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The Joy That Snuck Up

Silver Roses is Rachel Wetzsteon’s last book of poems in several senses: it is both her most recent, and, sadly, her final collection, as she died by her own hand in 2009.

A suicide has coercive effects on survivors, and the self-extinction of a poet threatens to shape the reading of the work retroactively, to mold the feints, by-ways, and multiple impulses of an oeuvre toward a single, fatal design. In a poem in Sakura Park, which appeared in2006, Wetzsteon imagined “how cruelly often death/ invigorates the hard hearts left behind.” We should not be invigorated to read her poems as tending toward one inevitable finale. The critic of Silver Roses faces the challenge of seeing it as a work of art free from the undertow of biography while at the same time acknowledging emotional tendencies in the poems that help make imaginative space for their author’s death. (Understanding that death would be a different matter, and an impossible presumption.)

Wetzsteon’s three previous books of poems established her reputation as a bravura verse-maker, a prestidigitator of sonnets, rhyming couplets, sapphics, fourteeners, alcaics, and haiku. In 2006 she published Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden’s Sources, and Auden can be felt as an influential but not overwhelming ghost in her poems. John Hollander chose her first book, The Other Stars, for the National Poetry Series in 1994, work already showing the main features of her art in both its weaknesses and its strengths. On the one hand, we find a penchant for artifice, allegory, and abstraction; teeming adjectives; conventional diction; and now and then too insistent a meter. On the other hand, The Other Stars shimmered with wit and formal resourcefulness. It also introduced themes that Wetzsteon would deepen later: the search for love, humor as a defense against heartbreak, and a spirited self-awareness in the battle with depression: “…I mope/ as I do to further my own purposes.” Love in The Other Stars is experienced masochistically: “I will go on looking for you/ as the willow bends, as the stomach hunts for the ulcer.”

Wetzsteon’s third book, Sakura Park, marked a signal advance. Her iambs lost their mechanical click and did a subtle two-step with living speech. Colloquial and mandarin diction ricocheted back and forth. The linked stories of troubled romance and the struggle with clinical depression lead directly to the recognitions that stir Silver Roses: the “Ironist Descending a Staircase” still defends the injured heart, but the persona in Sakura Park has made herself vulnerable to a new range of tones and insights. Whereas “…Before we met/ I hovered above my feelings/ like a singer above a low and difficult note,” the speaker now finds herself led “down toward the street’s precise rough music,/ down toward terror and truth.” Sakura Park represents amorous catastrophe with spunk: “… My Dinner/ with a Chainsaw, the evening could have been called.” The same spunk fuels the speaker’s experiments with chemical anti-depressants. This “I” is an invented character, the comic voice of desperation mastered through art, all the funnier when the topics are raw.

In her chapter on Auden and Kierkegaard in Influential Ghosts, Wetzsteon discussed Auden’s interest in the philosopher’s view of romantic love as a form of despair and futility. This clarity did not protect her from romantic traps of her own. The quest for love persists in different forms through her four books of poems, but in Sakura Park it takes urgent shape in the conventional image of the rose: first in variations on Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to describe heartbreak, then in the silver engagement rose of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. That story of young lovers, outwitting the adults and breaking a potential erotic triangle, so inflamed Wetzsteon’s imagination that it grew into the title and the theme of Silver Roses.

In Sakura Park, which concludes in brave solitude, the silver rose communicates disappointment: “I bore the rose, I bore the silver rose/ to my loved one’s house, but kept it stowed”; it merges, dream-like, into a vision of death, “a silver coffin heaped with silver roses.” In Silver Roses, Wetzsteon redeems the token flower; the title poem, concluding the book, tells a tale of life rescued through love, “the joy that snuck up when I’d sworn off joy.” The speaker closes the poem (and, formally, the author’s poetic life, since it is the last poem in the last book) in a scene of erotic hope: the lovers plan to watch a film of Der Rosenkavalier together. “And I’ll be there upon the stroke of eight,/ bearing in my trembling ungloved hand/ a silver rose for you.”

Rachel Wetzsteon (who, when she died, was the diligent poetry editor of this magazine) has now left us her silver roses. What kind of poems are they? The persona she crafted in earlier work—flaneuse, melancholic single girl-woman, urban sophisticate, smoker, wit—reappears here in a new narrative arc. The book moves from scenes of miscarried love (“I have become the forlorn type who buys/ almond biscotti for a long night in”), through punchy vicissitudes and fables, to a final section celebrating a requited love. These poems insist on a Happy Ending, and marvel at transformation: “And I am trying to/ fathom the way I got from there to here.” Along the way, Wetzsteon carries us on a giddy ride through her moods and situations in some of the deftest comic verse of our age, and in poems of gallant joy, bleak self-knowing, and faith in the art’s power to realign suffering.

