on Poetry by John Wieners and Else Lasker-Schüler
Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Wave Books) and Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals by John Wieners (City Lights Books)
My Blue Piano, poems by Else Lasker-Schüler, translated from the German by Brooks Haxton (Syracuse University Press)
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One of my daily walking routes takes me through our town cemetery. Anyone born as a resident of Milton, Massachusetts is entitled to acquire a grave there, and that is where John Wieners was buried. Two books had been tucked into his casket to keep him entertained: The Blind See Only This World, an anthology of poems dedicated to him, and Clive Matson’s poetry collection Squish Boots. “There grew from me big flowing worlds outside Milton, Massachusetts,” Wieners wrote in his earliest prose writing, “The Untitled Journal of a Would-Be Poet” (1955-56), included as the first of four journals in Stars Seen in Person, edited by Michael Seth Stewart.
The outside was Milton and his Catholic upbringing, the inside of the person was outbound, indeterminate and profane. He recalled his boy-self standing beside the ice cream factory at Eliot Street and Central Avenue on a Sunday, imagining the world:
I would not let a face go by but I would tear into it until I made its eyes look into mine. Shadows were real, footsteps became men, laughter was white wine running down my throat. I did not want to laugh, I only wanted to hear laughing. I did not want to know what all the gaiety and the shouting was about, I only wanted genuine headless laughter running in my ears. I wanted bright faces not up against mine, I only wanted to watch bright faces go by.
I imagine him pausing on that familiar sidewalk, sniffing the aromas rising from the Baker Chocolate factory in Milton Lower Mills, now long shuttered and converted to condos. The sweet pleasure of the world so palpable – yet so far off and unattainable. In his late teens, instructed by the Jesuits at Boston College, he commuted to campus from his family’s house. During that time, he discovered poetry.
In the initial journal, he noted the impact of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s death in 1950: “Edna Millay was a goddess to me … she is not a great poet, but she opened to me the avenues of great poetry. I was working as a student assistant in the [Boston] College library for tuition and I took out her books (I still have some of them here to my guilt) and I labored over them. The words made no sense, but neither did the articles in what I then thought were all the better magazines.”
A few days later, he opened a new entry, addressing a powerful, looming entity:
In this I am again in retreat … I cannot face the skyscrapers or the culture that you talk about. I will not bring what ever I have to you. I cannot stand the reality of you. I cannot stand the world as it is, so to escape, in my best dramatical words, I shall turn to the poetry of unreality. I do not want to be real. I do not want to have fingers and lust and food. I want to stand over wide-open windows over the streets and see the realities go by and not be one. I will look at the unseen clouds that you cannot see. I want dreams to be reality, I want imagination to be my weekly pay envelope.
The unresolved, productive tension in his first poems derived from the clash of two coincident actions – being driven out and towards. Despite the grinding of opposites, his mode of address was emotionally clear and often tactfully tender. He was simultaneously delinquent and devoted, as in “My Mother,” a poem from his first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), included in Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, edited by Joshua Beckman, CA Conrad and Robert Dewhurst:
talking to strange men on the subway,
doesn’t see me when she gets on,
at Washington Street
but I hide in a booth at the side
and watch her worried, strained face --
the few years she has got left.
Until at South Station
I lean over and say:
I’ve been watching you since you got on.
She says in an artificial
voice: Oh, for Heaven’s sake!
as if heaven cared.
But I love her in the underground
and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
talking together between the wire grate of a cage
In the tradition of Rimbaud, John Wieners (1934-2002) was America’s poet of abjection and dereliction, excitations and erections. He was utterly given to the art. He didn’t teach or write criticism and was indifferent about giving readings and much else. Fellow Boston poet William Corbett once described Wieners as “self-effacing about his work to the point of almost erasing it.” Disenchanted with the Jesuits, Wieners nevertheless seemed to exist within a sepulchral shadow. He was institutionalized several times and managed his mental illness throughout his life: “God tells me always to write and yet above this he is a great mindbreak [new word, good] for his demanding from me of things I cannot give him.” In one of his first published poems, “A poem for record players,” he writes, “I find a pillow to / muffle the sounds I make. / I am engaged in taking away / from God his sound.” A decade later, he wrote a poem called “Supplication”:
O poetry, visit this house often
imbue my life with success,
leave me not alone,
give me a wife and home.
