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Michael Silverblatt — the reader of everything interesting — concludes the first paragraph of his essay, “Make the World Safe for Kenward Elmslie,” which serves as the introduction to the reprint of Elmslie’s The Orchid Stories (The Song Cave, 2016), with this observation: “He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked poet, in America.” You might think Silverblatt is stretching things just a bit, but he isn’t. Not really. As he goes on to say: “Elmslie is the nearly invisible fifth member of the quintet that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch.”
Elmslie published his poems in Poetry magazine in 1960, and his first book, Pavilions, came out in 1961. Between then and now makes more than fifty years of work. And yet, in some ways, his writing cannot quite be contained by such definitions as “poetry” and “fiction.” One example that comes to mind is Elmslie’s collaborative volume Sung Sex (Kulchur Foundation, 1989), for which Joe Brainard — his longtime companion – did sixty-five drawings, one for each poem. In addition to collaborating with artists (Donna Dennis, Ken Tisa, and Trevor Winkfield), he has also written many songs and librettos, including one for an opera adapted from Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull (1974), with music by Thomas Pasatieri.
In The Orchid Stories, the unnamed narrator has this say about the improbably named Dr. Schmidlapp:
I disliked Dr. Schmidlapp right off, as for one thing he tended to personalize nature. He was wont to refer to seeds as “expert hitchhikers,” to say that sloths “tie on the old feedbag,” and to liken the genes to a pack of cards, which is shuffled and arranged in many different ways, dealing each of us a “Grand Slam” or a “Full House.”
Elmslie elegantly balances Schmidlapp’s personalizations between sense and nonsense. It’s easy to imagine a young poet somewhere in America using a similar association in a poem and thinking it quite brilliant. To Elmslie, the phrases are just words in a sentence, nothing more. Once he has written them, he moves on without ever calling attention to what he’s just done. Seeds, sloths, and genes — Schmidlapp’s list works only because of the way he characterizes them. Elmslie never comments on this because it would call attention to him as an author, and he has no interest in doing that. Such modesty is increasingly rare in an age of braggarts, experts, and self-promoters. What we should not lose sight of is that Elmslie’s modesty has produced some of the most exquisite sentences I have ever read. Moreover, by not claiming to tackle a Big Subject, he actually gets at quite a lot of stuff, such as the isolation and pain of growing up gay in America in the 1940s and ‘50s. He can start off light and smoothly spiral down to something else, all in the blink of an eye:
She was laughing, laughing away. Inside her mouth, I noticed gold fillings. Her neck had creases. She wore face powder. Her mouth curved downwards, even when laughing, and two hard lines led from her mouth down to her chin. The first chin. Then came the second one that wobbled when she laughed. She had an old lady body odor, like sweet gas. Gray wisps were stuck to her neck, which bulged. Her wig was tilted. She was wheezing.
When Elmslie writes “The first chin,” you laugh, knowing that he has just warned you that everything is about to go horribly wrong. There is a warmth and tenderness in this writing that you don’t get in Ronald Firbank or Raymond Roussel, both of whom he learned from, along with Henry Green, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, songwriters such as Cole Porter, and the innuendo filled dialogues of movies from the 1930s and ‘40s. I have the feeling Elmslie knows some of Carole Lombard’s ditzy monologues as well as he knows the opening sentences of Franz Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus.”
From lists to letters, to travel brochures, to public announcements, to regional vernacular, to terms of endearment you might use on your pet kangaroo, to concrete poems and shaped verse — every kind of writing makes an appearance in The Orchid Stories. What elevates Elmslie’s preposterous aggregations into another realm is their oracular significance:
If only one had been born Swiss, the daughter of a well-to-do grocer. One could expand the fine foods department, correspond with grocers all over the world, searching out an out-of-the-ordinary olive, a cheese from a high altitude in the Andes, dried footstuff from a remote oasis in the Gobi-hein?
Originally published in 1973 — long before America discovered food — Elmslie predicted the lengths to which we would go to prove our refinement and sophistication when it comes to our taste buds. Now everybody is eager to announce that they have eaten or drunk something known only to a few adepts (“each cinnamon and lemon and cardamon pellet was tiny”). Here again, Elmslie makes nothing of this insight and goes on — conscientious and wild. No word ever feels extraneous, which is remarkable given the ornate heights he can effortlessly attain.
Time and again, Elmslie builds upon something ordinary and never allows it to crash to the ground:
One finishes one’s coffee, one’s lip is bleeding from a metal sliver imbedded in the sugar cube which refuses to dissolve however hard one hacks it with one’s spoon, and the spoon handle bends if much pressure is exerted, until it is curved, like an old-fashioned baby spoon.
I was reminded of Willem de Kooning picking up a brush full of paint and making it turn into something altogether unexpected and wondrous, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
It’s great that Song Cave has brought The Orchid Stories back into print. Elmslie is the perfect writer to begin reading in an age that worships profligacy and the collecting of luxury items and art trophies. As in the sentence about coffee that I just cited, he can morph from a realist opening shot (“One finishes one’s coffee) to a cartoon image at the end (“like an old-fashioned baby spoon”) while passing through a moment of extreme, self-destructive violence (“one hacks it with one’s spoon…). Next to Elmslie’s sentence, Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” looks like what it is, expensive contrivance.
Elmslie’s writing combines scientific detachment with erotic intensity, mixing this cocktail with dream-like absurdity, deadpan humor, and movie camera detail:
Also — right hand makes whirling motions in hollow of Barry’s stomach button, like corkscrew driving in.
This is Elmslie’s genius — I don’t know what else to call it. He weaves together the most diverse bits of information and never once seems arbitrary. It all makes a certain kind of awful sense, at once hilarious and horrible. In gorgeous sentence after gorgeous sentence, he reminds us that Lautreamont’s chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table now seems as fated as Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd going to Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
There are fourteen stand-alone tales (or disconnected chapters) in The Orchid Stories, in which certain characters — often in sets of three — appear. The first set we meet is Mattie and Edith and Bubbers. They live on “a fine old Kentucky estate known as Locust,” which they call “Low Cost.” Elmslie inhabits sound at a level few other writers do — it makes sense that he is also a librettist. He brings together the vernacular, the ornate, and the whimsical on the same page. He can be as detached and exact as a pathologist in a morgue (“Decapitated head floating in harsh crimson light, pulsating.”) Or he can be as outrageous as he is precise (“I’d based my style of living quarters on a nineteenth-century Yankee hospital room which I modeled on a photograph–part of a foto-essay about Walt Whitman and his war experiences as a male nurse.”) Or he can tune us into sounds — the constant buzz and chatter we swim in – as he does in his narratives from Locust (Low Cost) as well as a family’s private language for body parts (“that’s what Mummers called the blotches on my behind: ‘acid underwear transom wallops.’”). This last sentence comes from “Streetcar,” which is one of the best stories I have ever read about the weirdness and pathetic self-involvement of adolescence (“My counting mania included my own skinny body.).
What comes through in every story — and in every sentence — of The Orchid Stories is the incongruity of life and how, in some strangely comical and weirdly nightmarish way, it all makes sense (“banana fritters at the bus terminal café”). Silverblatt’s introduction isn’t just another extended blurb. One of the most careful and thoughtful readers I know— he is the host of Bookworm, a nationally syndicated radio program that features interviews with authors — Silverblatt rightfully characterizes The Orchid Stories as “an ongoing fantasia of representation.” There is much else he tells and uncovers, including a surprising link to the great Irish writer Aidan Higgins. The Orchid Stories is a book about language in words you won’t want to turn away from.