The first time I picked up The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, I had to do a double-take when I checked the date of publication. Kees’s poems seem so contemporary, yet his books came out in 1943, 1947, and 1954. I couldn’t believe I was in my second or third year of my MFA and hadn’t encountered these poems sooner. They floored me, but there was some feeling I couldn’t pinpoint, like they created some kind of unease that would ride my blood. Though a lot of Kees’s work uses rhyme and more traditional forms, his phrasings and language seems fresh, inventive, and rewarding not only to the ear but to the imagination also.
I want to look at the way Kees announces himself to the world with the poem, “SUBTITLE,” which is the opening poem in his 1943 collection The Last Man. If you think about the book’s title and how it came out in 1943, it speaks to global conflict that took many men away from their homes, and since Kees was working as an artist in the U.S. at the time, in some ways the title fits him. However, the opening of the first poem breaks away from this singular man, establishing a plural first person with a “we” that seems very similar to the kinds of disembodied voices you hear coming from a school intercom:
The opening line: “We present for you this evening” sounds casual, inviting even, until you follow across the enjamb to find the presentation is a movie about death. The speaker’s tone starts to shift after this initial turn into a more instructive, authoritative voice. What strikes me about this poem is the way the tone of the voice seems to contrast the message of what’s being said, which creates a friction that only intensifies as the poem progresses and brings the second person into the poem.
The first few instructions use passive verb constructions with “must be,” delaying the use of the “you” (or 2nd person) in the poem. The effect this achieves is a growing distance between the voice of the “we,” and you, the reader, the audience, the one preparing themselves to watch the movie of death. What a way to introduce your poetry to the world, eh? Tell them it’s a movie, and then start in with the ominous messages like: “observe that / There are no exits. This is a necessary precaution.” How can there not be an exit? Somebody’s breaking the fire code! And then to follow that up by stating the precaution is necessary but not explaining why–that’s disturbing, unsettling. There’s the unease that rides my blood.
Kees is preparing the reader for the rest of the poem, but also the rest of his book (and writing career). He’s telling us to strap ourselves in and hold on because we’re about to witness something we didn’t anticipate. The voice instructs us not to look for dialogue or any human voice, and the sounds that this unknown “they” has synchronized arrive in startling order. First we hear pig squeal, which is sharp and fast and frightens and terrifies. Then we hear the slow sound of guns, a much lower sound, a different pace, but what I find the most captivating about this moment in the poem is the way the “sharp dead click / Of empty chocolatebar machines” is somehow infinitely more ominous than the sounds of guns or the squeals of pigs.
And just in case you thought you might be able to get away, our speaker reminds you once again that there are no exits, but adds a little more information about how you can’t crawl out the washroom window or even bribe a guard. There’s no end to this film “unless / The ending is your own,” which is a really dark way of saying you’ll have to die to get away from this place.
The last few lines of the poem seem to urge us back into a more settled and comforting place. “Turn off the lights” and “sit forward, let the screen reveal” don’t hold that same ominous feeling that’s glowing in the middle of the poem. The menace comes in the final line because how can a movie that you’re watching reveal your heritage? How can it explain the logic of your destiny? It assumes a relationship with the audience that’s unsettling.
The voice’s confidence gives me an uneasy feeling that makes me want to continue. After a poem like this one, how could you not turn the page to see what comes next? This is the only poem of Kees’s that’s center-justified (if I’m remembering correctly), and it’s also the only poem I can think of that’s centered that I really love. Kees warps and toys with our expectations, and continues to make us wonder, over sixty years later, where’s Weldon?