Camp Marmalade cover[Nightboat Books; 2018]

Wayne Koestenbaum plays it cool in his poetry to the degree to which he thinks rigorously with his prose. There appears to be a universal substance at work, at play. In his laboratory of criticism – infectious meditations on Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, opera stars – Koestenbaum boils down artists and public figures he admires to essential qualities primed for emulation. A recent collection, Notes on Glaze, in its unassuming way, elaborates this singular aesthetic by tackling un-captioned, anonymous photographs. Whether called glaze or shine — a lexical shade, an indifference at the sentence level — Koestenbaum maps a liberating path around difficult traditional rules. Surrealism is a key ally. The easy way is to follow intuition, one’s most natural and honest inclinations, even when the path leads to knotted complications, complexes.

An irony not lost in any of Koestenbaum’s investigations, poetry or prose, is that an aesthetics of easiness requires careful preparation, a dialogue between the possibilities and limits of the medium in use. Published soon after the death of the former first lady, the widely read Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon presents a blinding, freewheeling stream of associations closest in spirit to the author’s recent poetry. Both are also very funny. Koestenbaum grounds Jackie in the footage he watches, like her famous White House tour, and sculpts the figure out of other mediated and indirect evidence, from magazine covers and insider gossip to his own dreams and brief passing encounters with the icon. When Koestenbaum mentions the obviously unwarranted subliminal blame passed onto Jackie for her husband’s assassination, this critique is entirely symbolic, yet it bleeds with populist passions and a personal reaction to the fervid public phenomenon. In Jackie Under My Skin, Koestenbaum is the instigator, the tomato-thrower, the historian, the devotee. Koestenbaum promotes himself to Jackie’s most interesting posthumous assistant. He breathes life not into the historical person but stokes the people’s history, enflamed by a personal mania he lays bare for his readers.

These revealing multi-pronged obsessions are just some of the resonances that survive the cutting technique used in Koestenbaum’s new hefty books of poetry. Not three years ago, The Pink Trance Notebooks came on the scene as a rose brick dwarfing the standard slim volume of new verse. This year’s Camp Marmalade, slightly longer at over 400 pages, announces itself as the middle volume of a bursting trilogy. Expectations for the project may be initially lowered by the described method used to create the ten-page poems throughout these books, supposedly made from regular notebook jottings. But the resulting poetry is anything but slapdash. Each poem represents a “notebook” and contains short-lined stanzas of usually up to seven lines. In both books, all stanzas are set off by lined creases, as if each section has been cut from a Play-Doh Fun Factory. The fragmentary syntax doesn’t follow from one bite to the next, but the material is striped with common words and tropes. They all taste the same flavor of saltwater taffy. If the blend of high-art classical music, celebrity magazines, and mundane city walking of Koestenbaum’s earlier poetry books doesn’t immediately recall Frank O’Hara (a tribute Koestenbaum excitedly endorses in My 1980s & Other Essays), then the performative self-referencing play-by-play in this new mode surely will. These notebook poems spin their own creation myth, inviting the reader to watch as the author splatters his ink across the pages in a form of action writing that mimics Jackson Pollack’s drips.

The speedy drafting method purported in the new books isn’t entirely dubious. It infuses these objects with narrative, the drama of composition. The scenario is established on the opening pages of the first book. From “Trance Notebook #1 [I believe in ruin]”:

                               I
believe in ruin

________

strangely ruined
by the collapse of
my voice

________

butt-fucked—
I meant to say
bullet-wounded
(earlier I mentioned
Robert Kennedy)

________

disgust—wishing
to throw this book
away before I
even begin writing it—

________

not proceeding
intentionally—instead,
using oil pastels carelessly

At the beginning of this trilogy, the notebooks announce themselves as Koestenbaums’s muse through the poet’s squirmy confrontation with a limited timeframe. The book’s time, however, is not precisely synced up with the recorded words. The “earlier” time when he “mentioned Robert Kennedy” isn’t included. Reader is sucked into the document in medias res, already serving as sounding board and analyst for the conflict-laden bard. The virtual time, as with the narrative frame generally, expands outward from the concrete object into fictional possibility, and a restive personality emerges from on-the-fly decision-making concerning diction and method. Free use of adverbs (“intentionally” and “carelessly”) amounts to the same careless submission to impulse (or transgressive excess) as the deployment of an easy shocker like “butt-fucked.” Tracing the ambages of modifiers, this trance trilogy flirts with “an absolutely free/and uncondemned speech.” Its fragments can be news of the day – a poet who just died or an incarcerated celebrity – or a freestanding image (“rotten/rabbit teeth”) or a chunk of quoted ambient dialogue (“’the first/time I heard/the word glitch’”). But frequently, if not universally, the fragments show the warp of a thinking mind, bending notions into or toward their opposites:

my father? my
father’s mistress?

