"The Smiles of the Bathers"
I’ve been reading Weldon Kees’ poem, “The Smiles of the Bathers,” and thinking about the line, “Water and wind and flight, remembered words and the act of love." It’s a list with seven stressed syllables. Out of context, and divorced from its perfect pulse, it reads a bit too primal, as if perhaps the poet has allowed himself to be carried too far away from the twentieth century’s grit and tight, sidewalk pivot by bloated universals. But Kees is better than that. The above list is neither – could never be – the poem’s opening or closing line. Instead, it’s the poem’s central metaphor. I think we know, or at least intuit, that any list has a tendency toward litany, invocation and prayer when included in a poem. The string of concepts, however, has to be considered together and, thus, constitutes a type of metaphor.
Kees frames all of the above as “perfect and private things, walling us in” with their “imperfect and public ending.” They are “interruptions.” And the bathers, lovers, scholars and pilots from the first four lines, all solid, tax-paying citizens of the above twentieth century, cannot bank on momentary smiles. They, ironically, cannot even bank on death’s ultimate interruption, for there is “No death for [them.] [They] are