Rachel Todd Wetzsteon
met Rachel Wetzsteon for the first time at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan where she taught a weekly poetry workshop at a long temporary table set up in a kindergarten classroom. Wetzsteon's entrance added a sudden, big presence to the child-scaled room. She was tall, coltish, with thick, unruly auburn hair. She seemed to me on first sight every inch a poet. In memory, she still does.
by Patricia Behrens
Wetzsteon published actively for only twenty years, beginning in 1990. Her work was well-regarded from the start. It combines a witty, contemporary voice with a deep respect for poetic tradition and an emotional vulnerability with a highly developed intellect. "In a perfect world," Adam Kirsch has said, "Rachel Wetzsteon would be one of the most popular poets of her generation." Her final book and a few final poems were published posthumously following her death at 42 in December 2009, by suicide.
Rachel Todd Wetzsteon was born in New York City in 1967, the only child of Sonja Frankel and Ross Wetzsteon. Her father, a theatre critic, editor, and writer for The Village Voice, was a cultural influence in New York, helping to bring to public attention such playwrights as Sam Shepherd, David Mamet, and Wallace Shawn. Posthumously, he published a history of Greenwich Village, Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960.
Wetzsteon graduated in 1985 from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City's selective public high schools. She received a B.A. in 1989 from Yale University. Early on at Yale she took a modern poetry course with Marie Borroff, a poet, medievalist, and Middle English translator. Following her sophomore year, Wetzsteon went to London for the summer, where she worked as a waitress at the Victoria and Albert Museum and wrote poetry at night. That summer, she would later write, was the time she told herself she was going to "Get Serious" about poetry. She took W. H. Auden as a model, carrying the Faber and Faber Collected Shorter Poems everywhere. She found that, "Auden gave me a sense of poetry as discipline that I might otherwise never have had." (Wetzsteon, Auden Newsletter).
Returning to Yale, she enrolled in John Hollander's advanced verse writing course. Hollander, who died in 2013, had a long career as one of contemporary poetry's foremost poets, editors, and anthologists. His book on form and prosody, Rhyme's Reason, became a standard text. He had a strong influence on Wetzsteon's work and career.
Following her graduation from Yale in 1989, Wetzsteon received an M.A. in Writing (in poetry) in 1990 from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She taught as writer-in-residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. during 1990-91 and began publishing in literary journals. In 1991, she was a finalist for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In the fall of that year, she returned to New York to study at Columbia University. She received an M.A. in English in 1992 and a PhD in 1999, writing her PhD thesis on influences on the poetry of W.H. Auden. While earning her doctorate she also taught composition at Columbia and published her first two poetry books.
In 1993, when Wetzsteon was 26, her first book, The Other Stars was selected by John Hollander as one of five winners of the 1993 National Poetry Series competition1. Its publication in 1994 established Wetzsteon as an important new voice in poetry.
Her second poetry book, Home and Away, was published by Penguin four years later in 1998. Rachel Hadas wrote in a cover blurb, "Wetzsteon's effortless lyricism gives her moralized landscapes and urban pastorals a fluent grace. But her poems also sparkle with mischief. Often mordantly, they trace complex, paradoxical geographies of mind and heart, knowledge and need." Wetzsteon's third and best-known book, Sakura Park, was published in 2006. Her fourth, Silver Roses, was published posthumously in 2010. A completed manuscript, "282 Time Pieces," remains unpublished.
Wetzsteon was a scholar, editor and teacher as well as a poet. Her Columbia PhD thesis on Auden, Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden's Sources, was published in 2006. Her essays on poetry include "Marvelous Sapphics" and "Some Reflections on Eliot's 'Reflections on Vers Libre': on Verse and Free Verse." She edited and contributed well-received introductions to two Barnes & Noble Classic Series editions: The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf's Night and Day. At the time of her death she had recently become poetry editor of The New Republic.