________

abstract lines serving
representational ends

________

lines not knowing
they’re abstract

________

lines ending up
abstract because
they’re so intently
concentrated on
capturing observed form

As advertised by such determined Wildean aphorisms as these, the books are imbued with the suggestion of a novelistic quest not unlike the fragmentary novels by David Markson. Elsewhere, the searching motive itself is chastened by more absurd, surreal, sound-dominated musings, as at the beginning of “Trace Notebook #4 [the table doesn’t have genitals]”:

          aggressions, pointillist
or grisaille

________

chickens
called my bones
“bird-like,” meaning not
a Mandate or Inches
centerfold

________

pianist onanist,
monochrome practitioner

The bracketed titles, always a highlight pulled from somewhere inside the poem, all convey the same campy profundity of counterfeit aphorisms, reminding me of nothing other than the category names in the defunct Comedy Central quiz show Win Ben Stein’s Money. Showcasing the materiality of language in literary writing is a poetic truism and a critical cliché. What Koestenbaum attempts in these notebooks is to straddle the line between an overly cautious acceptance of pure language in-itself (the post-Wittgenstein “linguistic turn,” where everything is artifice, a mere language game) and the conceptualist outward-looking re-incorporation of life through daring self-exposure, as demonstrated notably in Chris Kraus’s novel I Love Dick and further examined in her recent literary biography After Kathy Acker. There is a strong sense in The Pink Trance Notebooks that everything is real or really remembered, that the meaningful memories signified by words are wrung out by condensed syntax and, only after, have become aestheticized beyond the point that a reader could pick up on every reference. To slow down time and speculate, “Mandate” is a porn mag that mandates beefier specimens, while the “pianist onanist” could refer to an unfairly self-critical (or manipulative) Wayne Koestenbaum, who would go on to perform a memorable piano-and-poetry improvisation at NYC’s The Kitchen in late summer 2015.

The conceptualist appeal implied by the framing scenario of “notebooks” discourages the search for developed ideas, against which is promised more immediate, authentic sentiments. Yet it is on just these Freudian grounds, concerning the professed attempt to flee from the ego into an automatic notebook trance, that a subconscious process must be challenged. I don’t care how these books were really made. The fetish of process reminds me too much of the marketing strategies behind twice-distilled commercial bourbons and locally-sourced corporate burrito chains. Ultimately, the dissection of personal and referential objects in these meditations puts to practice the theoretical victory of Gilles Deleuze: It is Ideas which lead us from the fractured I to the dissolved Self. In recent history, conceptual artists all repeat the conceptual moment in their own way, moving reflectively beyond the brute manipulation of mediums. Consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s more intentionally curated Seven American Deaths and Disasters, and the obvious political point of his appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy. Or, in the case of Warhol, Koestenbaum repeated the process himself by probing Warhol’s history, especially in drawing attention to the importance of the artist’s mother, Julia, in the Penguin Lives study, Andy Warhol.

The dominant fashion in conceptual art practices today, however, maintains a radical skepticism toward unifying ideas, condemning them as superstitious feats of genius. Instead, rote practices are encouraged, in the spirit of the appropriation, archiving and extensive inventory taking advocated by Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing. On this matter, Koestenbaum’s sympathies with Freud align with Freud’s recognition of dreams as a text to be interpreted, once the remembered content of the dream is set in language. Conversely, there’s no interpretation in the now standard class of conceptual writing. No pregnant symbols, just dead fields of text.

So, while Koestenbaum subverts traditional notions of lyric and personality, he’s also ambivalently transgressing the conceptual edict of the current moment. On the one hand, “it (poetry?) ODs on indexicality,” he warns – parenthetical added – in “Trance Notebook #3 [a testicle descends, but a lark ascends].” But a partial coherence in the notebooks is in fact designated in “Trance Notebook #6 [family birthmarks surgically removed]”: “intruding asemic lines/in midst of semes.” The trance trilogy, in this light, comes across as an accumulating pensèe that folds back into Koestenbaum’s compelling work as a critic. What I find in the notebooks is a highly literary criticism, a rushing poetic analogue to Roland Barthes’s prose, a PoMo Pope. There’s no pressure on Camp Marmalade, as the second volume in the series, to do more than to carry on in the same coruscating vein. The fact that Camp Marmalade somehow manages to offer more, especially in the realm of childhood recollections, shouldn’t belittle its predecessor’s achievements in style.

The impression left by The Pink Trance Notebooks is of a teacher leading a series of experiments, testing experience as well as language in front of a class of entranced students. “Trance Notebook #23 [alabaster concussive effect of stillbirth]” hints at a possible curriculum:

               to enter my
classroom you must pass thru
Rick Moody’s classroom, to
enter Rick Moody’s classroom
you must pass thru J.D.
Salinger’s classroom

I was once privileged to hear the novelist Rick Moody lecture on the fractal structure in novels. He found that some structures in complete works were reflected in miniature in smaller sections. In The Pink Trance Notebooks, every notebook poem – and every fragment – earns its place in the book due to common hereditary traits. Aside from progressively figuring out the rules as student to the poet, the reader learns also to let go of readerly pursuits, to coast along and skim each fragment, to take it a little easier, to float, to bask. (Atypical longer lines at the end of the concluding notebook offer a kind of structural flourish to wrap up the show.)

