Poetry Review: Supplication – Selected Poems of John Wieners

greg bem john wieners
The reviewer holding the work being reviewed.

                                        The poem

does not lie to us. We lie under its

law, alive in the glamour of this hour

able to enter into the sacred places

of his dark people, who carry secrets

glassed in their eyes and hide words

under the roofs of their mouth.

(from “A poem for tea heads” in The Hotel Wentley Poems)

If you haven’t had the opportunity to know or read John Wieners, consider this new book from Wave to be your entrance into the world of an amazing writer, the writer who builds worlds only to tear them apart, the writer who lives a life of stories and lines and the blur between. One of the beating hearts of the Black Mountain scene and an avid Beat, John Wieners remains the necessary poet to be found between the bookshelf and the readers’ hands, even in the age of Twitter levels (of excessive fragments and splinters of interest in passionate writing).

John Wieners
Image of John Wieners via Criticalflame.org

A gay poet from Boston, Wieners was in his writing explicit about love, hate, and the sexual transformation of American culture in the 50s not many other writers could be. His own transformations through a psycho-emotional landscape of turbulence through the following decades make him an immensity both in voice and being, an immensity I can’t help but compare to some of Wieners’s friends and admirations, from Bob Kaufman to Charles Olson.

¼ grain of love

we had,

2 men on a cot, a silk

cover and a green cloth

over the lamp.

The music was just right.

I blew him like a symphony,

it floated and

he took me

down the street and

left me here.

3 AM. No sign.

(from “Act #2” in Ace of Pentacles)

I discovered Wieners during my Creative Writing curriculum at Roger Williams University by way of Michael Gizzi, who passed me bootleg copies of The Hotel Wentley Poems and Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike. The photocopied monographs gave off a budding sense of energy to my 19-year-old self as Gizzi expressed his disdain for their absence on bookstore shelves. To Gizzi, Wieners was a must-read, a poet who simply could not be matched. My mentor’s opinion was not unique, and Wieners could be found emerging from other collections of 20th century poetry, as well as from the mouths of more famous contemporaries like Robert Creeley, who often praised Wieners as well, specifically in demonstration of love and kindness and respect toward humanity.

“The blue diamonds on your back / are too beautiful to do / away with. / I watch you / all morning / long. / With my hand over my mouth.”

(from “A Poem for Trapped Things” in Ace of Pentacles)

I had read “early Wieners” as a young writer and was inspired to capture the gritty style for myself. At his most objective moments, Wieners writes about the life he lives and experiences and sees, and transmits its beauty to the reader. Of course, the poems would not be of Wieners if they ended there. (Though a description alone would be entrancing enough coming from a life truly born in and nurtured by the underground in the northeast USA.)

A white sweater on corduroy trousers

Hearing voices of fresh lovers on the radio

next door, their spirit rush, you must

remember their kisses their soft murmurings

in the dark, like fundamental things apply

as transient storms return the centaurs.

(from “Stationary” in Poems 1965-1967)

With Supplication, the new volume of poems selected by editors Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst, I was finally able to explore more of Wieners work—both early and beyond. This book is a marvelous opportunity of such an experience, but is, more importantly, a remarkable representation of a writer whose life was of many writers, whose core and soul was devoted to his own progressions, but also fragmented through hospitalization and migration and, of course, aesthetic experimentation.

“It’s as if the Piano Had EmBedded Within It ACCURATed voices of other places, former silences and far events. The VOICEs droned on. They did every afternoon, through the soundless permeation of madness upon insanity. T owake up and find you are saddled with a mental illness you did not know you had before.”

(from “World War I Historical Text” in Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike)

Supplication is a balanced collection, and though my own experience of Wieners is not as extensive as others, I found myself captivated by the range of texts provided in this book. Work from so many different chapbooks are included here, including Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike, which has been meticulously scanned in from its original form. This work, representative of madness of incredible dynamism, reveals a visual side of Wieners both in the text itself and in the ideas presented might be the most surprising experience within the whole of Supplication.

John Wieners 2
Image of John Wieners via pippoetry.blogspot.com

For me it brings forward incredible experimentation that suggests spaces of reaction in early 20th century avant garde. More importantly is the surprise of exploring Wieners’s incredible experience, drug-addled as it probably was though society-addled as well, in total derangement. I put this word in not as a negative, but to describe the countering to much of Wieners other work. The juxtaposition is marvelous and I wonder about similar dichotomies and fragmentation in the mind of other poets even more now that I have experienced these collages and explosions of passion and experience.

“I want language to be taut / as the rope / that hold a teapot over / the fire / for hot water. / We pour it. Into the strainer / thru sweet leaves.”

(from “July 28” in The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959)

As of now, this book is the best way to experience John Wieners, and anyone who does not take the journey is cutting themselves short of an amazing man who led an amazing life of the purest poetry.

Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Wave Books, 2015)

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