Lonesome no more
In her new novel in poems, Kathleen Rooney chases down a literary enigma.
Kathleen Rooney’s new novel in poems, Robinson Alone ($12.95, Gold Wake Press), explores the life and work of elusive writer Weldon Kees (1914–1955?), opening cinematically in his hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska: “A dirt road lined with leafless trees. / Smokestacks. Some background.” The dusty scene set, she kicks up a cloud of provincial images, circa 1920s: “The football games / & the Buffalo Bill Street Parade”; “Torch songs wafting from the nighttime / radio–AM broadcasts lofting / like ghosts from real cities.” It’s not long before the culturally inquisitive Robinson—Kees’s poetic alter ego, whom Rooney adopts as her protagonist—realizes “most of the world is not in Nebraska,” then sets out to find it.
Rooney had a similar response to growing up in the Cornhusker State. “My first memories of being a person come from Nebraska,” the Chicago-based writer says. “I look at it with affection but also as a place that I don’t want to live.” She was studying in England when she learned of Kees and, given their shared roots and mutual desire to escape small towns, felt an immediate kinship. Then there was the fact of his cult status among poets and his prodigious, albeit underappreciated talents. Kees was a jazz pianist, Abstract Expressionist painter, filmmaker, screenwriter, literary critic (etc.) but is best remembered for his poetry. “The British poet Simon Armitage had heard that Kees’s Collected Poems would blow his head off,” Rooney says. “And I thought, I want to read this guy and have my head blown off.”
The centerpiece of his legacy are the Robinson poems (1944–1949), four masterfully crafted works reflecting an unmistakably Keesian personage: “the man-about-townness, the stylishness, the pervasive sense of anxiety,” Rooney says. Something about the quartet inspires improvisation. Many Kees devotees have tried their hand at writing Robinson poems, and Rooney worked on her own on and off for ten years, in between other projects. “I wrote a lot of them before I realized I was writing a novel in poems,” she says. “At that point, I started thinking about arc, character, dialogue and setting.” The poems in Robinson Alone are variously structured, but there’s a crisp, musical tone throughout, à la Kees, and a fluidity between works that invites one to read the novel from start to finish. While narrated in the close third person, it also includes 15 first-person poems shaped from Kees’s own letters—clever revisions and erasures that add further texture and shading to this portrait of the artist as a lonely, mustachioed man.
Besides his poetry, what’s most known about Kees is his mysterious disappearance, the question mark at the end of his life. On July 19, 1955, his Plymouth Savoy was found near the Golden Gate Bridge. Some think he jumped; others, that he fled to Mexico. Rooney takes advantage of the metaphoric possibilities of a man who “managed to die and not die.” Besides being gorgeous, the three final poems (“Robinson’s Cat,” “Historically, Suicides” and “Robinson’s Telephone Rings”) handle the question—and by extension, Kees’s legacy—with care. “One of the risks with someone who maybe takes their life is the tendency to retroactively look at every single thing they did as a sign, an indicator of depression, and I don’t think that’s true,” Rooney says. “[Kees] was troubled, but there were lots of times he was very funny.” He’d probably appreciate the fact, for instance, that Rooney is doing all of her Robinson Alone readings wearing a fake mustache. Who knows? The near-centenarian could be laughing from Mexico.
Rooney conjures Kees at the Dollhouse Reading Series Saturday 15.