for that powerful marriage of passion and precision. The title of the book itself is significant enough, and the tendency becomes even clearer the moment one glances at the poems listed in the contents-page: “Short Ode to Morningside Heights”, “Rosalind in Manhattan”, “292 Riverside Drive”, “Manhattan Triptych”, “Henry Hudson Parkway Blues”, “Sakura Park”.
The first of this list is the second poem in the volume while the last closes it, so that we have a sense that this “quiet, bourgeois neighborhood near Columbia University” (as Kirsch describes it) provides the overall frame—or setting—for the whole book. The tone is clearly set from the first of the book’s three epigraphs, from Walter Benjamin:
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 calls 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.
It is as if Wetzsteon takes on the challenge of combining the freshness of vision of the tourist (like Auden) with the affection and street-wisdom of the long-time resident. The opening poem in the book is a clear example:
Sunrise over Low
This view is new: gray dome set in a pink sky
like a gem in a ring, rooftops confirming
levels attained, and plump watertowers
perching on each one, my trusty protectors
The combination of novelty (one presumes the poem describes the view from a newly moved-into apartment) with familiarity (the essential ingredients of the view are clearly old friends: “my trusty protectors”) characterizes the whole poem. Indeed, she goes on to say: “It seemed I would not flee old haunts so much / as rise above them, snug in penthouse wisdom.” The vitality of the poem lies in the way the couplets, in a series of inventive metaphors and similes, serve to undermine this “penthouse wisdom”, bringing her into a less self-assured (less “snug”) relationship with what she sees—with, that is, the city. The game begins with a comic simile in the Byron mode: “But daybreak springs its surprises like a shy face / after a drink too many…” We are then told that “the dome rebukes me // for spines not cracked, and the banners of dawn / are teases, are sorrows, are prizes, are hunters.”
With this mock-epic language she could be said to establish an understated and light-hearted parallel between her own vocation and that of the great general enshrined under the dome.2 This parallel, obviously, is not pushed too hard, but the poem is as much about the heroic, or at least energetic, play of the imagination in interpreting the view as it is about the view itself: when she once took a “vacation from [her] vocation”, she says “the sunrise suffered so: where were the clouds / like camels, the fresh day’s difficult red riddles?” The poem concludes with the poet making a direct address to the view:
The morning rouses itself into gorgeous disquiet.
And as I head out to meet it, run wild,
you Birnam wood of watertowers, you raw sky
trying on colors like a girl before a dance.
The imagery is immediately engaging. There is something a little frantic in the series of tumbling, rapidly changing metaphors and similes; the oxymoron of “gorgeous disquiet” is intriguing, as is the Shakespearian apostrophe to the watertowers. Perhaps if we knew nothing about the author of the poem we would be won over by the essentially light-hearted simile that concludes the poem, with its sense of promise and vitality, without paying too much attention to the more disturbing undercurrents of the “disquiet” and the latent threat in the “Birnam wood” image. And we would not necessarily be wrong to be so won over. The poem does have a vitality that is essentially joyous, even if other, more troubling elements are undeniably present.
What is important is that the vitality is intrinsically bound up with the urban scene itself. As Kirsch has pointed out, there is a touch of Baudelaire about all this, but there is also something purely—well, purely Wetzsteonian. Just so, New York is purely itself, the quintessence of the urban. The imagery of the city, so sharply depicted, gives a certain substance and grit to poems that might otherwise become manic or monotonous. A clear example can be found in the second poem in the book, “Short Ode to Morningside Heights”:
And as two parks frame the neighborhood—
green framing gray and space calming clangor—
before me, well-worn streets, a context
I can’t help carrying home, a night fugue
streaming over my one-note how, when, why.
Be the rain for my barren indoor cry.
It is precisely because the city succeeds in providing that fugue that the poems are so interestingly varied. The pain and loneliness are there but the poems that contain them are never “one-note”—never monotonous. She maintains a fine modulation between calm and clangor, between greens and grays—and, of course, between numerous other colours.
As already mentioned, she has a natural taste for strong, affirmative colours; indeed, in the case of flowers she is clearly on the side of clangor, and distrusts attempts to calm them:
I bring you poppies, lilacs, riotous blooms.
But you place them all in a tasteful gray vase . . .
No grey and bare jars are to be allowed to take dominion. As she says in “Notes Towards a Theory of Self”: “My state flower is a violet, but I wish it was a heliotrope.” In the same poem, she gives us another view from a window, once again in brilliant assertive colours:
Outside my window, Saint John the Divine at sunset: the crimson of shame, the charcoal of fear, the lavender of drowsy contentment. Like a crash course in Monet, or a portrait of my moods that hour.
Nowhere are the colours more sensuous and overpowering than in the closing lines of a poem entitled “Seeing Red”; the poem, twenty lines long, consists of a single sentence, which in its intricate but compelling syntax carries the reader from simple observation to obsessive brooding (with a succinct and concentrated account of a traumatic “blow to the head”), concluding with the final celebration of the mind’s resilient candor in being “able to say, / at the scene of a red and fragrant chaos, / in a low voice choked with wonder, These are roses.” Perhaps no flower-poem has ever provided such a heady mixture of varied emotions and tones. But the prevailing note is that of wonder.
