On Rachel Wetzsteon's Silver Roses and Sakura Park
Silver Roses (Persea, 2010)
Sakura Park (Persea, 2006)
from Pleiades, Winter 2013
When I happened to read Rachel Wetzsteon's Sakura Park in 2008 I was impressed by the candor and courage of its obsessive meditations on loneliness, and by its pursuit of wittiness wanted not only for wit's self-armoring power but for wit's more interesting power to reveal the self in need of armor. I wrote to Wetzsteon in June 2008, praising eight of the Sakura Park poems in particular. In her gracious reply she said "on the one hand I feel it's my best book by far so far" (it was her third) but that she was now absorbed in a newer manuscript. That manuscript would become her posthumous collection Silver Roses, published at the end of 2010—a year after Wetzsteon took her own life on Christmas Day, 2009, at the age of forty-two. A poet's suicide always throws a new light on the poetry—a light sometimes lurid, sometimes in an awful way glamorous. For that reason I'm glad to know that I saw the merit of Sakura Park before its author's death.
In most of this essay I focus on poems in Sakura Park. Like other readers, I've felt uneasy about responding to Silver Roses. The temptation is to honor Wetzsteon elegiacally by praising the posthumous book as a triumph, an advance beyond her previous work. On the whole, though, Silver Roses is not as strong as Sakura Park—a comparison pointedly difficult to avoid because the later book maintains the previous book's preoccupation with romantic love. We can feel Silver Roses trying to be different from Sakura Park in two ways: there is even more flourishing of verbal cleverness; and there is in some of the poems an anxious optimism about a new love relationship; we see Wetzsteon entertaining the notion that her long search has found its happy ending. That notion perhaps inclined her to display her talent as poet of witty cheer rather than as poet of smart misery.
Yet she was very conscious of the possibility that her poetic achievement depended on unhappiness. In one of the optimistic poems (so spooky in the light thrown by her suicide) she wonders: "When I hauled my bags from Frostbite Falls to Harmony Hall, did the decline of menace mean the advent of bland gladness?" Elsewhere in Silver Roses she is self-aware enough to know that bland gladness is an extremely unlikely fate for someone with her depths of anxiety and hunger. The book certainly does not show her moving into regions of concern separate from romantic love and the threat of loneliness. To read it after Sakura Park is to feel wary chagrin at the persistence of those themes.
All important poets have obsessions. The poet of Sakura Park is obsessed with heartbreak and loneliness and the wearying courage needed by someone—in particular, an intellectual single woman in New York—who struggles against heartbreak and loneliness through many years. Wetzsteon's style is consciously artful, sometimes (for my taste) a shade too archly witty, too ostentatiously artificial; what is remarkable is the extent to which the artifice doesn't disguise the emotion, but instead gives it edge. Indeed, it would be hard to find a good book whose poems are more open and alarmingly clear in feeling. The pain of loneliness and of romantic disappointment is so vivid, so naked in Sakura Park as to make you glance away from the page in embarrassment—even in fear. Yet the effect is far from that of artless poems by citizens so unhappy that they seem, as Randall Jarrell put it, to have "sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with 'This is a poem' scrawled on them in lipstick." Nor is it like Anne Sexton, whose poems often seem to luxuriate in misery, whereas Wetzsteon is constantly fighting—intelligently, imaginatively, with daredevil poise—not to give in. Again and again she offers herself advice, and since she knows, and lets us know, how briefly she has been able to follow her own advice, she hopes the advice itself can be strengthened by the flair of its expression.
Banish clichés only
to reinstate them as polished jewels:
love hurts, but you must not say it like that.
Cry "scarlet canyon."
Yell "wound supreme."
And in so doing, sew the wound up, count the jewels.
The force of that stanza from "Rosalind in Manhattan" comes from the fragility of the resolution. Wetzsteon is too alert not to realize that the reinstating of clichés, whether bejeweled or not, is a dubious goal for a poet, even if it could be a useful self-therapeutic maneuver. And she is grimly aware that great comfort is not promised in the image of being a scarred survivor weighing a wealth very different from the wished-for wealth of love. She wants to imagine herself as the heroine of a Shakespearean comedy, but fears she may be stuck in a tragedy—or in some painful drama less cathartic than a tragedy.