In addition to teaching poetry workshops, she was an Assistant Professor of English at William Patterson University. Poet and editor Lorna Blake, a former workshop student and later friend of Wetzsteon's, wrote that as a teacher:
Rachel was generous and perceptive, extraordinarily knowledgeable and well read, imbued with a palpable love of the genre that was infectious and inspiring. It would have been easy, had she been so inclined, for her students to be intimidated by the range and force of her intellect and her formidable credentials. But Rachel's classroom was never a place for acolytes or affectations—there was, in fact, a sweet humility about her teaching—it was all about poems and their making. (Blake 64)
Over her lifetime she was the recipient of numerous grants, fellowships and awards,
including the 2001 Witter Bynner Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Wetzsteon died late on December 24, 2009 or early on December 25, 2009 at 42, by suicide. Her obituary in The New York Times noted that she had been "severely depressed in recent months, partly over the breakup of a three-year romance," quoting her mother, Sonja Wetzsteon. After her death a flurry of personal remembrances and critical appreciation appeared in places such as The New Republic and Able Muse, which published a tribute to Wetzsteon guest edited by Gregory Dowling with multiple contributions by friends and fellow poets. Many celebrated Wetzsteon's vibrant presence as well as her poetry. Rachel Hadas memorialized Wetzsteon in a poem, "The Last Glimpse" whose lines include, "Red hair, those eyes like lamps:/that height, that hat, black pants, even that laugh—" (Hadas, italics in original). Gregory Dowling wrote about her laugh that "anybody who ever met her will know immediately" what Hadas is referring to (Dowling 35).
Prizes in Wetzsteon's name were established at Columbia University (for the best master's thesis on poetry) and William Patterson University (The Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award).
II. Critical Analysis
Wetzsteon is best known as an urban flaneur, a chronicler of Manhattan in pursuit of romantic love, a characterization that is both apt and incomplete. A.E. Stallings in reviewing Silver Roses in Poetry wrote:
I had the impression of her poetry as Dorothy Parkerish, witty, urbane, with a lovelorn girl-about-town persona. This isn't wrong exactly, but what I didn't realize was what a range and depth she had, what formal facility and felicity, from abecedarians to prose poems, from syllabics and Sapphics to vers libre and nonce stanzas. (Stallings 338)
Wetzsteon's themes range beyond romantic love to other recurring concerns, including the relationship between life and art, writer and reader, and the balance between intellect and emotion in life and love. She often chronicled a cycle from pursuit of love to defeat to optimistic new beginnings. Some poems embrace darkness and pain. Sometimes, particularly in Sakura Park, the poems grapple with questions of emotional stability.
Her work is full of explicit and implicit references to other writers and to works of popular and high culture, including film, opera and painting. The poems are often in dialogue with these sources. They can be seriously witty, full of puns and wordplay and shift-on-a-dime changes in tone and levels of diction. They are metrically accomplished and use a multitude of forms, including the Abecedarian, acrostic, canzone, ghazal, glosa, haiku, pantoum, sapphic, sestina, sonnet and villanelle.
While she was sometimes characterized as a New Formalist, Wetzsteon was critical of that label in an essay concerning T.S. Eliot and his thesis in Vers Libre, writing:
I can't help being irritated at the narrow assumptions that lurk behind this term and its accompanying manifestos. Aren't all interesting poets interested in form?
( Wetzsteon. "Vers Libre.")
Her strongest influence, by self-acknowledgement, was W.H. Auden.
B. The Poetry Books
The Other Stars and Home and Away, published in 1994 and 1998, just four years apart, follow similar patterns. Both have long unrhymed sonnet sequences about failed love. Both demonstrate formal range and tightly controlled metrics, use a mixture of high and low diction and mix the language of myth with an edgy, urban vocabulary. Both invoke other artists, not just in poetry but in painting and music, in a way that implicitly questions the relationship between life and art and art and audience. Both have a strong sense of place, including dark places. Both are works of high ambition that include memorable poems.
