I first discovered Weldon Kees when I was in my twenties when I read a number of his poems in the anthology, Naked Poetry. As poor as I was in those days, I dug deep and had the Twig Bookshop order me a copy of his Collected Poems published by the University of Nebraska. It’s amazing that I bought this book in the 1980s, and Kees had disappeared nearly thirty years before (more on that later), and it was still in only its second printing. Years later, I discovered Kees has been dropped from the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the standard college text used all across the country. Kees was not being read, it seemed, and he certainly was not being taught.
Kees was one of those Mid-Century writers, like Berryman and Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton. He stood apart from these other writers because his work was not overtly confessional. Filled with pathos and humor, Kees’ poems deflect more than they reveal, unless closely read. His greatest achievement is the Robinson poems about an alter-ego who seems to be so marginalized that even his physical presence is in question:
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.
All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.
Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.
Outside, the birds circle continuously
Where trees are actual and take no holiday.
Kees was not just a poet, he was also an accomplished painter and jazz pianist, and he wrote short stories as well as poems. By the mid 1950s, he seemed poised to become a major figure on the American literary scene, and then something happened. Kees disappeared. No one is really sure what really happened, but his car was found parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d spoken to friends about suicide. He talked about running away to Mexico. Whatever actually transpired, Kees was gone and never heard from again.
There has been something of a reawakening to Kees over the last ten years, and while it is still hard to find his work on used bookstore shelves, new editions can be readily obtained.
I’m amazed no one has ever made a film about his life, especially given the mysterious ending. He’s still one of my favorite poets. Here is a passage from another favorite, “Obituary”:
Boris is dead. The fatalist parrot
No longer screams warnings to Avenue A.
He died last week on a rainy day.
He is sadly missed. His spirit was rare.
The cage is empty. The unhooked chain,
His pitiful droppings, the sunflower seeds,
The brass sign, “Boris,” are all that remain.
His irritable body is under the weeds.
A few years ago, I picked up a copy of a Night and Fear, a Centenary Collection of Stories by Cornell Woolrich. I had never heard of this writer before, which surprised me because I learned that many of his novels and stories were adapted to film, most notably Hitchcock’s Rear Window. As I read the stories, I discovered that Woolrich had a unique flair for placing his characters in desperate situations and revealing their innermost weaknesses and, sometimes, hidden strengths. You never know what is going to happen to these characters because in the Woolrich universe no one is ever safe and being a stand-up guy doesn’t mean you won’t get ground under the heel of fate.
Woolrich, who also wrote under the pennames William Irish and George Hopley, authored six books from 1940 to 1948 that used the word “black” in the title. It is partly for this reason he is often referred to as the father of Noir. One of my favorite stories is titled "An Apple A Day". In the story, a jewel heist is bungled when a rare gem is concealed inside an apple that goes astray. Over the course of the story, this apple passes through the hands of more and more desperate people, none of whom know that the answer to their problem lies concealed within the piece of fruit. Finally, it winds up in the hand of a homeless person who plans to eat it in the morning but freezes to death overnight, letting fall from his hand the apple that would have saved him. This is classic Woolrich. Sure, it’s a bit contrived, but who cares? All Woolrich is interested in is the humanity of his characters and while the story has elements of humor (the apple is eventually eaten by a horse and followed by detectives waiting for it to be excreted) it is remarkable for the portrait of characters caught in the vise-grip of desperation.
Sadly, Woolrich’s work remains largely overlooked these days and you can expect to pay dearly for an early printing of one of his titles. Here are just a few of these hard-to-find gems: