Weldon Kees & Robinson: Portraits in Absentia
by Jay Robinson
Without Donald Justice, the poems of Weldon Kees might have vanished—like the man himself. As David Wojahn notes, Kees’s poems exhibit “nothing Surrealist, Beat or Confessional, in an era during which verse in open forms became the prosodic party lines.” Yet, by publishing The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees in 1960, Justice successfully introduced Kees to a new generation. Justice himself could not have assumed the enduring effect of his gesture. Forty years and three editions later, readers can now acquire a volume of Kees’s letters and fiction, even a detailed biography, not to mention the poems.
Kees, however, also engendered interest. Had he not disappeared, a probable suicide, his car found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1955, he no doubt never would have become the mythological figure he is today. As a matter of fact, a sect of readers still believe Kees didn’t jump after all, but scurried off to Mexico to spend out his days in relative obscurity—a nice, if romantically flawed notion, considering Kees’s own obscurity, his dire frustration at his inability to firmly establish himself as an artist, was probably one of the more elemental reasons for his decision to “disappear” in the first place. These facts aside, Kees’s greatest endowments are his poems, however, not the myths or debates his vanishing has created. Throughout his career, out of which only three volumes of poetry were published, Kees revolutionized formal structures, injecting his own personal darkness into villanelles, sonnets and sestinas. He was one of the first poets to tinker with traditional, received meters while still presenting a tone more in keeping with casual conversation. Kees exhibits tremendous range, too. His free verse poems resonate with depth and gravity. Among them are his best: The Robinson poems.
Kees yielded much of his own personality unto the character of Robinson. From a distance, one of the most compelling facts concerning the poems is their collective brevity: Four poems. That’s it. A startling fact when you consider that less than a decade later, John Berryman, a brief contemporary of Kees, began publishing his Dream Songs, his own persona poems, whose published total would eventually stand at a decidedly massive three-hundred-and-eighty-five. Kees himself, though, led a life of brevity. Thus, while Berryman couldn’t stop writing of Henry, Kees may have known that to write of Robinson with any alarming regularity could simply be too much of a good thing: “There’s a law of diminishing returns more exacting on poetry,” Kees was known to tell friends. One of the lasting mysteries of Robinson is, not only what few tangible facts we know of him, but also to what depths Kees works to deprive us of him. Some passages from of the poems prove eerily prophetic. Consider the second stanza of “Robinson,” the first of the four poems written:
The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.
From where we read today, knowing what happened to Kees, the stanza almost reads as the poet’s own retort to those who don’t think that Kees leapt to his death. The idea of Kees sipping a margarita in Mexico is not an honest reflection of what actually happened, the poem suggests. If you have any doubts—Kees seems to be taunting—look to the ever-furtive image of the character he creates. Perhaps a passage like this one from “Aspects of Robinson” will suffice:
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 Intourist tour.
Here’s where Old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.
Kees, of course, crafts the poems masterfully. Though he was known to read them in a variety of sequences whenever he read, the Robinson poems are best understood in the order Kees wrote them. “Robinson,” the first of the batch, offers a portrait of Robinson as Everyman, as the essentially ordinary American male. Yet, unlike most portraits, the subject of “Robinson,” Robinson, never appears. Kees, in fact, forces us to view Robinson only in his absence, presenting readers instead a detailed description of Robinson’s home. Nearly every detail, however, objects Kees no doubt carefully selected, presents an absence, a reflection of the nowhere-to-be found home owner himself: In the home of Robinson, Robinson is not present; in the mirror of Robinson, no reflection is seen; even the pages of Robinson’s books are blank. The only living presence, Robinson’s poor neglected pooch, sleeps beneath the piano flailing his paws, absent from the conscious world. Yet, the poem takes its strangest, most poignant turn, in the fifth stanza, the poem’s lone couplet:
All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.
Robinson’s presence, then, only ensures additional absence.
Even when he’s home no one reaches out to him. Robinson, in
fact, remains so stricken with loneliness that Kees suggests Robinson
could be phoning his own apartment himself from another location
(work perhaps, a payphone) in order that someone, anyone, might
extend a human hand to him, even if that hand is his own.
Absence forms the pattern. Consequently, the Robinson poems are best defined as portraits in absentia. In “Relating to Robinson,” Kees stalks someone who he thinks could be Robinson, but who he’s never sure truly is. In “Robinson at Home” Robinson acts like his dog, is present but asleep, essentially absent from the poem in any active manner. Only in “Aspects of Robinson” is Robinson a conscious, physical presence. Absence as a pattern, of course, suited the character of Weldon Kees. With his eventual disappearance in mind, one comes to study Kees’s life, art, and poetry as yet another portrait in absentia. It goes without saying, then, that it would be an easy task to substitute ‘Kees’s for ‘Robinson’ throughout the Robinson poems. As we already said, Kees the poet modeled the character of Robinson after Kees the human being.