Inner and Outer Weather
As already hinted, one of her dominant themes is that of the seasons. In one of the few non-New York poems in the book, “Down and Out in San Francisco”, she states very deliberately that she could never really love the Californian city for its “lack / of seasons” which “leaves me cold all over.” Naturally no subject is so well-worn in poetry as that of the seasons, and it would be a pointless exercise to list the poets who have preceded her in celebrating them. But her fondness for the imagery of all four seasons is nonetheless remarkable and, as she herself notes, it goes back a long way. In an essay on the Sapphic stanza published in Crossroads in Fall 1999, she writes of an early work of hers:
I'd written a four-poem sequence called "Seasonal Songs." Looking back at the poem now, I'm amused at the grandiosity of its ambition: each season stood for a different historical period, with spring's Renaissance giving way to summer's Enlightenment, autumn's Romanticism, and (can you guess?) winter's Modernity. But I can also see, with the clarifying light of hindsight, that a lifelong love affair was beginning.
The lifelong love affair she is referring to here is with the Sapphic stanza, but she could equally well be alluding to her affair with the seasons. The seasons, she shows, are a psychological as well as a physical necessity for her. In a poem entitled “Spring (The Procession)” she describes the disorienting effect of the arrival of spring after a winter in which “the leaves clung to the branches / and snow, withheld as an angry god’s / or an old globe’s accusation, never fell”, with the consequence that “when spring came / it was only a name”. This lack of seasonal difference is devastating in its effect:
There was a thing called spring, and it gave
my better days a meaning. But now
that it’s always spring, the days mean nothing.
One is reminded of the desolating picture Wallace Stevens (another great poet of the seasons) gives in “Sunday Morning” of a heaven in which there is “no change of death” and “ripe fruit never fall[s]”. As she puts it in “Home and Away”, with a nod to Frost, her “overflowing heart” requires “a healthy dose of outer weather” (ii).
In “Umbrella Weather” she makes the connection between her inner weather and the outer weather explicit, playing wittily on a standard trope of Petrarchan poetry:
To be sobbing in sunlight, groaning on dry land
always leaves me feeling as if
I’m foreign, freakish, I’m out of the loop
until a storm comes and I’m in it again
only deeper now, with a smile no news can ruin.
I look around and my love is pouring
all over the city—crude sighs, small tears
are larger and finer than they first appear
when they come rampaging down, as wind and as rain.
As these lines suggest, her favoured topic is that of the seasons in the city. Although she seems to lay a special claim to winter (in “Thirty-Three” she refers to it as “My season”), in fact she celebrates them all (and it is celebration, for all the pain that lies beneath), just as she celebrates all kinds of weather. She has a special predilection for rain, seeing it as just as transformative of the city as snow: “a rain-slicked street / that once pierced me with sorrow has turned / limpid and various as a view of Delft” (“A Turn for the Better”). Elsewhere she says that she craves “cavorting / in neon-streaked puddles” (“Glosa”). But she writes with great power of wind (“the gust, and the scatter, and the stillness after” [“Gusts”]) and snow (“a mantle of transforming snow / descends upon the avenue” [“Thirty-three”])—and especially of clouds. In fact, three poems bear the title “Cloud Studies” in Sakura Park, and, as already hinted at in those Hamletic “clouds like camels” in “Sunrise over Low”, she is not prepared to resist the symbolic possibilities of the subject: “A cigar is sometimes just a cigar, / but a cloud is never only a cloud” (“Cloud Studies I”).
Perhaps precisely because winter is “my season”, she reacts with such intensity to the arrival of spring, as in these memorable final lines from “Chasing Spring”:
how revived the mind feels, rounding the bend
to discover there, like a beating heart in the snow,
giving off its own heat, the shock of the crocus.
The last poem in the book—the last poem, therefore, published in book form in her lifetime—naturally has its own poignancy. It is a spring poem, but it is as unsettling a celebration of the season as Frost’s “Spring Pools”. Just as Frost seems more to mourn the loss of winter than to welcome the arrival of the fresh season, so Wetzsteon questions the significance of the scattering of the petals in Sakura Park: “I still can’t tell / whether this dispersal resembles // a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.” As with the first poem in the book, also in meditative couplets, the poem shows the agile mind of the poet seeking to establish connections between the landscape and the self. In this last poem, she deliberately courts the danger of sententiousness, as she draws lessons (“rules of conduct”) from the fleeting nature of the petals. What redeems the poem is partly the lightness of touch and the rueful epigrammatic wit of the lessons drawn but mainly the fact that at the end the poet delicately withdraws from the scene, allowing the trees and the “humming moment” the last word:
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.
I feel privileged to be able to introduce such a distinguished list of contributors to this special tribute to Rachel. In particular, I am happy that so many different sides of her personality and her talents emerge from these pieces, by people who knew her in different ways and in different circumstances. The contributions themselves take different forms, ranging from touching poems in her honour, by Rachel Hadas, Alicia Stallings, and Melvin Bukiet, to moving reminiscences and reflections on individual poems, by Ernest Hilbert, David Mason and David Yezzi. Lorna Blake pays tribute to her gifts as a teacher, as well as a close friend, and Robert Clark provides a fine appreciation of her critical work, in particular her scholarly book on W.H. Auden.
Collecting these poems and essays was, of course, a sad task but also a deeply rewarding one. I feel I know Rachel and her work a great deal better now. It is also heartening to know that a new book of her poetry is due out in September. I hope we won’t have to wait too long to see a collection of her various critical articles and essays – as well as an affordable edition of the book on Auden.
In short, as all these contributions go to show, Rachel is still with us, “safe from the sands / of time”, as she said in her own poem “In Memory of W. H. Auden”. In her deeply moving elegy to her own father, she wrote in the final stanza that “your beloved city / has never looked so glowingly alive”. I think that all these tributes, while acknowledging the depths of her personal pain, show how Rachel and her poetry have now become an intrinsic part of that glowing life, just as Samuel Johnson is forever a part of the life of London. The final words have to be simply “thank you”.