1. Early Work: The Other Stars and Home and Away
The Other Stars is divided into three parts: an opening section of 18 poems, a central sequence of 34 poem unrhymed sonnets called "The Other Stars" and a final section of 21 poems. Poet and critic Adam Kirsch noted in an essay called "Not Quite" that there is something of a narrative arc to the book "loosely following the chronology of a fractured romance." The title invokes "the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars," the final line of Dante's Paradiso (Canto 33, line 145) and the book also seems to be the report of a pilgrim reporting back from a pilgrimage2.
The book opens with the poet in "Urban Gallery" deciding to join in among a crowd of eager lovers. The poem displays much of what will continue to characterize Wetzsteon's poetry. It begins in a myth-like place where the perfume of shivering trees wafts among mortals and quickly moves to an urban landscape out of film noir. Mixing high and low diction, Wetzsteon shows herself to be a witty, cutting and delighted observer. The poem enacts a conflict between "the garret" and "the gutter," between being "barricaded" and "taking to the street." Adam Kirsch says of "Urban Gallery":
Here, in miniature, we already see the basic conflict of Wetzsteon's poetry, the myth it will enact again and again in different forms. The poet longs for experience—above all, for romantic love—but she also longs to retreat from experience, back into the private lair where it can be analyzed and written about. (Kirsch 2)
The poem also announces formal elements that will reappear. For example, the buried adonic in its last line ("sickness is catching") hints at Wetzsteon's love of sapphics. The request that concludes the poem is a rhetorical device she will return to in later poems, such as "Pemberley" ("Ask me again").
The remaining poems in the book's first section roughly chronicle the arc of a love affair: falling in love ("Falling in Love in Winter," "When Love Takes Place"), the lover's departure on travels away ("Sestina for a Departure"), and the speaker's reaction to his absence ("Prayer to Saint Anthony"). They include a villanelle ("Faraway Places"), a sestina ("Sestina for a Departure"), song forms ("Three Songs") and an unrhymed sonnet sequence ("Making Scenes") that foreshadows the longer sonnet sequence in the center of the book.
The central sequence, "The Other Stars" chronicles a love affair in 34 roman numbered, unrhymed sonnets. Here the lover is almost always absent after briefly appearing in a few early sonnets. In the first half of XVIII, for example, the lover "within shouting distance" is an object of observation, the poet noting his "bright array of/ colorful traits" as if he were a specimen.
An interplay between love and place weaves through this sequence. In XIX, the lover, with sun-like qualities, enriches the landscape he touches. In XXIV, love creates a sealed-off palace with the poet as its stoical keeper. In XXVIII, the flame of passion burns the world while the lovers' have a tiny, all-white room. The lover's ability to illuminate and the confining room appear in XXXII, which contemplates the possible effects of uniting the lover, a "beam of light with hidden powers/to strike and alter forever" with the poet, "a damaged bulb in a fleabag hotel." In the final sonnet XXXIV the poet realizes that "given the chance/to see my subject in the fabulous flesh at last,/ I would flatly refuse." Yet she still feels the power of "an ache for an ache."
The poems in the third section of the book are ones of injury and recovery: they come to terms with loss and they are for the most part lighter and livelier than those of the earlier sections. They include sapphics ("Stage Directions for a Short Play," "Dissolving Views"), a Sestina ("Dinner at Le Caprice"), prose poems ("Parables of Flight," "An Ode to Freedom") and sonnets, including a sequence of nine Elizabethan sonnets ("Love's Passing").
This sequence also explores the effect of failed romance on identity, asking, at the end of the first sonnet, "Who shall I be today?" and concluding, in the last, "now you stand/seeing your city as if for the first time, ready to come back/to the world as a new person, until your next attack"—lines evocative of T.S. Eliot's "to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" in Four Quartets. The last poem in the book, "Coming Back to the Cave," ends the journey begun in the opening poem with: "partners in darkness, friends, I have seen such wonders."
