Supplication: Selected Poems
ed. Joshua Beckman, CA Conrad, Robert Dewhurst
£12.99 / 9781910392232
reviewed by Nick Beck
Spiky, jarring, glassy, fragmented, the poems of John Wieners continually prick at any attempt at a stabilizing grasp of their meaning. In his afterword to Supplication, John Wilkinson, perhaps the most avid Wieners scholar around, describes how Wieners created a poetry that goes about ‘parading its glittering and ignominious dissections rather than effacing the damaged self.’ This parade of cuts and damage operates as a way of reasserting the presence of the self through the performative display of painful loss and harmful humiliations.
In describing Wieners’ legacy, Wilkinson also recalls the poet Jack Spicer’s earlier assessment of Wieners:
He throws his self out into the world, rather at times like Tar Baby gone mad. Bright colored bits of reality stick to him. There is not the least sense of the dance of the poet’s identity within the poem.
In spite of the chronological gap between these two assessments – Spicer pronounces his judgment in 1959, when the first edition of Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems is in print, whereas Wilkinson speaks of Wieners’ oeuvre as a whole (although Wilkinson always seems most engaged by the head-spinning collection Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975)) – Spicer’s commentary appears to outline the process by which Wieners’ poetic self becomes ‘damaged’ but not ‘effaced.’ Both these writers identify something glimmering in Wieners’ poetry, whether that be ‘glittering and ignominious dissections’ or ‘bright colored bits of reality.’ These twinkling dissections of reality cut into the stodgy presence of the poet’s damaged self, dancing within the poem even as the poet’s identity may not. But in doing so they also become stuck to the wounds they cut into the damaged self. The madly-hurled self acts like flypaper, taking on the rough constitution of the shimmering bits of reality that stick to it. But where are the contours of this hurled and damaged self? Shorn of an identity that dances, what do these glittering, brightly-coloured bits of reality, stuck to but not a part of the poet’s self, constitute for the magpie-ish reader?
Part of the challenge of attempting to answer these questions is that these nuggets of reality are permeable, open to flux. In Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems these scraps of reality – ticking hotel clocks (‘A Poem for Record Players’), shrimp foo yong (‘A Poem for Tea Heads’), voices on the radio (‘A Poem for the Dead I Know’) – cluster around the woozy margins of a San Franciscan sub-culture that is isolated, transient, and, perhaps, already lost. This work is a ‘testament’ to ‘the ikons in the crumbled mansions of a half-lit drug world,’ as the poet Ed Dorn praised the collection, where shadowy figures – racialized subjects, queers, even ‘the dead I know’ – come ‘alive in the glamour of this hour’ (‘A Poem for Tea Heads’). But the setting for the ‘glamour of this hour,’ in which these players come alive, is suffused with a romanticism that fades into a represented fantasy of glamour. Wieners described his childhood cinema-attendance:
I remember watching old movies of the forties and romanticizing about the glamour of night, and cheap hotels, the thrill of electric light, under street lamps.
The glamour of the life Wieners documents in these poems are pieced together from scraps of cinematic representations, recalled from childhood screenings. The crumbled mansions of his verses are lifted from movie scenes, half-light generated from spotlights.
I love this about reading Wieners; his devotion to the cinema, the globules of memory that propel the reader between the sanctified and the cheapened. It is the instability of a set of images that, as much as they may replicate a kind of sacrilegious religious iconography, find their source not only in Mariology but also in old Hollywood. Perhaps it is precisely in these continually inverting ‘bits of reality,’ where the fragment shifts from one mooring to another, from the reality of the speaker’s hotel room to the reality of the child watching a hotel room on the screen, that this glitter begins to shine. The toing and froing of Wieners’ poetry, the indecipherability of where it all comes from, throws up the glittering bits of reality whose object-like density batters at the reader’s grip on the poems.
