Header Ads

Breaking News

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Cerebral, Smutty Essays Playfully Disobey the Rules


Here’s something strange: As babies learn to speak, they don’t merely imitate adult speech. They often produce phonemes — units of sound — not found in any known language: complex vowels, consonants and clicks. The linguist Roman Jakobson called this stage of language acquisition “tongue delirium.”

It’s also the mark of a certain kind of writer, who, as if possessing a vestigial memory of that freedom, rebels against the straitjacket of ordinary syntax in hopes of returning to that place of spaciousness, unclouded perception and play. Think of Lewis Carroll’s forensic interest in nonsense, Gertrude Stein’s or Beckett’s experimentation with repetition and baby talk.

Our most ecstatic modern practitioner might be Wayne Koestenbaum, the polymathic poet and essayist. (He’s also a painter and pianist.) His work — rueful, cerebral, gloriously smutty — includes trance poetry and automatic writing. He has published sections of his notebooks, trippy discursions into his obsessions with opera (“The Queen’s Throat”) and Jacqueline Onassis (“Jackie Under My Skin”), a novel about a hotel where the guest services include having your certainties shredded (“Hotel Theory”). Whatever his subject — favorites include porn, punctuation and the poetry of Frank O’Hara — the goal is always to jigger logic and language free of its moorings. “The writer’s obligation,” he states in his new essay collection, “Figure It Out,” “is to play with words and to keep playing with them, not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage and awakening conscience.”

Only language can free us of language, in other words. Fresh vocabularies are required, oddly angled adjectives and surprising sentence arrangements to startle us out of complacency. Ditch your inner chaperone, he implores. Breach the cordon sanitaire in your mind. Filth, he writes, is one possible passport, but so is openness to the unexpected encounter. “Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision?” he writes, and he goes on to document flirtations with beautiful strangers, the purchase of a new pair of glasses, delving into the work of Hervé Guilbert, swimming alongside Nicole Kidman at a local pool, watching a cloud of white butterflies. “Being spellbindable is my fate,” he writes.

The chief charges against Koestenbaum are frivolity, prurience and self-indulgence (“masturbatory” is the word that comes up repeatedly). To which he’d respond, I’d hazard, with a cheery: Guilty! “Pervert” is his signal noun and verb. His great and singular appeal is this fealty to his own desire and imagination. If his excesses irk, it might be useful to wonder where and how you acquired your limits in the first place — “figure it out,” as the title enjoins.

As with a previous collection, “My 1980s,” the new book features smitten elegies to his influences, which he wears proudly, a row of medals. From Elfriede Jelinek, he learned to embrace abjection; from Adrienne Rich, how to politicize it. From Sontag, he learned how style can confer authority; from Barthes, how to shrug it off. From Montaigne: “randomness and decisiveness.”

Such is his characteristic, persevering receptiveness that he embraces the opposite, the nightside, of every quality and thinker he enshrines. He quotes Manet approvingly: In art, “you must constantly remain the master and do as you please. No tasks! No, no tasks!” But he admits that the great appeal of playing piano is that “I am doing nothing, but I am also working — a treadmill, a task never completed, like writing in a diary whose pages I burn after finishing them.” He valorizes the intellectual seriousness of Sontag, and of the poet and translator Richard Howard, but also confesses his attraction to idleness and lassitude. Books are fine and good, but have you tried sex, or doughnuts?

Koestenbaum has long been fascinated with people who rarely speak or who speak awkwardly — the breathy banalities of Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Kennedy, for example. He crushes on evasion and ambiguity, but his own prose has always been distinguished by its tautness and agility. The new book is a more relaxed performance, however. The pieces feel rawer, some almost deliberately jagged, even unfinished; they trail off, or end in sudden dissolve. The polish has been sacrificed for a kind of intimacy, of interrupting the writer at his desk, midsentence.

Notions of interruption, edges and endings have come to preoccupy Koestenbaum. He concludes an essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 154 with this line: “I’m the poet here; I’m the loser who gets to decide how the poem ends.” In another piece, variously on walking, consciousness, admiring (and stroking) a stranger’s dense beard, he mocks himself for his tidy conclusions: “I need to mop up the messy particles I’ve spilled on the floor, and be sure that I leave the surface as shiny and blank as I found it.” He constantly calls out his own distraction, teases at the borders between life and the work, between aestheticism and ethics. There is a feeling of watching a writer so allergic to cliché now interrogating his own moves, annotating his own clichés with diligent, affectionate exasperation. Figuring it out, after all, is a life sentence.

Source link

No comments