My new trio, premiering in February, refers to this poem by Ray Gonzalez, which refers to this poem by Weldon Kees. I had not heard of Kees. He was born in 1914 in small-town Nebraska. He lived in Denver, New York, San Francisco, painted, wrote poems and criticism, played jazz piano, befriended Abstract Expressionist artists and literary lights of the day, was depressed, tried various efforts to jump-start his career, and disappeared in 1955. He took his sleeping bag, his wallet, watch, and savings account book. He had been talking about Mexico. His car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge. He may have jumped, but then, he may not have.
Anthony Lane wrote a 2005 profile, “The Disappearing Poet,” for The New Yorker. He reveals, in the first paragraph, that Kees’ cat was named Lonesome.
His poem “Travels in North America” is vivid, haunting, precise. Right away I felt like I knew him. Evidently Ray Gonzalez felt that way too: in his poem, he puts Kees’ ghost in the car for a trip across New Mexico. Accordingly, for my piece I decided the three of us would all go for a long afternoon’s drive. I too have felt the autobiographical desire to disappear. Sometimes this has meant leaving where I am and going someplace else and not keeping in great touch with people from past lives. Other times it just means disappearing into the work. But I’ve never stayed lost for long. Like Theseus with Ariadne’s thread, I’ve always kept a way back.
The new trio was written like Open, methodically, in one unbroken line. For the premiere we’re going to pair it with Copland’s Billy the Kid. I really love this piece, with its resonant New Mexico connection, and it's been an inspiration. It also represents a simple and romanticized view of Western space that I’ve been trying to get past in my own music. It’s not easy to claw out from under one’s own chosen archetypes. But these two poets have helped.
Kees passes through Los Alamos: “We meant / To stop, but one can only see so much.”
He continues: “A mist / Came over us outside Tryuonyi: caves, and a shattered cliff. / And possibly the towns one never sees are best, / Preserved, remote, and merely names and distances.”
Small-town names are listed, sweeping from Oklahoma and Michigan to Wyoming and Washington, “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before…You have forgotten singularities.”
Gonzalez closes his story at an El Paso bus station: “Kees looks at the bus schedule, / runs out of cigarettes / and everything is closed. / He nods at nothing and waits / on the bench with someone / he swears looks like me.”
Maybe my preferred mode of disappearance is not the dramatic and irreversible but something more cyclic and subtle. The Self like a player piano roll that wraps around as it plays, the old melodies still there but coiled back among the gears and dust. The more time passes, the more evidence accrues that I’m not who I thought I was, and I don’t know whether the song keeps wandering in new directions, or whether it ever repeats.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues