Thomas Mann defined literature as the realm of the “not quite.” Whatever a writer says about herself—about the experiences she has undergone, the emotions she has felt, the beliefs she holds—the very fact that these things are being said in literary form makes them hypothetical, not wholly sincere. A love letter can at least sometimes be trusted; a love poem, never, because the poet’s mind is never wholly absorbed by the love he claims to be feeling. He is always at one remove from that feeling, scrutinizing it, turning it this way and that, forcing it to produce images and metaphors. This kind of self-division, this sense that life is being lived only at one remove, “not quite” real, may be the defining characteristic of an artist, and it helps to explain why artists are so frequently unhappy. For them, real life is always a little bit pretend, and the pretend life of art is what is most real.
The type of writer who falls prey to the “not quite,” who thinks deeply about it and makes it a major theme of her work, tends to be at the same time sentimental and ironic. The sentiment comes from her longing for the ordinary, for un-self-conscious emotion and experience; her irony comes from her secret feeling of superiority to that kind of simplicity. (Mann, again, is the classic example of this kind of artist— Tonio Kröger says just about everything there is to say on the subject.) For of course, if you were to offer the artist the chance to stop writing and start living, she would never take it; she is too deeply defined by her own distance from life to dare to close it.
Rachel Wetzsteon, who died in 2009 at the age of 42, was her generation’s best poet of the “not quite.” During her tragically brief career, Wetzsteon earned her share of the small honors that are in the poetry world’s gift: her debut collection, The Other Stars (1994), was chosen for the National Poetry Series by John Hollander; she won prizes, and was the poetry editor of the New Republic (where I was proud to be her colleague). But she had produced only three books of poetry before she died—a fourth, Silver Roses, came out posthumously—and she had not yet reached the level of seniority or acclaim where her work was much reviewed.
The manner of her death—she committed suicide, on Christmas Eve—has had the paradoxical effect of making her at once better known and less understood. More people have probably heard Wetzsteon’s name after her death than while she was alive; the poet-suicide is an archetype we understand all too well, and she seemed to fit it neatly. Yet this fame, such as it is, has not yet provoked much serious critical attention to her poetry. (In 2009 the New York Times published her obituary, but it had not yet reviewed any of her books.) Even now, the sense lingers that Wetzsteon’s work is not complete, that it is not yet time to start assessing her achievement.
To acknowledge that in fact her achievement really is complete, because there will never be much more to her body of work than we already have, is thus a recognition of tragedy. But it is also a recognition of Wetzsteon’s success. For the truth is that, in her four books, she established her mastery over a style and a set of themes in a way that only true poets manage to do. In fact, she was recognizable on the page from the first poem, “Urban Gallery,” in her first book, The Other Stars. Here already we have the urbane romanticism that makes Wetzsteon’s work so appealing:
When the wind invades the treetopsand the trees agree, shiveringtake me, take me, when theirstealthy perfume drifts down to waftamong mortals…
Yet it is equally characteristic of Wetzsteon that she feels, in some obscure way, shut out from the wind’s and the trees’ abandon. The poem presents a portrait gallery of human types who seem to embody the glamour and potential of the big city: they are “molls” and “gigolos,” frankly out for sexual adventure. The poet herself, on the other hand, remains on the outside, her desires sublimated, restrained: “at this armada of proud, unyielding soldiers / I have cast ferocious stones, holding forth / on barricaded gardens and souls’ communion.” Until now: “Urban Gallery” offers itself as the moment of the poet’s conversion, when she too steps out of her barricaded garden and joins the urban armada: “sickness is catching; lovers, permit me entrance,” the poem concludes.
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. “Urban Gallery” ends with a certain bravado, as though the poet had conquered her inhibitions once and for all; but in fact, they will keep on returning.
For a poet, indeed, what she does not have is usually more inspiring than what she does—as Wetzsteon suggests in the bizarre fable “From a Lecture on Loss.” Here we are introduced to a psychology experiment in which a child is given a wrapped-up doll and, as soon as she unwraps it, the doll is taken from her. The result is that “the outraged girl / fell to decorating the wall with smelly, obscene pictures / of what she never saw. Good fellows, what does this mean?” The answer is clear: while possession leads to complacency, loss is what produces pictures, or poems.
The inevitability of loss is, then, part of what draws Wetzsteon to love as a subject. The book loosely follows the chronology of a fractured romance; no sooner have we encountered “Falling in Love in Winter” and “When Love Takes Place” than Wetzsteon turns to “Sestina for a Departure” and, finally, to the book’s title sequence, “The Other Stars,” which records the arc of a long-distance love affair. This is a series of 34 modified sonnets, which display one of Wetzsteon’s most remarked-upon strengths—a formal inventiveness reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s. Each poem is made up of two seven-line stanzas, unrhymed but obeying a syllabic pattern. The form makes for a conversational ease supported by a firm structure, which beautifully complements her informal yet eloquent style:
Because you are not here, nighttime behavesthis way, calling for terms I’d long since put away:susurration, intrigue, reverberant. It is onlyIn your magnanimous absence that stony surroundingscan sing your praises so; I curse even as I gapeto know that their raving requires your beinganywhere else. The evening hums in compensation.
Once again, we see the dialectic of loss and compensation, the way the beloved’s absence fertilizes the lover’s imagination. Finally, this must raise the question of which the poet actually wants more, love or poems, and the sequence’s final sonnet gives the honest, inevitable reply:
Strangest of all is that, given the chanceto see my subject in the fabulous flesh at last,I would flatly refuse. These barren dayswhen I heat my room by the fading coals of my goals,this ache for an ache is as good as it gets,so go on running; I will go on looking for youas the willow bends, as the stomach hunts for the ulcer.
Bursting with passion, eloquence, and—what is rarer than either—true self-knowledge, The Other Stars surely ranks as one of the best first books of the last 25 years. But another sign of a true poet is that she is not content to keep on repeating her old tricks, that each book is a question posed to herself that she must answer in the next. Home and Away, Wetzsteon’s second book (published in 1998), shows her wrestling, not always successfully, with the problem of style—specifically, how to make use of her inheritance from Auden. Wetzsteon’s debt to Auden was unconcealed—she wrote a critical book about him, Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden’s Sources, and in Home and Away she offered him a poetic tribute, “In Memory of W.H. Auden,” borrowing the stanza and style of his own “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”:
A walkwith anyone else has a hushed agenda;smoothest routes to their destinations,windows in which to see their reflections
are what they look for when they go out. But youtook in the sights like a curious tourist:the dull stare of immigrant faces,the twilight glow of a watertower …
The same poem also alludes to the danger of Auden’s style for the imitator: “Many who craved your mantle / had a way of only putting on pieces.” In her second book, it seems to me, Wetzsteon was trying to take what she needed from Auden—the observant eye, the rich vocabulary, the metrical dexterity—without becoming, as he sometimes did, merely clever. But in exchanging Auden’s loquacity for a more elliptical and metaphorical style, she may have gone too far in the other direction. The title sequence of “Home and Away,” another long series of quasi-sonnets, remains elusive, a little uninvolving, in part because it is overstuffed with conceits:
I’ll pivot on the barstool and pretendthe world’s a giant runway; all those yearsof studious eye contact never couldfulfill the baser itch in me, but nowI’ll be an eye, examining spare parts,I’ll look and look and be glad I can’t love.
What Wetzsteon’s poetry needed was to risk being more undefended, more direct, simpler—something that ran against the grain for a poet so intelligently wary. Yet that is exactly what she accomplished in Sakura Park (2006), her third book and to my mind her best. Here, Wetzsteon emerges once again as the urban romantic, but this time on a larger scale, willing to risk a kind of lyricism and boldness that she hadn’t before, as in “Short Ode to Morningside Heights”:
The pastry shop’s abuzzwith crazy George and filthy graffiti,but the peacocks are strutting across the wayand the sumptuous cathedral givesthe open-air banter a reason to deepen:build structures inside the mind, it tellsthe languorous talker, to rival the ones outside!
Above all, she is willing to risk being that outmoded, potentially ridiculous thing, a love poet—perhaps the best, purest love poet of her generation. Yet the reason Wetzsteon was able to become a love poet is because she was so suspicious of love, and of herself in love. Her poems about romance are always poems about not-quite-wanting romance: “the threshold’s / bitter cold, and just where I want to be,” she writes in “Infidels.” In “Love and Work,” she returns again to the competition between experiencing passion and reflecting on it, this time in the form of a parable about two women, a flirtatious partygoer and a studious reader:
The girl who gets up from her desk and dumbsher discourse down has never the seen the flight
of wide-eyed starlings from their shabby cage;the fool whose love is truest is the onewho knows a lover’s work is never done.I’ll call you when I finish one more page.
That need for “one more page,” for one more moment of solitude and reflection, never disappears, even at the height of passion. In her last, posthumous book, Silver Roses, Wetzsteon makes that clear in a comic, erotic poem called “Interruptus”:
There was a lull, a break from blisswhen I turned to face the windowlooking for all the world, you said,“like I was composing a new verse.”Even on our pleasure bargethere are lapses in understanding,for this groping for words (I thought but did not say)is not a gasp for air but a further plunging …
Once again, the moment of heat alternates with the moment of light, experience with understanding and articulating the experience. Here, as in much of the last part of Silver Roses, Wetzsteon tries to convince the reader—and herself?—that she has finally found the way to turn this antithesis into a synthesis, a “gasp for air” into a “further plunging.”
But then, she had made a similar suggestion way back at the beginning, in “Urban Gallery”: such moments of optimism recur in Wetzsteon’s work, but they never last for long. Happiness, as Henry de Montherlant said, writes white: it takes suffering to become articulate, and perhaps the task of the writer’s life is to figure out a way to maintain that suffering at a productive but nonlethal level. Wetzsteon was finally unable to hold the balance. By committing suicide, she fled the kingdom of the “not quite,” proving the authenticity of her unhappiness in a dreadful fashion. Her end inevitably colors the way we read her work: what might once have seemed like a romantic or playful darkness now appears a deeper, more insistent black, and it becomes clear that her yearning for love really was a hope for salvation. In her own warily intelligent fashion, Wetzsteon was an artist who committed everything, her deepest experience and truest self, to her art. She deserves to be read—and will be—for a long time to come.