by Kathleen Rooney
Weldon Kees was a mid-twentieth-century American poet, writer, painter, filmmaker and musician who disappeared one day in 1955, his car abandoned on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. People who know of Kees at all today probably do so for his poetry (though his talent as a painter was real, and his pieces were once exhibited alongside those of Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning). But even among contemporary poets, many are unfamiliar with Kees’s stylish and often bleakly noir-ish work.
I’ve been captivated by Kees brooding, embittered poetry for a long time now, so it is a genuine pleasure to find Kathleen Rooney’s new novel in poems, Robinson Alone, exploring all aspects of Kees and his alter-ego, Robinson – the anxious, shadowy, cipher featured in several of his poems.
Rooney adroitly follows the rough trajectory of Kees’s life as he goes from his Nebraska home to New York City, where he participates in but is never quite comfortable with its artistic milieu. He and his wife, Ann, decide to leave the city, driving cross-country on their way to eventually settling down in San Francisco. We learn of Kees/Robinson’s nightmares and insomnia, his anxiety regarding success, his fastidious nature and natty style. We also learn of Ann’s drinking and paranoia, and her ultimate institutionalization. Rooney has drawn heavily from Kees’s correspondence in fifteen fascinating entries all titled “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone.” And finally, we come to know that in his later life Kees had an interest in taking off to Mexico, which leaves the lingering possibility that he didn’t commit suicide but instead went there to start a new life.
I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything by revealing this general chronology: it is Rooney’s nimble, imaginative and attentive language that forms the heart of this book. Her dedication and skill in capturing the spirit of Kees as man and artist even frees the reader from needing to know his actual work – though her book will certainly spur some readers to explore his brief Collected Poems, his letters, or his striking paintings. Robinson Alone will introduce you to both a lively contemporary poet and to a terrific, neglected, and long-missing one.