Wetzsteon's second book, Home and Away, published in 1998, is dedicated to the memory of her father. Like The Other Stars, the book includes a long title series, once again about an unhappy love affair, this time opening the book and with the lover very much present. The sequence consists of 50 linked, roman numbered, unrhymed sonnets with word repetitions woven through the lines. While no breaks are marked, the 50 sonnets fall into five sequences of 10 poems each.
Sonnets i through x take place in a park, in a post-apocalyptic world where "[l]ong before us, the kindling dried…/buzzards circled," and where soon "new fires will rage." The speaker encounters a stranger on a bench and accepts an invitation to go away with him. The words bench and park (and words playing off their sounds) are woven through each of these poems3.
Sonnets xi-xx appear to take place in Venice, although the city is not named. Word repetitions from sonnet to sonnet drop away and repetitions occur within sonnets instead, sometimes to hypnotic effect, as in xiv (carnival, carnival, dance, dancing, walking, wake).
Poet, critic, and Venice resident Gregory Dowling wrote of this sequence: ["I]t 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…." He adds that her "oneiric tone" "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" (Dowling 34).
Sonnets xxi to xxx, take place in a museum. The lovers spin stories back and forth about what is taking place in its paintings. The sequence holds multiple layers: the paintings, the stories the lovers exchange about them (and implicitly about themselves), and the relationship of all these to the poet and the observing reader. So in xxviii, for example, the poem is a dialogue about a couple shown in the painting and which figure—the man or the woman—is the one to be afraid of. It is also about witnesses shown in a mirror in the painting: "And the mirror/hanging on the back wall? Regard it well:/two witnesses are in it, two reflections." The "witnesses" include not only those in the mirror in the painting, but also the lovers in the museum—and, implicitly, the poem's readers.
Sonnets xxxi to xl build to a larger sense of disquiet. The tone is set in xxxi, where "lovers in a clinch" forget a storm that has sent them scurrying to separate places. By xxxix the landscape is unstable: "the meter cannot read the weather." Repeated words begin to appear again, to unsettling affect, including the words white and snow. A white cat appears in xxxiii, which the lovers at first believed they had "made go faster with our laughter' only to discover that its speed came from pain, its ear a bloody, fly-infested stump. The poet/speaker promises to "tuck in my tail and run as I recall/the fears, the joys of trying to be white." "Room" appears repeatedly and the word "red" is introduced in xxxii.
Sonnets xli-1, the final ten poems of "Home and Away," were separately published in The Paris Review and included in The Best American Poetry 1998, guest edited by John Hollander. The sonnets progress from disillusion to claustrophobia to destruction, beginning in xli: with "[h]ow different any house looks from outside/and from within," proceeding in xlii, to the lover having become "my cellmate and my stone" and the question, "who could have known that there was such/a thing as knowing someone else too well?"
The ending sonnets become increasingly nightmarish with demonic images and ending with scenes of red, blood and stabbing. There are incantatory repetitions of the words room, red, house, home, flame, blood and stab. In the penultimate sonnet "the carnage was a comfort, not a care,/the thing that lay beside me on the bed/ improved my mood because it matched the red/around the house….as /I wait for sirens, as I wait for sleep"(xlix).
The final sonnet circles back to the opening of the sequence with the words flame and bench—giving new meaning to the opening sonnet's sense of desolation. It suggests that there is a cycle that will begin again, "when the flames/are cool enough to walk through." The poet will risk "the shame of being found out by my keeper,/and the worse shame of never being noticed" to stand by a window through which "sometimes a park bench will appear."
The second part of Home and Away addresses new beginnings with poems such as "Poem for a New Year." It also includes one of Wetzsteon's first movie-inspired poems, "Learning from the Movies."
