Shedding Skins: the Problem of Poetic Personas

Spencer Hupp

September 2017

Walking home from work not too long ago, I saw a snakeskin curled around the base of a tree. More bored than honestly curious, I picked up a stick and poked at the skin, which disintegrated, its broken bits floating up like ash from a campfire. Man, they say, is no friend to nature.

It is an established fact that writers take what they say, do, and see far too seriously. The snakeskin I destroyed on my walk home is one of untold billions of snakeskins that have been deposited around untold billions of trees in the hundred-million-year history of snakekind. But it set me off. It’s not hard to see why: snakeskins provide a handy substitute for themes that are important to many poets—absence, decay, the natural order, etc. Perhaps most importantly, snakeskins speak to the problem of poetic identity. As a snake sheds its skin, it leaves a visible trace of itself upon the world. This is one way of thinking about how poets work within their poems. They are certainly present, having put the words in their proper order, the lines in their proper place. But how much of oneself is communicated in one’s writing? How much distance exists between a poem and its poet?

The adoption of a named persona further complicates things. American poets of the generation immediately following World War II were particularly fond of renaming themselves. John Berryman’s Henry comes to mind, as does Robert Lowell’s Cal, and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, appropriated from Shakespeare. There’s also Weldon Kees’s Robinson, a mid-century everyman whose outward social grace and security obscure a general existential dread. The four Robinson poems appear in Kees’ last two collections, one in The Fall of the Magicians (1947) and three in Poems: 1947-1954. Given the facts of Kees’s short, quietly tragic life, it’s easy to read the Robinson poems as autobiographical. However, it remains unclear how much of Kees there exists in Robinson. He outlines the persona’s provenance in “Robinson,” the first poem of the cycle: “Robinson alone provides the image Robinson.” This pronouncement defines the relationship between the poet and his invention: the two are mutually-perpetuating. In creating Robinson, Kees becomes Robinson, at least in the space of these poems. This is a troublesome doubling: Robinson’s appearances are fraught with self-erasure and denial, and the persona proves pretty frail as a result. In “Aspects of Robinson” he is seen “afraid, drunk, sobbing,” passing his days under “a thin/blue light.” He wears “clothes for spring, all covering/His sad and unusual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” These spring clothes are fragile, primed for disintegration. Robinson can be seen and heard, but he is never touched in any of the poems. I think a touch would shatter him.

Kees shadows Robinson in the language of absence, so much so that Robinson exists in a barely-present universe. “Robinson at Home,” the cycle’s third poem, describes the quality of the light in its subject’s house as “bleached, wan, and colorless,” while “Robinson” catalogues the persona’s earthly possessions: a “mirror from Mexico” that “reflects nothing at all,” among other furnishings, “rugs, vases, panatellas in a humidor.” But these exist only when Robinson’s around: “They would fill the room if Robinson came in.” To borrow from Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens simultaneously, Robinson’s shell of seems belies the nothing that is there. The speaker expands this list to include Robinson’s blank-paged books, and his “favorite chair/Or where the chair would be if Robinson were there.” The articles of Robinson’s being, his worldly possessions, can only exist in proximity to him. If this is narcissism on Kees’ part, then it is a tragic narcissism: Robinson is as hollow as the house that he inhabits. The poems present a profoundly empty world, one of little color and sterile light. Kees, who both is and is not Robinson, thus creates a universe of self-denial.

At first glance, there are no strong parallels between Weldon Kees and the poet Donika Kelly, except perhaps that their last names both start with “Ke” and that I admire their work. Kelly, who writes sixty years after Kees’s death, is necessarily a different kind of poet, but in her first collection, Bestiary, she also negotiates difficulties of the self. The collection includes a series of “self-portraits” in which, rather than adopting a named persona, Kelly tries on certain skins. In one poem she’s a chimera, in another she’s a werewolf. She’s the Pegasus, a doorframe, a block of ice (never a snake, alas). Kelly isn’t merely playing dress-up. In each poem her speaker strives toward some kind of discovery. “Love Poem: Griffon” begins with an attempt at self-recognition: “I am busy./Busy guard/dog. Lion. What/kind of bird am I?” The lines here are short and abruptly enjambed, but the speaker’s caution is calculated, as the griffon gradually asserts its peculiar personhood: “mishmash, I am. Hybrid, I am./Here”. The griffon understands, even accepts, its peculiarity. Some of Kelly’s other speakers are less certain. In “Love Song: Donika” the poet presents herself “lonely as a bear,” then admits that the skin doesn’t fit: “I am no good at bearish things.” Kelly’s disguises sometimes fail, but her poems don’t. Discovery, a movement toward understanding, is poetry’s most basic function. Bestiary expresses the desire for understanding, and the hope of self-discovery, with ease and without pretension.

If Kelly’s speaker strives toward self-discovery where Kees’s Robinson prefers self-erasure, the two approach a similar stasis: Kees is and is not Robinson; Kelly is and is not the griffon, werewolf, chimera, or even always “Donika.” This balance is a product of the process of writing. A poet conceives a poem, labors over it, loathes it, discards it, rebuilds it from its wreckage, and finally presents an “I-don’t-quite-think-it’s-ready-yet” for publication. With publication there’s a loss; the poet has delivered something unto the world, divulged some secret they can’t unwhisper. The poem may be widely-read or not; it doesn’t matter. It lingers, and the poet lives within it, though how, where, and why aren’t always clear. This, too, hardly matters; a poem will persist beyond the lifetime of its poet. The snake, to paraphrase Stevens, leaves its skin upon the floor. There isn’t any reason to sweep the skin back up.

Donika Kelly photo courtesy of the poet. Weldon Kees photo ©Dan Wynn Archive: http://www.danwynn.com.

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