KEES TO THE KINGDOM

WELDON KEES HAS BEEN GONE FIFTY YEARS, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY, HE WROTE THE BOOK.WHERE'S WELDON KEES WHEN WE NEED HIM? CHECK OUT THE STRANGE SAGA OF THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY'S CRANKIEST EMPLOYEE.

I take up a station near Romance and Mystery in the Denver Public Library, Central Branch. It is only eight feet from a water fountain and a stone's throw from the elevators. I sit at a round table scored with the pocketknife blades of the ages, thinking about Weldon Kees, a Denver librarian from 1937 to 1943.

Kees grew to hate his work, and Denver, quite quickly.
At the library, he wrote his friend Norris Getty in 1938, he found himself among "the usual number of bitches. But with 90 percent women," he added, "what can you expect?"

At night he and his wife left their Capitol Hill apartment and went out looking for a literary salon to savage. "Denver is full of vaguely arty people," he confided cattily to fellow writer Leonard Thompson, complaining about the monotony of his provincial existence. "It sometimes gets a bit thick," he wrote.

And wrote, and wrote--on the job, for the most part. Kees was the newly appointed head of the Bibliographical Center of Research for the Rocky Mountain Region, but he still found time to crank out short fiction, poetry and endless letters to friends. By the time he left Denver for Manhattan in 1943, he no longer wanted to be "a librarian in a good-sized town," as he told Getty, but a famous writer. Or poet. Or painter. Or pianist.

In 1950, when he abandoned New York, he was getting close--he'd been published everywhere from the New Yorker to the New Republic, and his paintings hung alongside works by Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. For the next five years, he lived and worked in San Francisco, where he kept up his artistic and literary output and also began writing popular songs and movie scores, as well as producing small theater ventures and forming the Poet's Follies, a revue some claim was a nucleus for the emerging Beat scene. In his spare time he took up behavioral science research at the University of California at Berkeley.

This exhausting lifestyle ended abruptly on July 18, 1955, when Weldon Kees's car was found on the north approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He was never seen again, alive or dead. Friends, biographers and relatives have two theories: Kees either committed suicide or disappeared into Mexico, where he continues to live under an assumed name.

Kees was 41 when he disappeared. If he is alive today, he is eighty.
Every five years or so, a small press publishes a slim volume of his undiscovered work or a biographical musing, but I doubt this is the kind of acclaim Kees craved.

Alfred Kazin, remembering Kees at the Yaddo writers' colony, wrote: "He desperately wanted to be famous, to be `up there,' as he used to say, with Eliot, Pound and other stars in our firmament."

But as far as I can tell, today Kees is "up there" only with the network of Kees fanatics dotted about the country. There may be fifty of us, but there also may not. Compared to the inner circle--which includes poets Kenneth Rexroth and Donald Justice, as well as three scholars who've thought about little other than Kees for nearly two decades--I'm a neophyte. Still, I like to think I'm doing my part.

Today, for instance, I have checked out The Ceremony and Other Stories. The Denver Public Library's copy of Kees's only published collection of short fiction has been checked out just five times since its publication in 1985--three of those by me. Sitting between Romance and Mystery, I open the book to "Public Library," Kees's fragments-of-overheard-conversation pastiche of Denver library life, circa 1938:

I am not a fussbudget about what I read, but I do like a story that makes me feel uplifted when I've finished it.

dear Liberian, please give Milton (little boy) two books by Kathleen Norris and Zane Gray (or other good cowboy book) to bring home.

And there he was, back of one of the filing cases, cutting out pictures of nudes with a razor blade.

I don't know the name of it, but it's a little green book with gold printing on the outside and my aunt had it out last Spring.

There was a drunk man back in the stacks who was annoying one of the patrons, but the janitor threw him out almost immediately.

Behind me, a harassed mother sits her small child down at a table, puts a Berenstain Bears book in front of him and dives into a Harlequin bodice-ripper. Its cover is wrinkled from extra clutching. An unmistakably homeless man, skinny, in a heavy overcoat, searches through the Mystery paperbacks. No, I realize, Horror. He settles down contentedly at my table. We attend to our reading. Now I am deep into "The Library: Four Sketches," in which a young girl with thick glasses and coarse hair sits in a Denver tenement kitchen defacing a Denver Public Library book:

On the back was stamped "Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman" ...The girl opened the book again and turned to the title page and wrote: "This is a dirty filthy book. I hate it."...She closed the book and went to a rack by the door and put on a greenish-black cloth coat and a black felt hat with a metal ornament that looked like a beetle.

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