The reality of her unhappiness is borne in on us by her candid willingness to consider that it might be thought of as biochemical rather than psychological. In "Listening to the Ocean" she expresses her gratitude for antidepressant medication. "The waves were bad. And if / this false wall hides their horrors from my eyes / I'll swallow very gladly, and feel it rise." The lines are weighted with the emotional exhaustion that can make a drug desirable. But the metaphor warns that a false wall is doomed to be temporary, and that an ocean will never evaporate. Pain will return. In "Evening News" our protagonist has coffee with her ex-lover. She goes into the occasion assuming that they can be "sweetly melancholy" together, calmly sharing the unspoken memory of former passion. But then the man says "I'm seeing someone"—and the revelation shatters her illusion of being beyond caring.
Before this wholly unexpected blast
from the past
I thought I'd fallen into seas so deep
that nothing else could ever make me weep;
I thought I'd buried my dead love for good
in an abandoned, dusty neighborhood.
But I soon learned that corpses can survive,
Jealousy forces her back into wretched aliveness.
That stanza—is it a tissue of clichés and melodramatic hyperboles? I can imagine a reader saying so, I can imagine myself saying so. Wetzsteon can imagine it too; the next and last stanza of "Evening News" anticipates the smirk of a sophisticated reader and drives on past it, determined to declare her misery in a way that is blatantly stark yet also fiercely formal.
So bluster, wind, and smile, sophisticate;
I've been hit
with tons and tons of strangely heavy bricks,
I feel the brute force of a million kicks
but I have never felt less well or wise.
Perhaps some unborn demon will devise
a hotter fury or a crueler one;
hell has none.
No fury like a woman scorned. The target and victim of this woman's fury, though, is herself. She does not resist claiming that her pain is huge. Of course for a poet to say "I hurt more than anyone else" is to invite mockery, the kind of mockery that Shelley defies (or fails to anticipate?) in the last two stanzas of "Ode to the West Wind." Somehow, though, the effect of "Evening News" is not to make me say "Oh, come off it." Rather I feel a flash of the anguish from which the poem springs. In a paradox crucial to Wetzsteon's poetry, the artifice of her versification has a naked, ingenuous quality: "I've been hit / with tons and tons of strangely heavy bricks"—the phrase is clumsy, yes, but I want to say it's the clumsiness of someone staggering under a barrage of suddenly wounding thoughts; and when the bricks rhyme with "the brute force of a million kicks" there's a sense that the victim is too stunned to produce a more clever metaphor. She clings to rhyme and structure as last-ditch defenses against the chaos of fury.
What I've said may not amount to a convincing case for the brutal flatness of phrasing in the stanzas I've quoted (deep/weep ... bricks/kicks ... ). Still I testify that "Evening News" as a whole moves me, through the consciously chosen openness of the speaker's vulnerability. You or I might have been less willing to reveal the insecurity implied by jealousy of one's former lover's new romance. It's not a condition one ordinarily feels proud of; and yet Wetzsteon's candor arises partly from pride. In "But For the Grace" she contemplates the loquacious distress of a "crazy friend" who can't get over a breakup, noting that she herself knows how "to wrap my secrets in veils of frilly / banter, thick webs of gauzy bravado." She realizes that another kind of bravado is finally what she needs:
But lately I'm struck by
the dignity of full disclosure, the glory of loud,
mad lovers who lay their lives on the line
and carry their hearts through the scandalized crowd
crying, Like it or not, this mangled thing is mine.
In ''At the Zen Mountain Monastery" she tries for serene detachment, but "it's hopeless"—Zen calm is not desirable to a New York romantic like her:
though the tortures of the damned
make waking difficult, they are my tortures;
I want them raucous and I want them near,
like howling pets I nonetheless adore
and holler adamant instructions to—
sprint, mad ambition! scavenge, hopeless love
that begs requital!—on our evening stroll
down Broadway and up West End Avenue.
I like the bloody defiance at the end of "But For the Grace," but I am even more touched by the sound of proud acceptance of one's own (Western, Wetzsteon) identity at the end of ''At the Zen Mountain Monastery"—audible in the unstressed rhyme of "instructions to" with "West End Avenue."
Wetzsteon's pride is not so stubborn as to keep her from trying to diagnose her misery and ameliorate it. Many of the most affecting moments in Sakura Park show her considering a cause for her unhappiness and a possible strategic response. She likes imagining herself as a female flaneur, sardonic and elusive and chic, but then fears she has overplayed the role—here are two of her "Flaneur Haiku":
Robed in mystery
I sweep through parks, through parades.
But cast no shadow!
Never to be known:
charming as a beginning,
chilly at the end.
In "Love and Work" she worries that her intellectual life prevents romantic adventures:
A chilling vision of the years ahead
invades my thoughts, and widens like a stain:
a barren dance card and a teeming brain,
a crowded bookcase and an empty bed ...