Perhaps the section's most memorable poem is one less clearly related to the overall narrative of the book, the elegy "In Memory of W.H. Auden." Written in alcaic stanzas, the elegy is an homage to Auden and to his elegies, particularly "In Memory of Sigmund Freud." While that elegy is 28 stanzas, Wetzsteon's is deliberately one stanza longer, in order, she wrote, "to enact the going down of my own road" (Wetzsteon, Auden Newsletter). It acknowledges and demonstrates Auden's imprint on her poetry—in the words of the poem, "not a room, but a way to light it,/not a goal, but a way of arriving." She later said of this elegy that it was one "I'm proud of…as I think it shows how my debt to him had deepened since my earlier efforts" (Wetzsteon, Auden Newsletter).
The third part of Home and Away also has poems Wetzsteon will return to in later work, ones with a sense of illness or injury. In "A Leper in the City" she takes the persona of a leper strolling the city one night because something has colored the sky and the city sidewalks green, so her skin is "fit to be/ a blueprint for the night." The next day she finds herself "the same old, green old eyesore" one "too strange to pity, and too green to love." The poem "Clubfoot" sets, for the first time, a repeated theme of "meanwhile" beginning: "Meanwhile, meanwhile used to be my limp's/accompaniment."
The Other Stars and Home and Away are the work of a young, accomplished poet. While both books can be technically dazzling and set themes ones that will continue to pre-occupy Wetzsteon, she later came to regard them somewhat critically, herself, as, in her word, "her figure eights" (Blake Interview).
2. Mature Work: Sakura Park and Silver Roses
Sakura Park is the book most often associated with Wetzsteon. Published by Persea Books in 2006, it includes some of her best-known poems such as "Love and Work," "Lawyers on the Left Bank," "Pemberley," "On Leaving the Bachelorette Brunch," "At the Zen Mountain Monastery," and "Sakura Park."
At this point in her career she appears less directly indebted to Auden. She had published her critical study of his work and an elegy to him. Adam Kirsch wrote that in Sakura Park: "her sensibility is equally informed by Baudelaire, the prince of flaneurs, and Kierkegaard, the prince of ironists, both of whose names appear in the text" (Kirsch). Wetzsteon still delights in form, including ghazals, sapphics and a lovely canzone, "The Long Run," written for her father. But her metrics seem less dense and more fluid. As Roseanna Warren wrote, in Sakura Park, Wetzsteon's "iambs lost their mechanical click and did a subtle two-step with living speech. Colloquial and mandarin diction ricocheted back and forth " (Warren). Wetzsteon herself is said to have written privately of Sakura Park that, "I feel it's my best book by far so far" (Halliday).
Unlike the earlier books, Sakura Park is not divided into sections and does not open with a poem about the search for love. Instead its opening poem, "Sunrise Over Low," finds the poet, examining a new view of a:
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.
At the poem's end:
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.
Gregory Dowling characterizes "Sunrise Over Low" as a combination of novelty and familiarity and says, "The poem [has] a vitality that is essentially joyous, even if other, more troubling elements are undeniably present." (The "troubling elements" include Wetzsteon's comparison of New York City watertowers to Macbeth's Birnam Woods.) Dowling goes on to say:
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. (Dowling 35)
Sakura Park is the book in which Rachel Wetzsteon's poems become identifiably Wetzsteonian. It is in Sakura Park that she steps out into a recognizable Manhattan as an urban flaneur. Wetzsteon has always been a poet who attaches importance to place, but in her earlier books the places have been semi-mythic, abstract ones: a forest, a park, a house, an unnamed city. This time, as the title of the book itself announces, the places are specifically identified: Sakura Park, Morningside Heights, Café Taci, Café Pertutti, Port Authority, Grove Street, Café Largo, the Henry Hudson Parkway, The Indian Café. Even Jane Austen's fictional Pemberley is named.
