Kenward Elmslie - An extremely demanding work that makes Borges seem like a particularly easy stretch of I-80, precious but never slick (as Gass and Barth can be), a small feather in the lonely cap of that rarefied bunch who still believe the avant-garde can come up with something interesting to say
Kenward Elmslie, The Orchid Stories, Doubleday, 1973.
A classic work of American fiction and a masterpiece of eccentric detail.
Praised by John Ashbery as evoking “a rococo world of banality and nightmare which . . . comes in the end to seem like paradise.“ The Orchid Stories presents us with interwoven stories as delicate and exquisite as the flowers for which they’re named, conveying an almost otherworldly beauty. Images, moods, and characters recur with the clarity of a dream: Phil, the little boy gigolo; Mummers and Mummy, who “adopt” him; the alluring Diana Vienna; and the eccentric Dr. Schmidlapp, who plans to capture the rare “Native Innards” orchid precisely at the stroke of midnight.
“A various, campy, never-tiring display of verbal skyrockets and sweet, soap opera dilemmas, Elmslie’s oeuvre makes for joyous reading.” - Publishers Weekly
“It is easy to understand why someone would want to celebrate Mr. Elmslie.” (The New York Times)
“Kenward Elmslie is one of the unforgettable writers of our time. It is as though Burroughs’ permanent apocalypse were being observed by someone else: not a closet Savonarola, but someone motivated by the humor, sensuality, and joie de vivre of an O’Hara. . . .The world may be an industrial swamp, but Elmslie’s dazzling one-step ahead induction of it is a cause for rejoicing and even joy.” - John Ashbery
A strange, rather incomprehensible, collection of stories, odes and assorted phantasmagoria with a recurring ""orchid"" motif, apparently symbolizing something more than flowers to the chichi group of world travelers and sanitarium dwellers with whom the narrator more or less intermittently hangs around. You'll find Bubbers/Mummers, ""Rounding The Leaf,"" Dr. Schmidlapp who is interested in the ""interrelationships between air, weather, family ties, dreams, and 'breath pulse,'"" the Holy City Geography Book, the Blue Institute which studies links between laughter and history, assigning sex more guidance sheets as physical therapy -- all of this forms a coherent aesthetic whole whose content is nonetheless inexplicable and unanalyzable in the usual sense. An extremely demanding work that makes Borges seem like a particularly easy stretch of I-80, precious but never slick (as Gass and Barth can be), a small feather in the lonely cap of that rarefied bunch who still believe the avant-garde can come up with something interesting to say. - Kirkus
Upcoming Song Cave book to celebrate: A reissue of Kenward Elmslie’s The Orchid Stories, first published in the early 1970s by The Paris Review. It’s hard to imagine them featuring this sort of formally experimental and seriously playful prose now. A marvelous one-of-a-kind whatsit. - Jeff Jackson
Before I ever experienced the obsessive delights of Raymond Roussel, the microfictions of Robert Walser, the skull-lifting novels of Flann O’Brien, or the doll-worlds of Guy Davenport, there was Kenward Elmslie. Because it was his book, Orchid Stories, that first allowed me to imagine my own possibilities as a narrative writer. True, I’d read Djuna Barnes and Beckett, so I should have gotten the message, but somehow hadn’t, maybe because back in 1974, I was still writing poetry (I did that for a long time), and was mostly focused on an extended argument with myself over irony and earnestness.
But Elmslie’s stories ignored all such questions, and the paragraph that follows, from a story called “Streetcar” marks the exact spot where, on a day nearly forty years ago, I actually felt an internal switch flip on:
Whole days passed when I rarely left my room. Friday night, I could barely sleep so involved was I in my Saturday excursion to see Dog Roots. I rehearsed getting in the streetcar in my mind’s eye—the steps, reaching in my coat pocket for the three pennies, saying hi to the uniformed traffic watcher. In point of fact, a new traffic watcher was sitting in the green booth beside the curtained conductor. A bunch of loud women got on, wearing minks and orchids. A bony girl in her teens with steel-rimmed spectacles and braces on her teeth accompanied them. In one hand, she held a pink noisemaker, and on the lapel of her white velvet break-away coat, a blue-and-gray orchid was pinned. I stared at it so relentlessly, she tossed it to me, with studied nonchalance. Her party got off at the next stop, opposite the Health Museum.
