Sunday, February 22, 2015

Figures in a Landscape by Lionel Wiggam

Back in June 2013 I posted a scan of a photograph I had acquired of a handsome young man called Lionel Wiggam. He was, among other things, a poet, and his first volume of poetry called Figures in a Landscape was published when he was only 19 and included a body of work that had been put together in the years before then. (It contained some rather fine woodcuts by Thomas W Nason, some of which are reproduced here) I confess - although back in 2013 I promised I would find a copy of his book and read it - I didn't.

Then a few months ago I was contacted by Scott who was connected, very loosely to one of Lionel's partners and who was glad to find the photograph on the blog. I promised Scott I would make good on my commitment to buy and read some of Lionel's poems and we agreed to both find a copy of Figures in a Landscape and report back. It is a very flawed book but this only made me more intrigued to know something more about the very young man who wrote it. Reports of the kind of man that Lionel became are very varied with some internet tributes talking about a warm and friendly man and a good neighbour, others suggesting maybe that there was a level of bitterness and cynicism and a rather prickly persona. But Figures in a Landscape is like a psychological mine to be dug through for a sense of a person. The first section is a sequence of poems which look back to a childhood, remembered landscapes and they are distinguished by their lack of emotional impact. There is a sequence which follows that contains poems about women. There is no excusing nor ameliorating the misogyny in that sequence. Women are generalized into a group of cold, unfeeling, twisted human beings. How anyone could have become quite so bitter about an entire gender by the age of 19 becomes a fascinating question and, in a way, reading those uncomfortable words it becomes much more interesting as a question than the poems themselves.

Biographical details are scarce though. The blurb on the dustjacket however, perhaps unwittingly, paints a picture of a boy for whom life has already been an unusual and rather unstable experience. "At twenty, Lionel Wiggam is a student in the School of Speech at Northwestern University where he is paying his own way with the help of scholarships, poetry readings, odd jobs and the pittance that accrues from selling verse to magazines. He was born in 1915 in Columbus, Indiana, the son of prize fighter and a farmer's daughter. The father, at one time welterweight champion, owned his own sideshow in a carnival, and the family travelled about the Middle West on his pugilistic tours, letting the boy pick up his education where he could. He entered Northwestern University at the age of fifteen but left it again for the following three years, playing in a stock-company, working on a road construction gang, modelling professionally, hanging wall-paper and working as a janitor to pay for night school classes." (It strikes me this blurb might itself be written by Wiggam, certainly there is something of a narrative being constructed there and it perhaps begins to hint at how some of the elements in the poems might have been generated from this rather chaotic childhood.

There are good poems in this collection. As individual works some of them are very finely crafted and one can see why, as a youth, he would have been seen as something of a prodigy. One poem in particular I thought spoke eloquently of the difficulties that Wiggam is attempting to articulate about his short life thus far...


Being less of man than elf,
A boy must overcome himself.
Let him flee, or let him fight,
Let him struggle through the night.

His cheek will grow a golden beard,
Symbol of the thing he feared.
His voice will find a lower note
And stifle boyhood in his throat.

Oh, he must overcome the joy
The laughter of that other boy
And beat him down, and see surprise
Rise in his stricken, loving eyes.

Until, articulate and sad,
He turns away the other lad;
And seeks a dark forgotten place
To hide his weeping face.

I should say I am very grateful to Scott, my correspondent, for prompting me to find and read the book and also for his insightful comments, even if his opinion of the poetry is somewhat more strongly negative. Despite the high praise that litters the rest of the dustjacket, Wiggam only wrote one more volume of poetry, twenty years distant from this first. I suppose the next step in my journey to understand him is to get hold of a copy of that and see where twenty years have taken us.

If anyone should stumble across this post because they are searching the internet for the name of their late friend Lionel Wiggam, please do get in touch: any biographical details would be very much appreciated.


We never dreamed the happy chase
Would end in that disturbing place:
Green, quiet cave with pines that were
A roof above its singular guest -
He with a faun's alarming face,
He with a boy's thin, angular breast
Subsiding into fur.

We thought to find a worried fox
Observing us with blazing eyes
Behind an ambuscade of rocks;
Until we saw the hounds withdraw,
Disclosing that small pointed head
And hoofs all torn: until we saw
A bleeding pixy-face, instead.
And then, like us, the hounds that were
Suddenly grown quieter.


anon said...

Glad you're back.

eArnie Painter said...

Good to see you back in action, and with a particularly engaging post.

Anonymous said...

I think you mean "Landscape with Figures", not "Figures in a Landscape"

Ronee Barnes said...

Lionel Wiggam was my mothers cousin.....his first love in life was a woman, my mothers sister Naomi...but as love between first cousins were not allowed Lionel went on a grand tour including a time in teniman square where he had a ring made for my mother...he returned to the states and was know as a screen writer and playwright in Hollywood in the 40's?...there is a great bio on him in Playboy magazine I think 1953...he went on to become the top male model in the USA in the 50s and died at 90 in NJ......I never got to meet him but have heard so many stories about him to know he was an amazing man...

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