References to the speaker's life have also become more specific. And, assuming the references can be read autobiographically, much has happened in Wetzsteon's emotional life since the earlier books, including therapy ("Cures, Talking"/"Two Remedies") and a break, at least briefly, from her vocation as a poet, when she finds, "[g]etting out of bed was never so easy" but, "the sunrise suffered so: where were the clouds like camels the fresh day's difficult red riddles?" (Sunrise over Low 11-12)
In "Notes Toward a Theory of Self' and "Listening to the Ocean" she writes about the possible effects on poetry and life of psychiatric drugs (pondering "to swallow or not to swallow the small blue pills" in "Notes" and deciding in "Ocean" to "swallow gladly," because "[t]he waves were bad" and "never tell me a gloved hand/never wrote a good line"). Wetzsteon mourns the death of her father in "The Long Run" and "Thirty-Three."
The theme of searching for love continues. But it has shifted in emphasis from seeking a specific romance to seeking balance between the emotions and the intellect, love and work. This is perhaps most memorably so in the poem titled "Love and Work" which ends with an affirmance that she is not writing to shirk passion, but to give it texture.
The girl who gets up from her desk and dumbs
her discourse down has never seen the flight
of wide-eyed starlings from their shabby cage:
I'll call you when I've finished one more page.
She continues using movie references and parallels in poems such as "Two Many French Movies," Madeleine for a While," and "A Day at the Revival House." The theme of trying on new identities, present earlier, emerges strongly in Sakura Park. The book's title poem "Sakura Park" opens with petals being lifted and scattered by the wind, "like versions of myself I was on the verge/of becoming." The same theme runs through poems such as "Two Remedies," "Hello Yellow Brick Road," "Autumn Ghazal," "A Day at the Revival House," and "Thirty-Three," a ten-part reflection on Wetzsteon's life.
There also are darker elements, haunting in retrospect, including references to therapy and suicide. As A.E. Stallings says, of "The Mystery of Cigarettes":
[I]t is hard to read some of the references to suicide tossed off lightly in Sakura Park—a haiku on cigarettes goes "Little suicides,/rest in peace: I'd rather find/mystery elsewhere." (Stallings 340)
But if the book has an overarching theme it is that of solace and recovery, the potential for the extraordinary in the every day. Wetzsteon wrote an essay on happiness in Philip Larkin in which she praises his poem, "Born Yesterday" saying "Larkin finds a happy medium between 'Nothing and paradise,' joy's absence and its fragile or otherworldly abundance…" Her description of Larkin applies equally to Sakura Park.
So in "A Trampoline in Wayne," on the day after September 11 the poet finds undergraduates jumping on a trampoline in Wayne, New Jersey. Rejecting an urge to metaphor she finds it enough "to watch them on this crisp,/peculiar morning and remember that/what's obvious is often what we need/reminding of: to be alive is to be capable of jumping on a makeshift /trampoline…" Closing the book with "Sakura Park," she sets out "rules of conduct" and expresses thoughts about "meanwhile" that are quite different from the earlier ones in "Clubfoot":
There is still a chance that 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.
Silver Roses, Wetzsteon's final book, appeared posthumously in 2010. An introduction by Grace Schulman speaks of Wetzsteon's death by suicide and of aspects of her personal life that preceded it, including the end of a three-year romance. Wetzsteon's death drew attention to the book; it also made it difficult for readers and critics to evaluate it on its own merits. Rosanna Warren wrote, "The critic of Silver Roses faces the challenge of seeing it as a work of art free from the undertow of biography… " (Warren).
Critics who did express critical judgments were divided. Mark Halliday, concluded, "On the whole…Silver Roses is not as strong as Sakura Park" ( Halliday). By contrast, A.E.Stallings, in her review of Silver Roses, found the book's title poem, "arguably Wetzsteon's masterpiece" (Stallings 341).
Varying slightly from the pattern of earlier books, Silver Roses opens with poems that confront loss, moves in its second section to ones about new beginnings, and in its third, final section, closes with poems that celebrate finding love and happiness. But for what we know of Wetzsteon's life, Silver Roses would seem to mark a triumphant end to the "meanwhile" of Sakura Park.