The damaged self, clogged up with reminiscences, circulates alongside these fragmentary gleams of reality. It feels significant that Spicer perceived in Wieners’ poetry a split between a mobile, hurled ‘self’ and an immobile, non-dancing ‘identity.’ As the former circulates with great abandon, it is hewn from any stable, cohesive, identifiable voice. In an essay entitled ‘The Human Universe’, Wieners’ poetic mentor Charles Olson wrote that ‘the meeting edge of man and the world is also his cutting edge.’ In Wieners’ poetry, the poetic ego is itself this ‘cutting edge.’ As it mediates between the individual and their surroundings, subjective identity becomes the lost reality that splinters the world into shards. The damaged self is not effaced, then. Rather it is chopped up and scattered around the poems, a self never quite amounting to a coherent identity, but perpetually protruding in the voice of first person pronouns throughout the text. The dissonance of the multiple voices shredded through a poem like ‘The Homecoming II’ generate a certain arbitrary stickiness, words and phrases snatched up and tossed onto the page without the pretense of a constructed meaning.
In contrast, though, in other poems it is the intensity of the singular presence of the damaged self that colludes with the failure of the speaker’s intentions. Whilst a poem like ‘Memories of You’ might suggest to the reader one particular addressee, the speaker describes various different sexual encounters with different people, a veritable geography of cruising that trails Wieners’ moves from New York to San Francisco to Boston:
And I see what style this has degenerated into,
a vain pulling of my own prick and those of others.
When it was supposed to be a verbal blowjob of a poem.
The sucking off of a singular other has, the speaker drily observes, diffused into a myriad of memories of many pulled pricks, a multiplicity that ultimately leaves the damaged self vainly plugging away on his own dick. This formalization of failure – the poem’s lyric promise that fails to be enacted – deepens the claims to humiliation, loss and misery around which the isolated self revolves around in Wieners’ poetry.
That seems to be the way things go with memories in Wieners’ poetry. So many of Wieners’ poems function as reminiscences, but these past events only play out as past events, as if they never happened in a present moment prior to the speaker’s ventriloquism by the damaged, ever-circulating self. This mode of reminiscence is liable to crumble, like the mansions of a half-lit drug world before it, bound up as it is in Wieners’ sustained engagement with the decrepitude of ageing and the attraction of youth: ‘It’s only memory of youth I yearn for’ (‘Solitary Pleasure’). The desire for youth is bound up in the desire to be young again, a desire that only calls forth the constraints of the material body, a body not only feeling aged, degraded, haggard, but also now isolated from the very reminiscences that it seeks to conjure up, as estranged from the damaged self as it is constituted by it.
I suppose the most apparent cut-ups in Wieners’ poetry are in the collages that pepper Behind the State Capitol, which the editors of Supplication happily include excerpts of in facsimile. But I still can’t find my bearings with these images; I’m sure there’s a reiterative logic to the pictures of screen stars, gay male porn, and the poet’s library card, but these feel like shifting plates waiting to fracture rather than the comfort of firm, hard ground. I guess these images, non-cognitive, non-narrative, could be viewed as part of the ‘chichi’ that Andrew Duncan talks about in Behind the State Capitol, in what is the best Wieners criticism that I’ve come across. ‘Chichi’ is the drapery that defies direct meaning, and Behind the State Capitol is chock full of it, that stuff which ‘lingers on ornamentation, in contrast to tight, milled, hard objects, with single axes.’ But whilst the vocabulary and images in the poems of Behind the State Capitol may be ornamentation, they retain a hard, object-like impenetrability. Although they do not operate on single axes of meaning, then, they act like multiple axes that grind up against the reader’s understanding.
Reading John Wieners gives me a feeling of bewilderment. A little air pocket opens up where I’d anticipate meaning, and in this space a kind of dreamy, impenetrable artifice hardens, starting to clot up cognition. This all confuses me. I suppose it – confusion – is not a particularly interesting or revelatory feeling to conclude with when confronted with difficult poetry. But I think it speaks to these great moments of loss that suffuse the bits of reality floating, whirling, through these poems. And within this motion, the reader finds the imprints of a damaged self that has evaded our firm hold.
Nick Beck is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California
Image credit: Allen Ginsberg