Thursday, February 4, 2010

Discovering Rachel Wetzsteon: a belated tribute

Photo of Sakura Park by Rob Verger

In Contemporary Poetry Review (2007), Adam Kirsch reviewed Sakura Park by Rachel Wetzsteon. The full review can be read at this link. Below are portions of the excellent review:

In a perfect world, Rachel Wetzsteon would be one of the most popular poets of her generation. You would see people in the outdoor cafes along Upper Broadway reading copies of Sakura Park, her third collection, the way pilgrims to Greenwich Village carry Scott Fitzgerald or Edna St. Vincent Millay. For Wetzsteon’s poems manage to turn Morningside Heights—a quiet, bourgeois neighborhood near Columbia University, home to the park of her title—into a theater of romance, an intellectual haven, a flaneur’s paradise. Her poems evoke the kind of life that generations of young people have come to New York to live—earnest, glamorous, and passionate, full of sex and articulate suffering:  . . .

. . . it is heartening to see Wetzsteon affirm the city’s true glamour. Wetzsteon can write convincingly about glamour, that perilous muse, because she knows that it is not superficial, a matter of how you dress or who you know. It is, rather, one of those “structures inside the mind,” a way of seeing yourself and your surroundings as charged with mysterious significance. To be really glamorous, Wetzsteon convinces us, you need the self-awareness that comes with intelligence:  . . . 

. . . Wetzsteon’s poems are odes to sharpened senses, to possibilities held open, and to the city whose own sharp openness seems like a standing invitation. The spell of Sakura Park, woven from Wetzsteon’s intelligence and lyric deftness, has already become, for me, a part of New York’s magic.

When I read of Rachel Wetzsteon's suicide in December 2009 I tucked the obit away in my drafts because it saddened me on two counts:  #1--I could tell from the obituary that this was a tragic loss of greatness, and #2--I was unaware of this prominent poet that I should have known about if I was paying more attention to the world of modern poetry. Lesson learned.

This links to the obituary (that includes her title poem Sakura Park):
Rachel Wetzsteon, poet mixed melancholy, wit - The Boston Globe

This is a photo of Dr. Rachel Wetzsteon:

And this is one of her poems published in The New Republic in tribute to her, their poetry editor of only four months.

Short Ode to Morningside Heights
 -- by Rachel Wetzsteon

Convergence of worlds, old stomping ground,
comfort me in my dark apartment
when my latest complaint shrinks my focus
to a point so small its hugely present
but barely there, and I fill the air
with all the spiteful words I spared the streets.

The pastry shop’s abuzz
with crazy George and filthy graffiti,
but the peacocks are strutting across the way
and the sumptuous cathedral gives
the open-air banter a reason to deepen:
build structures inside the mind, it tells
the languorous talkers, to rival the ones outside!

Things are and are not solid.
As Opera Night starts at Caffe Taci,
shapes hurry home with little red bags,
but do they watch the movies they hold
or do they forego movies for rooftops
where they catch Low’s floating dome in the act
of always being about to fly away?

Ranters, racers, help me remember
that the moon-faced fountain’s the work of many hands,
that people linger at Toast long after we’ve left.
And as two parks frame the neighborhood—
green framing gray and space calming clamor—
be for me, well-worn streets, a context
I can’t help carrying home, a night fugue
streaming over my one-note how, when, why.
Be the rain for my barren indoor cry.

Caffe Taci in Spring 2003, in Rachel's neighborhood,
prior to relocating in 2005 to Greenwich Village.

Toast - upper Broadway near Columbia campus


Di said...

Hey thank you, I went searching and read of this woman I would never have known if you hadn't posted.

So sad.

Melinda said...


How utterly tragic. Being a person who has been very close to suicide, I so wish I could tell people to not give up--that life can and does change. How tragic that Rachel could not wait for the change and ended her life.

I loved that poem! To be honest, I had never heard of Rachel Wetzsteon before--so I am really happy that you posted this entry.

Take care,


Hattie said...

This is so sad. A beautiful tribute.

Hattie said...

She should have held on. If you have been feted as a romantic young woman and you aren't young any more, you have to adjust your vision. I guess she just couldn't do that. Sometimes aging breaks people. They can't take it.
The academic world is hell for women. They see the men they care for dashing around after younger women all the time.
But if one's ego is always about being young and beautiful and romantic, wow, middle age can be difficult. But it's worth getting through that and winning your way to the other side and (one hopes) wisdom.
Of course I don't know why she committed suicide, actually. But the diminishment of one's value in the eyes of others because one is no longer young can be a severe shock.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Fantastic poem. I had never heard of this woman. But wow, her grasp of language is remarkably beautiful.

Lydia said...

Di~ How wonderful to have a comment from you. So glad that you are discovering her along with me.

Melinda~ Glad you are discovering her with me, also. Your insights into suicide make her loss of life all the more poignant.