Take this curse off
of early death and drugs,
make me a friend among peers,
lend me love, and timeliness.
Return me to the men who teach
and above all, cure the
hurts of wanting the impossible
through this suspended vacuum.
But lamentation was hardly the whole show. He wasn’t disheartened and continuously found sustenance in poetry after attending the final class at Black Mountain College with Robert Creeley under the tutelage of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. His first book appeared after he moved to San Francisco and was welcomed into Allen Ginsberg’s circle. Chronologically speaking, he just made the cut into Donald Allen’s renowned anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. In the mid-60’s, Wieners flung himself into a relationship with a woman, Panna Grady, and lived with her and her daughter north of Boston near Gloucester – but he was not constituted to achieve the sort of heterosexual relationship his church had proscribed.
He returned to Boston and lived on Joy Street where, furious with the culture at large, he advocated for gay rights and political justice with and for his friends. His affiliations may define the narrative we use to shape his biography, but the endearing immediacy of the journals and the brisk freedoms of the poetry constantly reintroduce us to him as a sort of artistic free agent. His sacraments and confessions are not meant to lead him or the reader toward a higher state – they simply are the highest possible rung on a salvaging ladder of expression.
It is so sad
It is so lonely
I felt younger after doing him,
and when I looked in the mirror
my hair was rumpled.
I smoothed it
and rooted for someone else
or wanted to satisfy myself,
No hope left.
How can a man have pride
without a wife.
I spit him out on the floor.
Imagining myself up my lover’s ass
he coming by himself.
Looking out the window, for no reason
except to soothe myself
I shall go to the bookstore
And pretend nothing happened.
Feeling like a girl
stinking beneath my clothes.
In his preface to Stars Seen in Person, Ammiel Alcalay writes, “The universe that John dwelt in was filled with harsh reality – forced electroshock and insulin therapy, poverty, addiction, despair – but out of it he forged a world of truth and beauty. His absolute mastery of form should, by all critical criteria, have put to shame all of his conventional prize-winning and celebrated contemporaries purportedly working in traditional forms. But such a thing could not be for it would signal an admittance of reality and historical consciousness into a world of propaganda, disinformation, and absolute counter-factual fabrication.” That final sentence evokes today’s news. John Wieners’s writings and poems, undaunted by such destructive forces even as he names them, sound like today’s answer to whatever and whoever seeks to deny what is actual.
[Stars Seen in Person, published September 15, 2015, 240 pages, $17.00 paperback; Supplication, published October 26, 2015, 216 pages, $30.00 paperback]
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The grave of Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem has three tombstones: the stone placed at her burial in 1945, another plaque recalling the stone's discovery after the Six Day War, and an ebony slab with her name and life dates on one side, and on the other some words about the desecration and restoration of the cemetery, all inscribed in German.
Since her death, Yehuda Amichai’s translations of her poems into Hebrew have sustained Lasker-Schüler’s name in Israel’s literary memory. There is a street named for her in Jerusalem. In Germany, her poetry is still taught, her plays staged, her artwork displayed, and there is even an inter-city train route named for her – all in the wake of her celebrity in Berlin that flared until the late 1930’s.
Born to a prosperous Jewish family in Wuppertal (then Elberfeld), Else Lasker-Schüler was a notorious, multi-talented artist and performer among the German Expressionists, regarded all the more outrageous for being female. She left school due to illness at age eleven and was subsequently taught by her mother, also a poet. Described as precocious, eccentric and depressive, she married a physician, Jonathan Lasker, in 1894 and moved with him to Berlin where she trained as an artist. Five years later, her son Paul was born and her first poems were published.
In 1902, her first collection, Styx, appeared. In 1917 at age 48, her Collected Poems was published. In 1920, she read her Hebrew Ballads at the opening ceremony of the Bauhaus in Weimer with Walter Gropius in attendance. By 1921, the Times Literary Supplement named her “one of the best-known living German writers,” adding it is “less and less easy to forget, in reading her work, that she is also a Jewess” due to the “Oriental luxuriousness” of her style.