In the book's first section, "A New Look," each poem is in dialogue with another poem or artistic work. So of the section's thirteen poems, two begin with epigraphs: "Among the Neutrals" with one from Dante's Inferno, "Algonquin Afterthoughts" with one from Dorothy Parker. Four credit sources, again juxtaposing high and low culture. In the three-part "Pursuit of Happiness," for example, the first part of the poem is "after John Donne and Preston Sturges," the second "after Henry Vaughn and Howard Hawkes," and the third "after George Herbert and Leo McCarey." References are less explicit, but clearly present, in other poems. "Septimus," for example, does not mention Virginia Wolf, but we are unquestionably in the world of her Mrs. Dalloway. The section's last poem, "Letter from a Leprosarium" is a response (credited in an end note) to Wetzsteon's own earlier poem "A Leper in the City."
The book's second section, "English Suite," opens with a poem of new beginnings, "New Journal." In it, the poet who has stowed notebooks, "angry I was not living" cannot stay away from writing and gets another journal. But the choice remains of what to record, for example, a "pep talk or a picked scab." Other poems in the section present similar choices: so "A Dream Vision" presents two phantoms, one "with a gleaming golden pencil, saying 'Complain'" one "with a silver pen" that "whispered 'Praise.'" Hauntingly, in retrospect, one poem, "May Poles" is written for and dedicated to Sarah Hannah, a fellow poet and friend of Wetzsteon's who had died by suicide.
The poems in the book's last section, titled "The Tennis Courts at Stuyvesant Town," unabashedly celebrate love and happiness. The section begins with "McDowell," after a period when the poet had put off writing because "one true heart" was manifestly real. It proceeds to "Halt!" whose last line, quoting Estragon, is "What do we do now, now that we are happy?" In "Paradigm Shift," the poet's identification shifts from Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to "agreeing/ with [Elizabeth's sister] Jane: if only everyone could be/so happy." In "Exquisite Corpses" the poet draws with her lover's child and celebrates the ability to "form a whole body when the drawing's done."
Still there are ripples of potential disquiet. "Little Geometry Quiz," for example, explores the workings of triangles "if faced squarely." But these are few.
Many poems celebrate the reconciliation of conflicts found in earlier work, such as between the immediacy of living life in the present and distance needed to be a story teller, and between the dramatic intensity of sorrow and what for Wetzsteon has been the blander emotional territory of happiness. So in "Crepuscule with W." the poet contemplates "a weird new absence of angst" planning to embrace "comfort for two in twilight." In "The Tennis Courts in Stuyvesant Town," learning how to play tennis at forty is also a conceit for learning to find happiness, in the "ever-better volleys" of a relationship.
The book's last, and title, poem is "Silver Roses." From its title and its first lines—"the strings, as if they knew/the lovers are about to meet, begin/to soar"—the poem invokes Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. In that opera, Octavian, the Rosenkavalier of the title, falls in love with beautiful young Sophie when presenting her with a silver rose (a symbol of betrothal invented by Straus) as a messenger on behalf of the boorish Baron Ochs. Octavian himself is the lover of an older married woman, the Marschallin. As the opera comes to an end, after Sophie has refused Baron Ochs, the Marschallin gives up Octavian in a soaring trio she sings with Octavian and Sophie, clearing the way for the young lovers to unite. The trio, the opera's emotional highpoint, is beloved by many operagoers and was a favorite of Strauss, himself, who asked that it be sung at his funeral.
In "Silver Roses," Wetzsteon appears to take up the role of the Rosenkavalier presenting the rose. It is a role that is, in opera terms, a "trouser role," a man's role traditionally sung by a woman. She has assumed this role before, although less obviously so, in Sakura Park's "Thirty-three." There, she brought a silver rose to a loved one's house but "kept it stowed/inside my frockcoat so the mirrors might/show me/my own tight-lipped reflection, so violent,/so silent." In "Silver Roses," she plans to presents the rose. So, in the poem's last line she is, "bearing in my trembling ungloved hand/ a silver rose for you."