Hattie~ Whew, your comments are so deep they should be allowed to grow into a post at your blog, or an article/essay.
If you have been feted as a romantic young woman and you aren't young any more, you have to adjust your vision. ...that is a remarkable statement. All of what you said is real food for thought.

Trish and Rob MacGregor~ I agree with you that the poem is fantastic and if you didn't follow the link to the obit to read her poem Sakura Park I hope you might read that one too in the future because it bears out what you said about her grasp of language...

Rhiannon said...

I've not heard of Rachel W. either. However you have now changed that and I plan on reading some of her body of work...poetry that is.

As I read her poem here in your post I could not help but think of my favorite singer, composer, writer, producer, etc..Laura Nyro..yes, she was a musician but I know that two books written about her life stated that she always saw herself as a poet and sang her "poems" through her soul and heartfelt.

If you look on the right side of my blog and see the "Album or cd I never tire of listening to" it's Laura Nyro's album "New York Tendaberry"...she sings that song in the's about New York and her lyrics are quite similar to Rachel's poem about New York in your post, but a bit more intense and sorrowful yet happy at the same time..

The album cover of Laura's New York Tendaberry on my blog is a black and white photo of her in her high rise New York apartment out on the balcony with the wind blowing her long long black hair. Looking at Rachel's photo in your post, she reminds me so much of Laura! Laura's heart was so connected to New York she made poetry out of it in her songs, very soulful, dreamy, funky and beautiful.

Reading this post was all eerie and strange and amazing to me at the same time! Laura passed on in the 90's from ovarian cancer. She would be a few years older than me right about now. I wonder how old Rachel W. was when she passed on? I shall go and read the obituary now and see.

I felt a connection to this post, in relation to Rachel's poem about New York, her looking a lot like Laura, and your mentioning Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of my all time favorite poets. how ironic.

Thank you for your inspiration Lydia and for guiding me to learn more about Rachel W..

Hope you and your husband are doing better now....



Nancy said...

Why do poets have such a history of suicides? Tragic loss.

naomi dagen bloom said...

Lydia, When I read Rachel W.'s obit in the NY Times--and had not heard of her--was struck by how familiar her story seemed. We lived near Sakura Park on the upper west side. The many changes in the neighborhood--who lived there, how many of her father's generation were gone, how it was mildly gentrifying--probably were de-stabilizing for her.

Hattie's comment is perfect. How many women of Rachel's generation had I met who clung to the wish for the right man to make it right. And always selected the wrong one.
Though this sounds too clinical, as a woman who took a long time to get it together, a personal story like Rachel W. always makes me very sad.

Lydia said...

Rhi~ It was kinda shocking to read your comments, to see the similarities you found in your favorite singer and in this poet. Seems to me that we were meant to discover Rachel Wetzsteon, and seems you have a special tie to her already. Thank you for your amazing insights.

Nancy~ Strange and sad truth that I wish were not true. I mentioned it in my tags, just for the mystery of it all.

naomi~ Your first-hand knowledge of the neighborhood/area where you and she lived, how it is changing, and how that may have affected her add so much to this discussion. Additionally, your personal thoughts expanding on Hattie's observations are a poignant punctuation mark.

Hopeful said...

As a devoted obits reader, I found out about this poet upon her death and here she as a topic of one of your posts. She really was talented and she also must have been very depressed. It's hard to know about the darkness people feel, sometimes without showing it, sometimes by couching it in language that dazzles us before it brings us to tears.

(Jennifer, signed in under my writing to survive email. It always looks funny to see that "hopeful" name.)

Lydia said...

Hopeful Jennifer~ I didn't recognize your alter-name and was glad you told me it was you.
I read obits regularly too! Actually, ever since having to do many of them one semester in Journalism I've been impressed with their capacity to succinctly tell life stories.

bfk said...

That is a very good poem. And sad to see another person take life so seriously. But then, if they were laughing at the absurdity, they wouldn't be writing poetry.

Once again, Lydia, you are telling me about places in the City that I've lived in for three decades. And to think I probably passed this park when I finally got around to going to Grants Tomb.

Well I see that Sakura park has Linden trees, which I haven't seen since I've been in Berlin (or haven't noticed), and cherry trees.

So I'll definitely stop by this spring when the latter go in bloom.

Maggie May said...

Thank you, thank you so much for exposing me to this woman, whose books I will look for. I LOVE the quote about the internal structure of the mind, I LOVE IT, and the ideas in that whole paragraph. You always post the most fascinating things!!!

Lydia said...

Bfk~ Good point about what it takes to be a poet.
I figured that was in your general area. When you go this spring please be sure to post some photos of both kinds of trees at Facebook. (Reminds me that I must come by to see if you've posted shots from New Orleans. If you'd been one week later you'd have been in the big Super Bowl victory crowds...somehow I bet you are happy you aren't.)

Maggie May~ You had the same strong and excited reaction to the expressions in the Kirsch review of her book as I did. I have read it many times now and there's definitely something there that I am so glad to have found!
I will be ordering Sakura is a must-have.



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