With My Blue Piano, Brooks Haxton gives us a selection of 51 poems written between 1902 and 1943. “She wrote with equal intensity about lovers, friendships, family, social causes, and religion. She was rhapsodic,” he writes in his introduction. “In most of her poetry, the erotic is a permutation of the sacred. She expresses the turbulent psychology of fundamentally ecstatic relation to being, the supernatural charge ignited by earthliness.” Lasker-Schüler’s orphic habits are usually worked out as a run of metaphors. There are echoes of the Psalms and Lamentations. Haxton has included perhaps too many of her early, similar love poems; her poems of torment and exile speak more urgently to our moment and are less predictable trope-wise. Reading her work, one recalls that her modernist contemporaries include Rilke, the young Akhmatova, and Mina Loy.
The speech of this
cold country is not mine.
Nor can I keep the pace.
Even the clouds
Night here is a foisted queen.
And still I bear in mind
wild places Pharoahs ride.
I kiss the likeness
of Egyptian stars.
My lips shine
and I am the picturebook
glistening in your lap.
But tears weave silk
threads down your face.
My opalescent birds
with enlaid coral gouged away
in garden hedges feel
their soft nests turning into stone.
And those who anointed the palace of my dead,
they carried the crowns of my fathers,
prayers they sang at the holy river sank.
In 1903, she divorced Lasker and quickly married Georg Lewin, a composer and founder of the legendary magazine Der Sturm for which she contributed poems and reviews. Her first paintings and drawings date from 1906. The Sturm gallery attracted avant-garde artists from around the world; Else enjoyed friendships with Georg Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka. In 1908, she completed her first play, Die Wupper, which was first staged in 1919. Betty Falkenberg, her biographer, describes the play as “a series of phantasmagorical scenes in which flawed but endearing characters recount their strange, unfulfilled urban lives.”
Else’s acrimonious divorce from Lewin in 1912 left her destitute. A brief love affair with Gottfried Benn ensued (along with a stream of love poems), and she was saved financially by Karl Kraus. Other friends included Martin Buber and Georg Trakl. She worked incessantly, writing prose fiction as well as plays and poems, and producing art work in various media. She became a familiar, flamboyant figure among the cafes and salons, and in print an anti-war editorialist.
Her costumed mode of dress (resembling her mythical alter ego, “Jussuf, Prince of Thebes”) and dramatic readings were her signatures. At times, audiences jeered at her cabaret-like performances – yet people were drawn to her unabashed expression. But Falkenberg notes, “One could draw up a list, beginning with Walter Benjamin, of people who couldn’t stand to be around Lasker, because they found her either overbearing, silly or hysterical, but who freely acknowledged her genius as a poet. And so it would continue up to her death.” (Who could Walter Benjamin stand to be around?)
On his deathbed in 1927, Else’s son refused to allow her to visit. He believed that she had deserted him over the years. Her response was a poem, “To My Child,” in which she says, “my love of you is the likeness / That one may make of God.”
In 1932, she was awarded the Kleist Prize, one of Germany’s top literary honors. But in 1933, at the age of 64, she was beaten near her apartment by Nazi thugs. Fleeing to Switzerland, she continued on to Palestine where she settled in Jerusalem. But unable to speak Hebrew, she felt alienated and “sinking into myself and [I] will die here of sadness.” Amichai recalled the image of her trudging down the sidewalk in tattered clothes and poor health. She died alone at home in 1945. Almost all of her art work was destroyed by the Nazis. What remains is preserved at the National Library of Israel: manuscripts, drawings, and correspondence with figures such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Kraus, Benn and Buber.
The title poem of Haxton’s selection, “My Blue Piano,” was written in Israel in 1943:
At home I have a blue piano,
I, who cannot play a note.
It stands in the gloom of the cellar door,
now that the whole world has grown coarse.
The four hands of the stars play there
-- the moonwife sang in her boat –-
and the rats come out to dance.
The keyboard and the works all busted …
My blubbering enters the blue of death.
O angels, open me your way,
forbidden though it be the living.
I who ate the bitter bread now
call you at the door to heaven.
[My Blue Piano, published November 2, 2015, 144 pages, $14.95 paperback. Artwork shown above is "The Banished Poet" (1942).]