What was it about this single passage that changed my world, even though I didn’t know it at the time? Could it have been the vision of a movie called Dog Roots? The mysterious encounter with the teen? All those orchids? The looming presence of the Health Museum? To this day, I have no idea, but I remember at that moment I felt giddy, maybe to see a story that was unfettered both from “natural” details and “artfulness”. What was that particular story about? What were any of the stories in that collection about? Even looking at them now, I can’t say, although if pressed, I guess I would answer that their true subject was play.
And maybe that isn’t surprising, because Kenward, who I came to know later, turned out not to be a storywriter at all, but primarily a poet, librettist, and graphic-novel precursor, collaborating with, among others, Joe Brainard and Donna Dennis. And what made The Orchid Stories so freeing, I think, was that unlike Beckett or Barnes, what was missing from Elmslie’s fiction was a sense of intentionality, or supposed purpose. It just happened and was interesting in and of itself, without needing to dominate a reader. Of course, that modesty of presence may also explain why his book isn’t more widely read, but for me, opening those pages was like the morning when, still a kid, I arrived from the pinched and greasy Midwest to see the Pacific Ocean for the very first time, shimmering and boundless, then waded in and, without any place at all to go to, swam. - Jim Krusoe
Kenward Elmslie, Nite Soil, Granary Books, 2000.
Kenward Elmslie's way with words cuts a singular swath through a polymath variety of forms. Jukebox hitlet sung by Nat King Cole. Ahead-of-their-time lingo works: The Champ, poem, City Junket, play. Balloons for cartoons by Joe Brainard. Pureed anthropological tales of fantasy drinking establishments: 26 Bars. Quirky surreal poetry mosaics (Routine Disruptions) that prompted Michael Silverblatt, host of NPR's "Book Worm," to finger Kenward as "Hands down, my favorite contemporary poet." Elmslie's verbal swath includes The Grass Harp (Broadway cult-fave musical) and, annum 2000, Postcards on Parade, composed by Steven Taylor, a concept musical that deconstructs musicals. Plus Cyberspace, tech poem enhanced by Trevor Winkfield visuals. The wrap: Nite Soil introduces Kenward, poet of dense stanzas, to Elmslie, outed collagist of resonant icons.
Kenward Elmslie, Cyberspace: Poetry by Kenward Elmslie & Art by Trevor Winkfield, Granary Books, 2000.
Combining Kenward Elmslie's wild singsong verbal fireworks with Trevor Winkfield's unhinged heraldic Pop cubism, "Cyberspace" celebrates the bafflement, jargon and information deluge of the internet.
Kenward Elmslie, Routine Disruptions, Coffee House Press, 1998.
This long awaited "selected" presents the full range of Elmslie's inventive, vulnerable, lyrical and autobiographical work.
CONTEMPLATING writing this review of Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics by Kenward Elmslie -- an excellent collection -- I've been unable to dislodge a picture from my mind. It is of Elmslie during a reading several years ago, with a large "hat" on, made by an artist, that used as its primary image a large brassiere. A man reading poetry with a brassiere on his head! This is an icon, for me, of Elmslie's work, its wild funniness, theatricality, brazenness, its love of art and objects. Cleanly designed strange or beautiful objects, as in poems, as poems, words as objects, but . . . this is not a doctrine, and the face below the bra-hat, Kenward Elmslie's pleased bemused own, never disappears.
Disruptions, as the title says, things never being the way they're supposed to be, stories never turning out the way they're supposed to. Upset expectations. Gender upsets, but isn't the idea of "gender" rather mild compared to the wearing of this hat? It isn't gender, it's the gratuity of everything we participate in, as invented, e.g. the wearing of hats; it's also the gratuity of life's real givens, its natural forms -- heads and breasts are weird. Elmslie has never done what he was supposed to, and after the nearly forty years this book represents, his poetry can be seen to be unique. You do keep reading the poems, not because they're part of an ongoing discussion as to What Poetry Should Be Right Now, but because they continue to be unpredictable and unlike (other poetry) and lifelike (weird, patterned, tender.)
Much of Elmslie's work has been in the form of librettos and lyrics, words for songs. Thus two things might be mentioned: a sense of a poem as not so much a drama as a small theater, with a stage to be enlivened, and a sound/metric influenced by popular song (as well as by something Beat-poetry-like, in that use of the articleless pronounless word pileup characteristic of people born in the 20s.)
