In Which Kenneth Fearing Conceals Barbed Wire In Angel Arms

Smiled Upon By The Little Pink Mouse

by Brian DeLeeuw

Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1902, Kenneth Fearing moved to New York City in 1924.

A freelance writer for much of his life – in newspapers, magazines, and, under the pseudonym Kirk Wolff, pulp fiction, much of it more or less pornographic – he also found the time to write seven mystery novels under his own name (including the classic The Big Clock), as well as a clutch of poetry collections that turned accepted poetic pieties on their heads.

The best of these coruscating poems are gathered together in a 2004 American Poets Project volume edited by Robert Polito that anybody remotely interested in noir, crime fiction, or the grimy glamour of Manhattan in the 1920s and ’30s should immediately purchase.

You’ll find lust and guilt struggling at the turbulent heart of Fearing’s poetic project, twin compulsions locked in a sweaty embrace.

The lust is not always sexual – it could be a desire for intoxication, diversion, or self-obliteration, for honesty, absolution, or peace – but it is always fervid, clammy, desperate. The guilt that often shadows this lust can be found in half-hearted alibis, hopeless self-delusion, or nervous doubt. Guilt, as the John Doe of “Confession Overheard in a Subway” confirms, is just the flipside of the hustling and striving and wanting – the lust – that is urban life itself:

“Look at my face, my hair, my very clothing, you will see guilt written plainly everywhere. / Guilt of the flesh. Of the soul. Of laughing when others do not. Of breathing and eating and sleeping. / I am guilty of what? Of guilt. Guilty of guilt, that is all, and enough.”

Robert Polito

“Collarbone” — Fujiya & Miyagi (mp3)

“Aliens” — Andy Dunlop (mp3)

Nowhere do these two themes twine together so tightly in one poem as in “Angel Arms.”

The text of Angel Arms (1929):

Angel Arms

by Kenneth Fearing

She is the little pink mouse, his far away star,
The pure angel in his sleep,
With skirts blowing back over stark, bright thighs,
And knees that are ivory, or white, or pink,
Pink as the little pink mouse, his far away star,
The pure angel in a deep dream, his lonely girl.
She is going to be Feldman’s girl some day.
No damn immoral scum will ever kiss her lips,
No crazy black fiend will ever stain her thighs
With a touch, or a glance,
Or dare to think of them,
Not even Feldman,
Not anyone, she is so clean,
She is so pure,
She is so strange, she is so clean,
She is a little pink mouse
Squeaking among the rubbish and dried tobacco juice of black alleys,
A blazing star among dirty electric lights in warehouse lofts,
A Bible angel smiling at him from a starched bed,
Telling him to be a good, pure Feldman .. That’s what he is ..
That’s what he is ..
Do they think he is a woman-faced roach,
A walking sewer, with his girl a bottle-fly buzzing on the rim,
Do they think he is a hunch-backed yellow poodle
Screaming under the wheels of red engines that squawk through the streets?
Some day he is going to kill all the morons,
Be applauded by crowds,
Praised in churches,
Cheered by the gang,
Be smiled upon by the little pink mouse, his far away star,
His pure angel with her skirts torn away over blinding thighs,
She is going to be Feldman’s girl some day.
Hand in hand, heart joined to heart,
A new day dawned,
Happy and sweet and sunny and pure.
Some hot summer night
When the city trembles like a forest after battle
And Feldman’s brain is an iron claw
She will drop from an “L” train sliding through the sky like a burning snake
And give him the wink, and he will come along ..
He will come along ..
She is the little pink mouse that whispers “Coo-coo, Feldman!”
A touch-me-not star,
His smiling angel with her soft angel arms
Jerking the barbed wire caught in his bones.

The object of Feldman’s desire – his “little pink mouse,” “The pure angel in his sleep” – is “so clean,” “so pure,” that no one, “Not even Feldman,” can violate her chastity with a touch or even a thought.

“Not even Feldman” himself! He feels his own desire to be perverse, tainted; he reveals guilt and shame hiding behind his fantasies.

He imagines his angel telling him “to be a good, pure Feldman .. That’s what he is .. That’s what he is ..”

The repetition makes it seem like a case of protesting too much. More likely, he doesn’t think of himself as pure at all – more likely, he’s “a woman-faced roach,” a “walking sewer,” “a hunch-backed yellow poodle.”

Fearing

His lust is violent, sordid: he imagines “His pure angel with her skirts torn away over blinding thighs.” Who else but Feldman tore away those skirts? To actually capture his little pink mouse would be to destroy her. She is his “touch-me-not star,” his pied piper or will o’ the wisp.

Feldman’s guilt is the nasty hangover of his lust. Taking into account Fearing’s Marxism (when asked by the FBI under oath if he was a member of the Communist party, he replied, “Not yet”) and the more overt capitalist critiques of poems like “1933” and “Denouement,” it’s hard not to read Feldman’s angel as the alluring siren call of consumer capitalism itself, as its promised pleasures forever slip out of our grasp.

We lust after objects and loathe ourselves when they disappoint. This conflation between sexual and consumer lust is no coincidence – indeed, it is a central component of Fearing’s work. In the marketplace of both sex and goods, “barbed wire” is unfailingly concealed within those “soft angel arms.”

Brian DeLeeuw is a contributor to This Recording. He writes regularly on travel, fashion, and food for CITY magazine (www.city-magazine.com), and has also recently been published in Tin House and the New York Press. He is at work on a novel.

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4 thoughts on “In Which Kenneth Fearing Conceals Barbed Wire In Angel Arms

  1. thank you for this post. i studied american modernist poets and i have never come across his name before. “angel arms” is phenomenal. the mix of cocky noir and guilt is completely rad…i will go look for his book tomorrow.

  2. Brilliant! Love following seeing NYC shot through the mutant-zoomorphic lens — bottle-flies, woman-faced roaches, hunch back yellow poodles, squacking red engines, iron claws and burning snakes — even those dirty electric lights seem rapacious when its a little pink mouse that runs beneath them.

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