The poem uses a single rhyme for the first and last lines of all its stanzas, increasing the power of its last "you." It also uses remarkable internal near rhymes like "violence" and "violins," and elegant middle rhymes including "pain" and "rain" in the first stanza, "forever" and "never" in the second and the melding of "cheap seats" into "cheats" in the third. A.E. Stallings calls the poem arguably Wetzsteon's masterpiece, saying:
[S]he employs all the levels of irony at her disposal—bringing in her father's love of the opera, putting herself in the "trouser role"—cousin, perhaps, to the screwball heroine—and also in the position of the Marschallin ("but mirrors can be beautiful fierce cheats")—at once the wooing lover, offering his/her love, and the woman of fading beauty, who must relinquish her beloved. This is all accomplished in envelope-rhymed, chiming octaves. (Stallings 341)
"Silver Roses" not only invokes Strauss, it is also self-referential. Her use of the silver rose together with violence harks back to the unoffered silver rose of "Thirty-Three" where "violent" was rhymed with "silent." Other recurrent images include rain and the strewn petals Wetzsteon had used in "Sakura Park" and in "A Dream Vision." The "ungloved hand" offering the silver rose contrasts with the drug-numbed "gloved hand" in "Ocean." Even the "beautiful fierce cheats" line has a precursor all the way back in the "string of cheats" in "Urban Gallery," the opening poem of her first book.
As with many poems in the book, particularly in its first section, "Silver Roses" is constructed as a dialogue with other art—Strauss's and Wetzsteon's own. The Marschalllin's mirror, and the silver rose itself, suggest the mirroring quality of art, an image that goes back to the sonnet series in Home and Away. The poem also is in dialogue with a particular addressed "you"—presumably the lover, but also its reader, to whom the proffered rose is ultimately offered from Wetzsteon's ungloved hand.
The poem's placement at the end of the book, and thus of her life, makes it a painfully optimistic gesture. But it is an inspired gesture that ripples through time; it reaches back to Keats's hand, "now warm and capable," and proffers the silver rose of love, of promise, the torch of art, to her true lover, the reader and the readers yet to be born.
While Silver Roses was Wetzsteon's last published poetry book, other poetry also appeared after her death, including "Time Pieces" twelve time-related haikus published in The New Criterion in November 2010 and selected by Kevin Young for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2011 and by Robert Pinsky for inclusion in Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition. "Time Pieces" is part of an unpublished manuscript by Wetzsteon titled 282 Time Pieces (Dolin Interview).
Grace Schulman, in her introduction to Silver Roses, emphasized Wetzsteon's brilliant use of the imagery of light and does perhaps the best summing up of the poet's life and work:
"Still persuade us to rejoice," declared W.H. Auden, Wetzsteon's
master. And in her poems she admits to "the joy that snuck up when I'd sworn off joy." In her suicide note, she reminded her friends that she had abundant joy in life. She didn't have to remind us. With light pouring forth, even in sorrow, the poems say it all. (Silver Roses xii)
1 In winning the National Poetry Series Competition with Hollander as a judge, Wetzsteon followed in a line of literary descent from Auden, who had selected Hollander's first poetry collection as a prizewinner in 1958. At the time, the National Poetry Series had not yet adopted rules that would prohibit a poetry judge from selecting the work of a student or former student.
2 An examination of Dante's influence on Wetzsteon's work is beyond the scope of this essay, but her references to Dante are notable. She chose The Other Stars as the title of her first book and placed "Among the Neutrals" with its epigraph from Dante's Inferno as the opening poem in her last book. She also participated in the annual Maundy Thursday reading from Dante's Inferno at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Yezzi).
3 Wetzsteon was enamored of the words "park" and "bench" and the possibilities open to her in combining the two; for example, she includes the poem, "Park-Bench" in Silver Roses with the epigraph "(writing firm founded by Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley)".
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