The Camp Marmalade nickelodeon is both warmer and darker, mixing family memories with gas station trysts and settling at times into longer serial mediations than we encounter on the bursting Jiffy Pop pan of The Pink Trance Notebooks. The dream journal conceit and everyday observations are also made clearer. Perhaps this is due to an evolution in the diarist’s mental state or a change in diet. His daily activities include painting, reading, listening to Maria Callas records and riding the subway, although a handful of times, regrettably, he googles.

Recurring themes in the book are those handed through dreams, while the characters that populate these dreams (parents, siblings, old babysitters) earn their significance in the poem by the amount of time the poet dwells on them in his waking life. Again, this distinction was fuzzier in the previous book, where surreal imagery and dream-like bricolage were promoted to the total manifest design of the work. Camp Marmalade is nearly identical in structure, but its claims are more interpretative. Ending with this kind of dream interpretation, “#31 [tantric opiate for killjoys]” picks up on the recurring image of the speaker’s mother’s stillborn child:

stillbirth dream again—
why was his name
Chad? a violated election,
Gore the stillborn president?
is Chad my stillborn older
brother?

________

a luxury, to have
a stillborn older President
brother

________

she observes me
and from bottom
of hierarchy spits upward
in my yolky direction—

________

Bitsy
the prettiest babysitter, from
a street less frequented,
Happy Valley, near fortress-
hedgerow where beehive mother
and Meissen doll
daughter (a feuding
duo) both taught piano

________

can’t measure
the moods fault-lining Happy Valley

As seen here, some condensed narratives – the “Bitsy” bits – resemble flash fiction. Following the adolescent summer-camp connotation of the title and its schoolyard recollections, Camp Marmalade represents a kind of prequel and gooey regression, oozing with minimalist details. Consider the poignantly protracted vignette on marzipan, from “#12 [the dematerializing marzipan]”, which begins:

father begged for
marzipan—did he pretend
to love marzipan so we kids
had something inexpensive
to buy him?

The story extends for a total of six consecutive stanzas on marzipan, a record-breaking string of continuity for the trilogy thus far. The resulting short story falls on the narrative scale somewhere north of Raymond Carver, soaring in the direction of O. Henry. But there is also an ingenious irony at play, signaling the marzipan as a “joke food” caught up in “sentimental love,” a “trompe l’oeil” of cheap deception. Mostly, Koestenbaum sticks to collage, “to stretch threshold/experiences,” he writes in “#39 [an ample beard I never push to fruition]”, where these remembered details are further entangled with those of his mother, who is in declining health. This poem concludes, like all other inexhaustible memories, stillborn:

too tired to give the context
that might make the
detail matter, and now its
undescribed context falls
murdered and neglected
into the pit

________

tonight mother said
she wants a foster child,
but then later after I
brought a pizza she said
she didn’t want a foster child

________

because I
had the wherewithal to
bring her a pizza, she’d
forgo the pleasure and ease
of a foster child, whose
purpose might have been
to deliver pizzas

On the topic of self-expression, Joyce Carol Oates writes that “the ‘self’ is, at its core, radically young, even adolescent.” Camp Marmalade affirms the crucial incompleteness that compels an artist to persist in experimentation. Beneath the cultivated glaze of an esthete is a hot mess of creativity, a hormonal jumpiness. The remembered children and burping infants in Camp Marmalade’s dreamscapes give permission for poet and reader to begin again. Just where the memories end, in the present, new words are given fresh paint. In “#11 [slaughter ball]”, after the gothic revenants of crying babies and a deceased aunt, a quotidian moment observing a shy Fed Ex guy at a urinal, and reading about the recent death of Elaine Stritch, the poet takes up painting and the mind follows:

I added Venetian
red which is really
brown to create an
illusion of ground
beneath a car

________

added ultramarine blue
above the car and
accidentally effaced
purple coneflower stems

________

then dragged
a pencil through
pink to retrieve
lost lines of two
figures coitally embroiled

________

and now I
see a rhubarb-colored
dodge ball (slaughter ball?)
balanced between two
mustard lines—

________

skillfulness abides in
seemingly random and
unthought decisions—

________

deliberation,
if it occurs, must
itself be spontaneous—

The blend of skillful and spontaneous craft forwarded by Camp Marmalade, mixing conscious states like colors, reconciles the conceptualist’s adolescent disdain for aesthetic values, echoed in another helpful summation by Oates: “’Art for art’s sake’ really means ‘Art for beauty’s sake.’” For Koestenbaum, art is no therapy or escape. It simply tags along, delivering beauty un-deliberated.

Christopher Wood is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island.


 

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