But then she argues that her reading and writing make her more ready for the right lover: "I'm burning all these candles not to shirk / / a night of passion, but to give that night / a richly textured backdrop when it comes." These lines have an ominous ring of wishful thinking, yet we realize that we have sometimes justified our own long hours of reading and writing in the same way.
There's an amazing dream poem called "Lawyers on the Left Bank" in which Wetzsteon's dream-interpretation does not manage to come up with strategic optimism. The lawyers find themselves in a Parisian cafe that becomes a wild nightclub full of sexual play. Wetzsteon supposes that the lawyers represent "me at thirty-two" and she imagines three responses they might have to the bawdy scene:
Perhaps they harbor fantasies of trading in their suits
for clingy leather bodices and sleek stiletto boots;
perhaps they scan the revelry and contemplate a fate
where working hard is not the solemn foe of playing late;
or maybe they just tease the air with legions of small sighs
and burn holes in the carpet with averted bedroom eyes.
These three possible responses distill moods explored in many poems in Sakura Park. The idea of being a tough adventuress gives way to the idea (as in "Love and Work") of a life in which erotic adventure and intellectual labor are mutually enhancing; but the last word goes to her fear of lingering in helpless lonely passivity. Explicitly working as her own psychiatrist, Wetzsteon achieves a vivid, strangely cinematic epitome of her enduring quandary. By giving her diagnosis such artful structure—"Lawyers on the Left Bank" is a sonnet in rhymed heptameter couplets—she has given it a firm and appealing shape outside the hurly-burly of her dreaming mind, so it can be contemplated with cool humor.
If Rachel Wetzsteon were alive and happily married today, Sakura Park would still be a powerful book, a book about unhappiness that turned out to be escapable. Since her suicide, though, we can't escape the sharpened poignancy of passages in which she strives to coach herself toward optimism and resilience. In "Gusts," for example, she sees spring blossoms blown from trees and wonders if her tendency to interpret every experience metaphorically may be a mistake:
And all night a low voice chides me
for never giving my all to the moment;
a question forms and grows urgent
and won't take no answer for an answer:
if I gave up stories, what would become
of the gust, and the scatter, and the stillness after?
Would the trees be robbed of what made them priceless
or let their riches loose as never before?
Those lines express the intellectual's fear that she overthinks her life and thereby misses pleasure, but also the stronger suspicion that without imagination's narrating, experiences would lose "what made them priceless." Intensely and sometimes agonizingly mindful, Wetzsteon is apt to feel revulsion as well as envy for people who seem happily mindless, like the travelers weaving their paths through New York's gigantic bus station, so she counsels herself (in "Skater's Waltz," a section of "Manhattan Triptych") to forgive and accept:
This was the challenge: not to succumb,
that late gray afternoon in Port Authority,
to easy fury at the piped-in music—
such carefree, glittering sound must surround
much happier commutes than mine—
but to let the lushness pierce the grayness,
discover myself gliding in
an indoor rink with all the other skaters.
Poetry is matched against depression, proposing to convert a throng of commuters into blithe skaters, and to give the scene a deftly formal air via rhythm and the partial rhyme whereby "grayness" gives way to " skaters."
Wetzsteon keeps hypothesizing cheerful and dauntless responses to betrayal and solitude, promising herself that with enough imagination such responses can be hers. Reading Sakura Park one finds the adjective plucky coming to mind, with an inevitable dark edge since Wetzsteon's death. She reveres the heroines of Hollywood screwball comedies, like Irene Dunne, who win their access to renewed happiness through wit, without needing drugs. A stanza from "Short Ode to Screwball Women":
Gaudy but sober: when your wayward husband
courted the heiress, you stormed her gates
disguised as a floozy—and asked the butler
to serve you gingerale. It was life
you'd rather be drunk on, roaring life
that told you there is no time for spirits
of dark staircases, only lightning ruses
that not only leave no bruises but give
all parties their wish: rinsed vision and second chances.
But lightning ruses are so much more feasible in movies than in our daily lives. And so in the last poem of Sakura Park, which is also the title poem, Wetzsteon is still counseling herself, still watching for a metaphor that will help her live. The park she walks in becomes her life: when the wind scatters blossoms "I still can't tell / whether this dispersal resembles / / a fist unclenching or waving goodbye." The park tells her that changes have to be tolerated; and the book ends with lines in which our heroine has a dignity after long suffering that hauntingly reminds me both of Hopkins' "My own heart let me more have pity on" and the weary hope of Tennyson's Ulysses.
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.
