… at the turn of the year.

I’ll consider one of her poems later this afternoon.


At around this time last year, when I lived in Rehoboth Beach, I featured a poem by Sarah Hannah, who had killed herself.

Rachel Wetzsteon was a friend of hers, and wrote the afterword to her posthumous volume.

Wetzsteon herself “had apparently been in the grips of a deep depression for the past year.”


Here are two poems by Wetzsteon. They are similar, I think, because they both notice how one’s particular mind works, and how one can’t really change the ways of the mind.

UD will, as usual, break up these poems whenever she feels like it in order to talk about what’s going on in them.

Read each poem without interruption by clicking on its title.


At the Zen Mountain Monastery

A double line of meditators sits
on mats, each one a human triangle.

[Starts by setting the scene. The poet’s at a zen sitting. The Zen Mountain Monastery is not far from UD‘s Catskill house.]

Evacuate your mind of clutter now.

I do my best, squeezing the static and
the agony into a straight flat line,
but soon it soars and dips until my mind’s
activity looks (you can take the girl…)
uncannily like the Manhattan skyline.

[Line, triangle, line, skyline… She thinks of the exercise as involving a kind of stark geometrical flatness imposed on the soaring, dipping activity of thought; as, let’s say, a silent Asian minimalism hopelessly foreign to her noisy Manhattan dynamism.

Note that the poet likes repetition and rhyme — she not only repeats variants of line a lot, for instance; she also drops exact end rhymes here and there throughout the poem.

In this essay, she endorses T.S. Eliot’s argument that ‘ “Vers libre does not exist….And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but ‘free,’ it can better be defended under some other label.” What keeps memorable free verse from being free, Eliot suggests, is its constant vacillation between adherence to, and departure from, rhyme and regular meter. “It is this contrast between fixity and flux…which is the very life of verse…” ‘]

Observe your thoughts, then gently let them go.
I’m watching them all right, unruly dots
I not only can’t part from but can’t help
transforming into restless bodies — they’re
no sooner being thought than sprouting limbs,
no longer motionless but striding proudly,
beautiful mental jukeboxes that play
their litanies of joy and woe each day
beneath the shadow of enormous buildings.

[Slightly muddy move here from thoughts as bodies to thoughts as jukeboxes; but anyway — a nicely jazzy evocation of her permanent, deep, urbanism, the music of her thought which plays always rather darkly under the skyscrapers.]

Desires are your jailers; set them free
and roam the hills, smiling archaically.

It’s not a pretty picture, me amid
high alpine regions in my urban black,
huffing and puffing in the mountain air
and saying to myself, I’m trying but
it’s hopeless;

[Funny, self-aware, charmingly self-deprecating, the poet is Maria von Trapp with emphysema.]

though the tortures of the damned
make waking difficult, they are my tortures;

[Enlightenment may not be in the cards for me, since I can’t make my mind be still; but, after all, this is who I am. These thoughts are my thoughts, my anguishes.

One of Wetzsteon’s major inspirations, as in Blue Octavo Haiku, is Franz Kafka.]

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.

The poet dismisses calm self-transcendence. She attaches to its leash her restless ambition and panting passion and strides New York with it.


The second poem also describes the way the poet thinks. It’s much less celebratory. She details the tortures.


And This Time I Mean It

All over the city, people are crying
crocodile tears that dry up before the cause
of weeping crosses the street; interns say great things
about the men who got them their jobs,
then roll their eyes when the coast is clear. Appearing
as a way of keeping foes and bosses happy
the habit fastens and takes hold
until it starts occurring
even among friends, so that only
with effort can the banter be decoded:
“I’ll be there” means “Never will I budge,”
“No” is a subtle way of saying “Sure.”

[The poet describes the ironic, self-protective, and in various other ways strategic, emotional distancing of the urban sensibility. Maybe this clever form of lying began as a way of managing a complicated professional and personal life, but over time it’s become, the poet complains, a habit, so that sincere feeling and utterance become almost impossible.]

Raised in a place where the worst that can happen
Happens every day, I also had a habit
of opening a gap between the mind thinking
and the mouth expressing; only by throwing
intricate veils over what I meant
could I reach the nearest corner
without crying out for merciful armfuls
of coins, seeing-eye dogs, golden syringes dropped
from the sky.

[The city, locus of human pain, is hard to navigate without this habitual hardening, or, as the poet calls it, veiling. Take off the veils and you’re simply, rawly, needy; your desperate sense of inner poverty and anguish and confusion will make a mad beggar of you.]

Soon, though, I wondered whether
there were two of me living in one house:
one who did the breathing
and one, all smirks and eyebrows, who cracked the jokes.

[Right, and this is exactly the sort of thing zen practice addresses; this sense of inner division, and of distance from one’s own sources of feeling.]

Now I suffer from other problems
But this one’s gone for good.

[The poet’s no longer divided, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, her new unity presents problems of its own.]

Before we met
I hovered above my feelings
like a singer above a low and difficult note,
or a dandy suspended in a balloon
over a plague-ridden village.

[She addresses her lover. Before I fell in love with you, I was able to maintain this problematic but workable self-division. I could see the pain of the city — the low and difficult notes, the plague-ridden village — without being destroyed by it.]

But if my old friends
waved to me on my armored cloud
a handshake with a new one took me
down, toward the street’s precise rough music,
down toward terror and truth.

[So, you’ve cured me of self-alienation, of the unseemly safety of the friendly wave’s abstraction; but in its place you’ve afflicted me with the terrors of physical immediacy, of actual closeness with an unironically loved human being.]

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2 Responses to “The Early Death of a Poet..”

  1. RJO Says:

    > they’re no sooner being thought than [they’re] sprouting limbs

    This is a good clinical observation, as one of the cognitive characteristics of manic-depression is “dendritic thinking” — Jamison talks about it in detail in “Touched With Fire,” using the example of Coleridge as I recall.

  2. University Diaries » The wonderful poet Rachel Wetzsteon… Says:

    […] who two years ago killed herself (I discuss a couple of her poems here,) wrote an end of the world poem. With the Mayan annihilation upon us, let us look at The World Had […]

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