When I say an Elmslie poem may be theatrical I mean that people, objects, and words themselves often seem to be onstage or perhaps on a psychic stage, lit in any of the varieties of stage lightings, not just spotlit. The poet makes a speech, or the poet is in a setting, or the poet himself isn't the poem this time; but there is a distance involved, which isn't impersonal but full of regard -- looking -- and the desire to make something happen. What happens emerges from the singular imagination of Elmslie, or out of words themselves coming alive and making things happen:
and I've been traveling ever since,
so let's go find an open glade,
like the ones in sporting prints,
(betrayed, delayed, afraid)
where we'll lie among the air-plants
in a perfect amphitheater in a soft pink afterglow.
How those handsome birds can prance,
ah . . . unattainable tableau.
Let's scratch the ground clean,
remove all stones and trash,
I mean open dance-halls in the forest, I mean
where the earth's packed smooth and hard.Crash.
It's the Tale of the Creation. The whip cracks.
(from "Feathered Dancers")
Ché is so trusting re "Truth and Consequences." Too Yanquified. He has dreams of pressing flesh with Nixon in native village. They go in one, light toke, just sit there. Pow! Nixon is converted! He brings the brass, light toke. They're converted! Big Ten Day Speech to the U.S.A. Must stop "exploiting" etc. Impeached, natch. Chaos! Village? Corpse smoke rises from distant chimney. Bumblebees crawling around the empty Bumblebee tuna can.
Kinky gentry into ransom crud used up.
Holding our own in flustery weather used up.
Many restful oases here in Hat City,
same old snappy salutes at the roadblocks
where om-like hum of shoot-out traffic
of scant interest to us fine-eared hold-outs,
honed to love outcries in the painted desert,
shrieks from humanoid wind tunnels.
(from "Communications Equipment")
Notice how the references to Che and Nixon have not dated; persons and things in such a "light" are not in time. As for the song-like metric, I can hear it throughout the book. Further I find it hard to distinguish "songs" from "poems", since Elmslie has achieved the Campionesque feat of writing songs which are also exactly poems on the page; they often have fancy, page-oriented layouts. "Bio" is classified as a "poem song" in the "Poem Songs" section:
Never saw "action" ransacked my dance act Came up with a nance act Trek aids Sped up the decades Loved ones Re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reruns
On the page it looks a bit like concrete poetry. "Girl Machine," which was also set to music, looks a lot like concrete poetry. A more "ordinary" song like "Brazil" (with the refrain "No extradition! Nya Nya Nya Nya Nya . . .") which is included in a section entitled "Song Lyrics I," displays the repetitions that song ordinarily includes and which permeate Elmslie's works called "poems."
A work called "Kitchen," which is ostensibly a prose poem and which is composed of paragraphs designed to accompany black-and-white artwork by Joe Brainard, also sounds like an Elmslie song:
The faucetry demo has 4 4x4s. Subtexts. Food Love. It's a Moviola. Sex Love. Paired up like wed. Money Love. Moviola. ?eat? TV gameshow veer, Vanna batwings on rollerskates, humps the pristine blanks. Lingo frottage. Th, tirechain, on wintry country lane, her first diphthong. Th. Th. Th. Death Love, you big lummox! Th. Th. Death Love Moviola 4x4.
Experience becomes songlike, also patterned, both at once, aural and visual; though one of Elmslie's poem titles, "Visual Radios", also suggests the overall effect of his works. Something you hear and see but finally you hear more than see, because that's what poetry's like, it occurs between words where their sounds meet. A songwriter usually works on the premise that the "music" takes care of the between-words part; a poet can't. Elmslie is a poet in both forms, poetry and lyrics.
As for the Elmslie narrative, here is the plot summary of a poem called "Japanese City." It is Melville's centennial so there is an appropriate celebration in that priests (!) release whale balloons, there are whale floats etc. (Where are we?) "I" is in a hotel room and phones room service for ice water. There are cattle in the streets. (Cattle?) A Mexican seamstress keeps bringing I's clothes to him because he sweats a lot. (Is he in Mexico?) She tells him about some green caves which are cool. Description of the "other travelers'" hairs around the washbasin, what these hairs smell like. (Hairs? Hairs' smells?) Suddenly Jim the Salesman and his friends are massaging I's feet. Jim plays a card game and there is reference to (is it the card game?) red even numbers and green even numbers (no odd numbers) and their associations (!). Talk. About fish hatcheries and a disease one contracts from working in them called "the gills" (!). Ice water. Speculations about the evening. More Melville celebration. Jim and his friends leave.
What does this tropical story have to do with the title, which refers to a very large construction by Joe Brainard, called "Japanese City," that fell apart after approximately two years? I'm not sure. Elmslie never spells out his connections; they aren't really bizarre but are unexpected because of lack of conventional transition:
but mine, how perverse! Form a hoop, you there. Mine,
mine smell like old apples in a drawer. Jim the Salesman
and his cohorts are massaging my feet: a real treadmill example.