The person who has to remind herself that "meanwhile's far from nothing" is clearly familiar with the fear that the mere beauty of the physical world is empty. A reader may want to call out to her: Rachel, don't walk alone in the park, have lunch with a friend! But it's easy for an undepressed person to condescend to depression.
True; still, for an undepressed reader, a possible complaint about Sakura Park (and Silver Roses too, alas) would be that it is myopically riveted on the self, so devoted to the protagonist's emotional drama as to be oblivious of all the other dramas—some involving physical misery—happening around her in New York City. In one poem, "Apologies to an Ambulance," Wetzsteon faces the idea that hers is not the only suffering in town. Seeing an ambulance pass she at first performs her habitual figuration:
The red light was my racing heart,
the siren my pain made public,
and the body inside, a study in scarlet,
was battered yet somehow grotesquely pretty.
But then (without showing how the shift comes about) she decides she owes an apology to the ambulance's patient, "the wretch in the back"—
you come from a place
where pulp's not fiction, you know a world
where bullets are more than metaphors
for lovely eyes, and though I roped you
into my story I'll let you go now, wish you
safe passage through a lifetime of green lights.
That realization may be too rare in Sakura Park, but to ask for much more of such empathy would be to ask for a different book. Sakura Park has the integrity of a book that knows what it needs to be about. "Like it or not, this mangled thing is mine." There are many books of poems that come across essentially as efforts at self-therapy without appearing to know—or to want us to know—how fully that is what's going on. Wetzsteon's book by comparison is admirably unpretentious.
Another striking and even brave (not just plucky) thing about Sakura Park is its commitment—not only in its formalities of structure and rhyme but also in its diction and idioms—to effects that are proudly not au courant. Wetzsteon's being a fan of screwball comedy heroines is suggestive; though she functioned as a high-achieving intellectual in the 21st century metropolis (she had become poetry editor of The New Republic not long before her death), her visions of plausible joy and romantic success hearken back to the Thirties, to an era when insincere men could unjokingly be called heels. In some ways Wetzsteon is the urbane, witty, vulnerable daughter of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet now underrated (though less interesting than Wetzsteon, I'd say). There are sentences and stanzas in Sakura Park that you could believe to be Millay's, and Wetzsteon must have recognized a mood of her own in Millay's famous lines: "Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. / It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." Vitality without reliable romantic love was not enough for Rachel Wetzsteon. She knew she was no cherry tree, the way Whitman knew he was no Louisiana live-oak. When she pretended, sometimes, to have found contentment, soon she was honest and brave enough to call her own bluff. In "A Bluff" she stands on an elevated spot, after having been rejected by a lover.
Looking down at the city below,
I am almost grateful that when I said
I have met my soul, my soul said no;
it was a verdict that nearly bled
the hope from my veins, but it got me thinking.
Hard for her to be grateful that the relationship failed, though she goes on to speculate that it might eventually have decayed into the bourgeois tedium of marital compromise.
I cry all the time; I hate the ghosts snoring
next to the people they love. But at least
I won't be someone who, smiling too often,
gives too much away; your shipwrecked
wandering stare won't cruelly soften
into the landlocked glare of wan respect.
In those lines we see Wetzsteon doing something she often does, setting up an either/ or opposition (either desperate adventuress or stultified spouse) as if no complicated in-between options were possible. Zen calm on the one hand, mad ambition and hopeless love on the other—binary oppositions like this are tempting because they avoid the confusion of hybrid conditions, and also perhaps because they are convenient for the neat balances of a rhyme scheme. The binary tendency is there in a line quoted earlier, from "Lawyers on the Left Bank," wistfully trying to imagine "a fate / where working hard is not the solemn foe of playing late." It's there in many poems in Silver Roses, despite the emerging hope in that book that the latest love relationship will prove both reliable and lastingly interesting. In "A Dream Vision" Wetzsteon tells of being visited in sleep by two phantom versions of herself—one is an operatically unhappy victim whose injunction is "Complain." The other is an innocent girl who whispers "Praise." The poem does not consider ways of allowing both selves to coexist. Instead,
Half-awake in the predawn
I tossed and turned,
raged and burned,
blearily staggered from bed to window
and wondered which fled ghost
would sign her name to the phrases I was forming.
