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Alice Notley
reviews Kenward Elmslie 
Kenward Elmslie
Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics 1960-1998
Coffee House Press, 1998, 256pp.   ISBN 1-56689-077-2.
This piece is 1,700 words or about six pages long.
It first appeared in the St Mark's Poetry Project Newsletter.



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.)
Kenward Elmslie, photo Gerard Malanga      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")


Tropicalism, book cover, top half 


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.

(from "Tropicalism")

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


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.
Routine Disturbances cover 
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.


Tropicalism, book cover, lower half


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.


Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver Alice Notley is the author of 25 books. Her latest is Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin, 1998.) Two other recent books are The Descent of Alette (Penguin, 1996) and Selected Poems of Alice Notley (Talisman, 1993.) She lives in Paris with Douglas Oliver, with whom she edits Gare du Nord
(see photo, left).


Artwork: details from the front cover of Tropicalism, by Kenward Elmslie, Z Press, Calais, Vermont, 1975; cover design by Joe Brainard, copyright © 1975, 1999 Estate of the late Joe Brainard; photograph of Kenward Elmslie copyright © 1975, 1999 Gerard Malanga; all rights reserved.


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