SUPPLICATION: Selected Poems by John Wieners reviewed by J.G. McClure

SupplicationSUPPLICATION: Selected Poems
by John Wieners
Wave Books, 216 pages

reviewed by J.G. McClure

I’ll admit upfront that, prior to receiving Supplication, Selected Poems of John Wieners, I knew very little about Wieners or his work. Biographically, I knew he was a Beat Poet and member of the San Francisco Renaissance. The only poem I knew was the titular poem of this selected, “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.

This is Wieners at his best. The first stanza shows his trademark gifts: a willingness to use an elevated rhetoric that risks—and resists—sentimentality, and a powerful longing for what cannot be. How is poetry to provide success, companionship, marriage, a home? Wieners knows as well as the rest of us that it doesn’t work that way.

John Wieners

John Wieners

In the second stanza, we see Wieners wrestling with another of the primary concerns in his work – “early death and drugs.” Remember that we’re in the ’50s and ’60s, the peak of a glamorous bohemian drug culture. Sometimes Wieners indulges himself in fantasies of this life – but he’s at his best in moments like this, when he explores the painful realities of the drugs that he uses and that have killed his friends. And again, we see that longing: poetry won’t give him love or timeliness—at best, it will “lend” them.

In the final stanza, we see yet another of the poet’s gifts: making a complex metapoetic argument in simple language: acknowledging the paradox and wasting no time trying to resolve it. To ask poetry to “cure the hurts of wanting the impossible” is to want the impossible. Above all, Poetry, do what you cannot do. It’s a deceptively simple, aching, lovely poem.

But in that final stanza, we see a glimpse of the problematic aspects of Wieners’s work as well. Notice it’s only the “men who teach” – women, apparently, don’t. Wieners is, of course, a product of his time. There are moments in which his poems feel shockingly contemporary, as if 60 years ago he was already writing some of the better poems of our day. And yet, he seems comfortable using racial slurs and othering postures that make the contemporary reader cringe. For instance, take “Sunset,” presented as a modern retelling of Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahren den Gesellen:

Where are you, my gone—?
At the hour of your death—and you did die
as surely a bud falls from its stem
you were scraped from the womb of your mother

………………………..who laughs now and dances in the canyons
…………………………………………………………of New York—

an ant came and deposited the body of its dead brother
…………………………………………………………..on my pillow,

and the very woods in voices of aunt Ella
…………………………………………………….whispered, Hurt
…………………………………………………………………yourself,

hurt yourself in the wind…

The poem asks us to sympathize with the speaker—and only the speaker. The “mother” of the fetus “scraped from the womb” in this conceit is viewed with casual disgust. While perhaps this could have been used as a device to make us critically examine the misogyny of the speaker, instead the poem veers into a raging description of how:

your name is death to me now,
vindictive woman
……………..Magyar—
…………………………………..east of the Urals
…………………………………..your father came
to wreak havoc on Europe. ………Ugrian people
…………………….speaking no language,
…………………….having no poems in your blood.
Only archery, lechery, luxury.

The obvious xenophobia needs no comment. One might argue, of course, that Wieners is simply following the plot structure set up by Mahler. Which may be true – but then the question is why? Why retell the story and give no cues to the reader that we are to critically examine it? By which I mean: the fact that the Other can be used in this way, without examination, as a mere device to try to make us pity the speaker, is symptomatic of the problematic politics I’m talking about. Whatever Wieners may have intended, the poem on the page is a failure of empathy.

And yet, Wieners was a tireless gay rights activist in a deeply hostile age. (See: intersectionality). His poems of love and frustrated desire are refreshingly sincere and often deeply empathetic. Take “A poem for the old man,” for instance, which begins:

God love you
Dana my lover
lost in the horde
on this Friday night
500 men are moving up
& down from the bath
room to the bar
Remove this desire
from the man I love.
Who has opened
the savagery
of the sea to me.

See to it that
his wants are filled
on California Street
Bestow on him lar-
gesse that allows him
peace in his loins.

Make him out a lion
so that all who see him
hero worship his
thick chest as I did
moving my mouth
over his back bringing
our hearts to heights
I never hike over
anymore…

The speaker here is clearly hurt by the loss of his beloved, and his prayer for this man sometimes moves into the realm of bitter hyperbole (as in “bestow on him largesse that allows him peace in his loins”). Nonetheless, the speaker has a very real empathy for his lost love, and his prayer to “make him out a lion” feels sincere. The poem resists both easy anger and easy forgiveness. And crucially, the speaker understands that he, too, is in the same position:

I occupy that space
as the boys around me
choke out desire and
drive us both back
home in the hands
of strangers

His lover, in other words, could write the same poem about him. Unlike the speaker of “Sunset,” this speaker displays a moving self-awareness and profound capacity for empathy. Where “Sunset” fails, this poem succeeds.

And yet, and yet. Wieners once said that his writing process was to “try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” Sometimes this makes his work refreshingly candid—and sometimes it leads to other deeply problematic statements, as in “Memories of You.” Following a frustrated love affair, the speaker wishes that “some woman” would “see and relieve me of this misery.” He then continues:

For I will go to Spoleto and blow them there,
travel back to San Francisco and blow them there,
“get fucked in this ass by saintly motorcyclists”
would it were so; …
………………………………pretend it is all peaches and cream
while inwardly I scream and dream of the day
when I will be free
to marry
and breed more children
so I can seduce them
and they be seduced by
saintly motorcyclists in the dawn.

The opening of this passage, with its bitter assertion of sexual freedom following the breakup, and its jaded look at Ginsberg’s “saintly motorcyclists,” is moving. And yet, we have to contend with this statement about the speaker seducing his own children, a statement that reflects and participates in his age’s worst portrayals of the gay community as sinister deviants. Given the speaker’s state of mind at this point in the poem, it doesn’t seem that we’re meant to take him seriously—he’s slid into a kind of sexual nihilism and is tormenting himself. And yet, and yet, he frames this as his secret inward desire, and connects it to the romanticized image—no longer in scare quotes—of “saintly motorcyclists in the dawn.” If we are to take this as a critique of such portrayals, the poem does not give us many cues to do so. It may be that what we’re really seeing is a case study in the damage of heteronormative hegemony: the poet buying into the homophobic lies he has been told about himself.

In the end, perhaps all I can say in review of Supplication is that it is an interesting and disturbing look at a lesser-known Beat Poet and his age. There’s a lot here for the critical reader—but don’t expect to like everything you find.


J.G. McClure

J.G. McClure’s work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He has an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.

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