I call "A Dream Vision" a good poem—its drama is simple but deftly and lucidly presented, and the feeling in those last lines is convincing. Still, the tendency to set up stark dichotomies (praise vs. complaint, work vs. play, peace vs. thrill, safe boredom "so passionate misery) prompts a suspicion that this poet is drawn toward, almost addicted to, the frustration that such binaries make inevitable. We saw her chiding herself, in "Gusts," "for never giving my all to the moment"—a "giving" that would require her to give up "stories." Most of us most of the time, though, get along by sometimes giving a lot to the moment (not our "all") while almost always forming our experience into narratives so that the wild jazz of life will feel meaningful and purposeful. In Silver Roses a poem called "Midsummer Night's Swing" revisits the issue of immersion in the moment. Again she laments her absorption in memory and hope at the expense of being-here-now.
One must live in the present tense,
observed Bette Davis, but I have
always lived in the present
tensely. Tell me
about it: two absent-minded sisters,
backward-peering and future-ogling,
took turns obscuring my vision,
and if managed a brief repose
I did it awkwardly:
my senses somehow took their pleasures
smoke and mirrorishly.
I admire the way that stanza combines wit with sad self-insight, and does this so clearly. The effort to communicate clearly, throughout Wetzsteon's poetry, reflects her sense of poetry's importance. Life is too short for modish murk; obscurity is the minor amusement of poets who haven't come to care enough about poetry's power to help people live.
In the second (and last) stanza of "Midsummer Night's Swing" Wetzsteon addresses someone—perhaps her new partner?—who seems able to live entirely in the present pleasure of listening to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Lincoln Center Plaza. In keeping with her wish to write hopefully in Silver Roses, Wetzsteon resolves to imitate his immersion:
I'll try to do the same,
for I scribbled vainly all afternoon
and later will be lovely,
but so are these current presents
that make this, for now, the only concert—
trumpet, sky, fountain, dancing eyes.
This resolution—more being-a-good-sport than convinced—is touching; we sense how uncertain she feels about locating a tolerable life between the work of writing and the romance expected "later."
Wetzsteon's attraction to simplifying dichotomies animates one of the best poems in Silver Roses, "Year Zero." Hopeful in a new relationship, she is drawn to the idea of her life starting anew, a pure break between past suffering and new love. The impulse to absolutely separate the two seems brave, but then seems also fanatical and delusory.
Raze the chamber where the Brahms piano music,
yearning and yearning outside the window,
nearly drove you mad that summer,
the railroad flat where the roommates took turns
questioning life's joy and purpose;
stand beside the space you've cleared,
say, "On this rock I build a lasting structure."
Pile high the letters sent and received,
then strike a match and cackle wildly
as pleas and feints and imprecations
melt into what you'd have known they were
if you'd only kept your head on: laughable ash.
Then she realizes that painful memories can't be wiped away by an act of will; "Year Zero" ends with these nine lines:
But the very sad Intermezzo,
the ill-judged apple martini,
the plunges fueled by false trust
and misted mirrors are destroy-proof;
they hover at the edges of freshness
as relieved comparisons or, sometimes, bad dreams—
sign perhaps that a truly blank slate's
for amnesiacs and empty classrooms,
a purge that cannot prove how far you've come.
I suppose a therapist would welcome the wisdom there; but a therapist might also detect something worrisome in the word "prove" in that last line—Wetzsteon's longing for an unmistakable assurance that her life has changed. The hypothetical therapist might prefer an emphasis on self-understanding to be carried from the past into the future; and a flash of the pride that declared, in "At the Zen Mountain Monastery," "they are my tortures; / I want them raucous and I want them near."
Undoubtedly anyone presuming to offer therapeutic advice to an emotionally troubled person is liable to be guilty of arrogant complacency. But I think no reader of Sakura Park and Silver Roses can escape trying to imagine wise counsel for the suffering heroine—because she so openly and so unrelentingly presents herself as a case, making her emotional well-being the central subject, almost the only subject of her poetry. Innumerable poets lead us through their vicissitudes of emotion, of course, but few make their misery/joy index so explicitly the topic directly engaged; and in Wetzsteon's outlook, notwithstanding many lines about the pleasures of reading and writing, joy is inseparable from having a lover. If I find myself wanting to say "Rachel, think about something else!" my conscience reminds me how rivetingly interesting my own loneliness seemed to me during the phases of my life when I had no lover. Even in those phases, though, I tried to write sometimes about something else. For Rachel Wetzsteon there was one subject; and in her treatment of it, courageous candor and neurotic obsession can't be disentangled. Because she examined her entanglement with so much intelligence and talent, her poetry lives on after her departure from the city of maddening romance and tough reality.
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University of Central Missouri
Editors: Wayne Miller, Phong Nguyen
Fiction Editor: Matthew Eck
Poetry Editor: Kathryn Nuernberger
Editors-at-Large: Kevin Prufer, Joy Katz