Silver Roses does have its faults. Conventional diction pops up at odd moments. It is surprising to find these banal phrases in a poet of Wetzsteon’s alertness: “I tossed and turned,/ raged and burned.” The same verbs, “turn” and “burn,” damage the poem called “Ex Libris,” in which the speaker turns “to where the sun is burning,” and the verb “to rage” lets the air out of the ambitious “Four First Songs” (another nod to Richard Strauss, correcting his Four Last Songs): “The world returned, and this was a surprise/ I raged against like someone on a rack.” On the whole, Wetzsteon is a stronger poet of randy darkness and survivor’s wit than of joy and tenderness. The words “radiant” and “bright” recur so often as to induce a blur, and sometimes in the same line: “…to mounds/ of radiant significance, bright peaks.” It is heartbreaking to speculate that she didn’t have time to stretch her art to accommodate fully the new emotional discoveries to which her last poems bear witness.

The book succeeds brilliantly, however, in its portraits of solitude, depression, and romantic anguish held at bay through wit, or depicted with stark directness. In her comic poems, Wetzsteon often hits the perfect note and nerve, as in “Algonquin Afterthoughts,” in which a night of drunken lovemaking turns to regret and misunderstanding, the man being a cad whose heart is elsewhere, the woman a romantic sap compared to Chaplin in City Lights,

            sticking a tall glass in the man’s

                        upstanding hand (the clink

            or worse awaits poor tramps like us

                        if scamps like you won’t think)

            and meekly scolding, in a voice

                        weak with nostalgia, ‘Drink.’

The pun on “clink” is typical of Wetzsteon’s inventive high spirits. She gleefully sends up Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” in “A New Look, at Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock,’” a poem about a terrible haircut (“No, no, despite this day of dreadful strife/ A tiny voice is saying, Get a life”). And all her intelligence, verve, and punning bravado are out in force in one of the best poems in the book, “The Menaced Objects Series,” a tribute to Edward Gorey’s whimsy. Speaking in the voice of the “Used Chewing Gum Set Upon by Unsharpened Pencils,” Wetzsteon delivers, in naughty miniature, a version of the Ovidian story all her books tell, of the writer wounded in love but rescued in art:

…Did I savor

the moist young mouths and cinema floors

to my last atom

or was I biding time,

squinting at a notional watch and thinking

pop, chomp, and blow me senseless,

stick me on an Umbrian hill

or a garret bedpost in Red Hook—

the real fun happens later

when the graphite gang march in to tell my story?

Wetzsteon can write austerely as well, in poems of somber self-awareness. Another of her triumphs, “New Journal,” asks whether the notebook will be “A chronicle of botched focus/ proving nothing but the self’s huge shadow—/not moonlight but how I felt in moonlight?” A more flawed poem, “His Field,” projects the writer’s alienation from life onto an emblematic hero, but breaks from garrulousness into this insight: “There is a most unwholesome kind of sickness/ that sees help but refuses to be healed.” Many of the poems in Silver Roses achieve a poignant balance between perceptiveness and play, as in “Ruins,” which imagines life as growth, a record of “dear ruins of former selves”: “I sat on the subway sipping latte,/ reading a short history of ruins…/ Then home to my journal and ordering in.”

By another kind of ordering, the sequential placement of poems, Silver Roses commands a plot of romantic love fulfilled. But the book is dogged by death. Virginia Woolf appears several times, most pointedly in “Septimus,” a poem evoking the suicide in Mrs. Dalloway: “Here’s death, she thought, barging into my party.” “May Poles” mourns the poet Sarah Hannah, also a suicide. Wetzsteon vigorously resists the romance of easeful death, and writes spells against it, rescuing Hannah’s memory: “Let’s regard her lasting spark/ and tell the tyrants of the dark/ who has left the greater mark.”

In Silver Roses, Wetzsteon casts her lot with life and love, celebrating them nowhere more movingly than in “Exquisite Corpses,” a poem which transforms the threat of death into a Surrealist drawing game, and unites her various gifts—for wordplay, narrative, comic self-detachment, and full-heartedness—in three exquisitely lively stanzas: “...and oh my darling/ we cannot enter each other’s minds/ but our motives hum and work together,/ form a whole body when the drawing’s done.” Her life did not follow the plot line that Wetzsteon crafted in her pages, but her vision of courage and joy perdurably maintains its own truth.

Rosanna Warren’s book of poems, Ghost in a Red Hat, will appear in 2011.