“Aspects of Robinson,” though, the only poem where Robinson is present, is not without its own absences. Of all four poems, “Aspects” is Kees’s most mature narration, the best of the bunch. The poem, composed of five quintets, uses each stanza’s penultimate phrase as a fiery punch line:
Robinson walking in the park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
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.
The tension here originates from what information Kees both includes and excludes from the poem. First off, we don’t know just who, specifically, it is that Robinson chats with, if he is actually conversing at all. As we know from “Robinson,” Robinson could be chatting it up with himself. More significantly, Kees refuses to inform us not only how Robinson’s plans fell through to leave him “alone” in the pub “staring at the wall,” but also, if indeed his plans did fall through at all. Instead, Kees forces an assumption of his reader. Whatever we read into the context of the poem, then, defines the tension. Though entirely different in their manner and mood, Kees’s Robinson poems exert their will just as Berryman’s aforementioned Dream Songs: Kees lets his readers determine the facts of the situation from the compilation of the poem’s details. In the simplest of terms, he shows, doesn’t tell us what’s happening. Thus, the tragedies of Robinson become our tragedies. Like Kees, we become Robinson.
Other details in the poem confirm other absences, specifically Robinson’s sexual inadequacies. As the poem nears its conclusion, Kees presents us with a “sobbing Robinson / In bed with a Mrs. Morse.” Finally given the chance at intimacy, Robinson fails. It’s left to the reader to determine whether his failure is rooted in Robinson’s sexual ineptitude (his impotency), or his lack of experience, even perhaps his moral conscience. After all, the woman Robinson attempts (and fails?) to make love to is a married woman, ironically, the perfect match for Robinson: A figure sexually absent from her marriage. Yet, Robinson’s best match is Robinson’s worst failure. Fittingly, “Aspects” concludes with a portrait of Robinson as the Everyman:
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.
“Robinson at Home,” begins where Kees left-off in the first Robinson poem: “Curtains drawn back, the door ajar, / All winter long, it seemed, a darkening / Began.” Robinson’s presence, though, remains purely psychological. What consciousness he maintains is only the distant consciousness offered in dream:
These are the rooms of Robinson.
Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though
All the blurred daybreaks of the spring
Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone,
Still, it seems indeed that dear Robinson has, at last, found refuge for himself, albeit in sleep, for Robinson’s dreaming allows him to assume a variety of identities, each of which, thankfully, remains decidedly un-Robinsonian:
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—
All these are Robinson in sleep. . . .
Yet, even in the cocoon of sleep, Robinson maintains an awareness of his frailer nature: “ ‘There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize— / This city—nightmare—black’—/ / He wakes in sweat / To the terrible moonlight and what might be / Silence.” Eventually, inevitably, then, Robinson cannot escape. Like Kees, Robinson knows no refuge. Robinson is trapped. Robinson knows, in fact, only Robinson, and the darkness thereof. If Robinson is Kees, then Robinson’s ready to tumble from the heights.
Not surprisingly, like Kees himself in the summer of 1955, Robinson disappears again, once and for all, by the fourth and final installment: “Somewhere in Chelsea, early Summer; / ….I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me.” In the poem, however, Kees pursues this fleeting figure, even as he knows Robinson most likely is elsewhere—on vacation in the Cape until after Labor Day. Nevertheless, Kees nearly “calls out, “Robinson!” The figure doesn’t ignore Kees either, but confronts him, chides him for following, which only leaves Kees to claim later how he knew not “there in the dark, that it was Robinson / Or someone else.” Fittingly, Robinson makes his exit much as he made his entrance, an act on Robinson’s behalf that proves just as fleeting as the figure of Robinson’s own creator, Kees himself. Perhaps the reason why so many readers remain intrigued by the disappearance of Kees can be found in how he models the character of Robinson after himself. If Robinson could have disappeared, couldn’t Kees have disappeared as well? Whatever conclusion we reach, perhaps it’s best to get there by confronting the Robinson poems, and not the life of Kees. Because the poems reveal what tragedies led him to leave his car abandoned by the bridge.
Jay Robinson teaches composition at the University of Akron. A graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, he and his wife live in Wooster, Ohio. (12/2004)