The "mine" refers to the hairs around the washbasin, and it's quite possible that the earlier word "washbasin" has triggered the words "Jim the Salesman" and that's how Jim gets to be there, and so suddenly, for that's the first mention of him, mid-line as if we must have expected it. In an Elmslie fiction I can never figure out how much to "believe," I mean was Elmslie once, at least, in a room in, say, Mexico? I don't know. I like not knowing. Why? I don't know. And not knowing feels more profound than knowing.
Behind all this invention the personal Kenward looms and he sometimes shows himself quite nakedly. Works that relate to Joe Brainard, Elmslie's long-time lover, partner, collaborator until Brainard's death in 1994, are especially revelatory.
Elmslie's "One Hundred I Remembers," inspired by Brainard's book-length work, is extraordinary even though he didn't invent the form (any good form can be reused, that's what it's for.)
I Remember my father, in the middle of the night, waking me up to tell me my mother had died. The last thing she told him, so he said, was Be Kind. For a long time this stuck in my mind, as if it were an admonition of gigantic importance that applied to me too.
I Remember shitting, and very tiny gold balls began racing around the blue linoleum bathroom floor. Then suddenly they stopped and vanished. I never saw them again, much to my relief, for there was no "rational explanation" for them.
"Bare Bones," an account of Elmslie's life with Brainard, is what the title implies, a plain honest narrative, but also it implies the physical starkness of death from AIDS, described with a tact equal to Brainard's own. "Bare Bones" is preceded here by the violent "Champ Dust", quite a contrast. They are the two longest pieces in the last section, "Poems 1991-98" and make it a very powerful section. Such power implies future promise, even with sorrow around and even after so many years. The last poem in the book is called "Happy Re-Returns" and ends in a deeply satisfying insouciance:
Me, um, no deadbeat despite laughing stock enjambments.
I did pay for my own sieve hoax, traumatized awful, by La Boo.
Diaphanous Frenchie swamp goo-goo Gods curl me up fatal.
Die alone. Orphan fate, whomped. I meant: curl me up fetal.
How to downsize as co-waifs. Swing and sway and we'll do OK,
Light years apart. Inches away -- the schtick of eons,
Afflatus deconstructed. Postmoderns, besnouted, gaze at us.
Rest in peace, shitheads. Springtime births great bone decor.
Kenward Elmslie, The Champ, The Figures, 1994.
Poetry. Illustrated by Joe Brainard. THE CHAMP (originally published in 1968) is back for a new generation of readers who will swim with delight in the Elmslie ocean. THE CHAMP explores the mysteries of dailiness in all its beauty ('He wept wetting the apple') and terror ('A black curtain removed the hair of the champ/pretending to be the wind'). And the mysteries are never revealed but amplified by Joe Brainard's lucid flowers, chimps, pendants, cigarettes, boys, toys, and tangled weeds--the perfect one-handed accompaniment to Kenward Elmslie's opaquely glowing language. But beware! THE CHAMP--a collaborative classic of alternative letters--still doesn't behave. It's alive and exuberant. Savor it!"--Maxine Chernoff.
Kenward Elmslie, Moving Right Along, Z Press, 1980.
"One of the zaniest 'post-moderns' writing. His use of language, particularly the various jargons of popular culture, is startlingly unique and technically extravagant"-Michael Lally, Book World, Washington Post.
Kenward Elmslie, Tropicalism (Unmuzzled ox), Z Press, 1975.
"One is reminded, not unflatteringly, of Frank O'Hara. His poems find their strength in their uncanny directness, as the poet applies subtle force to allow his opinions full impact. A mellow and yet strong 'voice'." - Stephen Bett
Kenward Elmslie, Motor Disturbance, Columbia University Press, 1972.
|SNIPPETS By Kenward Elmslie and Trevor Winkfield|
this limited edition is available exclusively through Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Snippets is Elmslie's second collaborative work with artist Trevor Winkfield, co-creator of Cyberspace.
|BLAST FROM THE PAST By Kenward Elmslie |
"Hands down, my favorite contemporary poet." -Michael Silverblatt Host
|BLAST FROM THE PAST COLLAGES By Kenward Elmslie|
A CONVERSATION By Kenward Elmslie and Mary Kite
Drawings by Joe Brainard
Kenward Elmslie in conversation with Kristin Prevallet