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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Susan Rosenbaum reviews

Blast from the Past: Stories, Poems, Song Lyrics & Remembrances

by Kenward Elmslie. Skanky Possum Press, $12.00.

This piece is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

The front cover of Blast from the Past, a portrait of Kenward Elmslie by Ken Tisa, shows the poet with a hint of a smile and enormous round ears, each shaped like the receiver on a telephone headset. Is this a portrait of Elmslie’s imagination at work, dialing up old memories for contemporary creations? Or is it a portrait of Elmslie as cultural receiver, his ears attuned to the sounds and rhythms of everyday language, ready to transform our verbal tics, clichés, and slang into music? Or perhaps this is a portrait of Elmslie as cultural transmitter, broadcasting both golden oldies and newer sounds to his audience? Elmslie plays all of these roles in Blast from the Past, a collection that I would liken to a theatrical revue, featuring song lyrics, poems, remembrances, selections from musical plays, and operas, spanning Elmslie’s career from the 1950s to the present.

The ‘revue’ is a useful means of characterizing this collection, given the collaborative and theatrical nature of many of the works, and of Elmslie’s aesthetic more generally. Like Frank O’Hara, who realized while writing a poem to a friend that he ‘could use the telephone instead of writing the poem,’ Elmslie maintains a sense of the poem as ‘between two persons instead of two pages,’ an intimate, dramatic, and, more often than not, collaborative affair. Elmslie’s works are collaborative in their merging of genres — poetry meets prose, song lyric, drama, and the visual arts — and in the literal sense that Elmslie, a librettist and performer as well as poet, has worked with composers, singers, and actors to bring many of these works to the stage. The printed selections from his musicals and operas can only gesture towards the collaborative nature of the works in performance, but Elmslie has retained stage directions to aid our imaginations. Elmslie has also collaborated with visual artists throughout his career, and he conveys the lively dialogue between the visual and verbal arts in this collection through the visual layout of his works on the page, and through the inclusion of visual media: photographs, a drawing, and in twenty-six copies of the first printing, an original collage.

Blast from the Past attests to the vibrancy of the experimental and collaborative spirit of the New York School, while simultaneously reflecting on the friendships and cultural scene that gave rise to it. The collection begins with ‘Touche’s Salon,’a song set in 1954 at the librettist John Latouche’s Manhattan penthouse: ‘At Touche’s Salon, / The habitués are bitchy. / They savage bad hair. Buglebeads are kitschy.’ Elmslie’s witty one-liners bring the setting, the cast of characters (writers, painters, musicians, celebrities), and the relative sexual freedom of Touche’s salon to vibrant life. One of my favorites: ‘Meet Jack Kerouac. Humpy and available. / His novel On The Road is unreadable. And unsalable.’ As the salon-goers take pleasure in ‘the glamor and glitz, / The tits and the asses,’ so Elmslie revels in unexpected rhymes, coined words, and campy slang: ‘Vernon Duke’s ogling Larry’s rooty-tooty buzoom. / Get Ned Rorem, swishing ‘cross the room.’

Performance in Elmslie’s works is not just a matter of dramatic or narrative action, but of the sound, rhythm, and location of words; as Alice Notley has pointed out, Elmslie conceives of the poem as ‘a small theater,’ and language often steals the show. Consider how the clatter and rhythm of consonants transforms words into chorus girls in this stanza from ‘Squeegee Bijoux of ‘99’:

The zingy sparkle of lingo pearls
Evokes the hokey pallor of chorus girls.
Melodious onyxs’ll surf in your brain
Along with Gene Kelly: reruns in the rain.
Bye-bye, Tiffany’s.
Mission epiphanies.

What, after all, is a ‘squeegee bijoux’? These words, juxtaposed for their sound, drive the meaning of the song — we find ourselves orbiting outer space, looking through a squeegee-cleaned windshield at ‘Big Bang jewels.’ And we’re able to see, because Elmslie creates color and light with sound.

While Elmslie’s poems and prose-poems are of a different matter than his songs — denser and more opaque — they, too, foreground language over conventional narrative. Poetic speakers are performative roles that Elmslie slips in and out of; in ‘Fifties Probe,’ a remembrance of his early years in New York, Elmslie veers from describing his memory of an Ashbery reading to speaking as Ashbery. At one point Ashbery’s voice ‘trails off,’ and the narrator reflects on his ventriloquism: ‘up to me, I guess, fill in this J.A. Gap. My credibility at risk. Me? Ghostwriter/understudy? Me? Dangerous career move. Me, another Mr. Ripley? How find my way back to my own persona? ‘Get real’ syndrome clamps down. Hover above myself-as-cadaver. Corrosive I.D. problem.’ Like Ashbery, Elmslie often disappears before the last line, as in these final stanzas of ‘Nite Soil’:

That I recall.

Nowhere to be found.
Slipped into the water unannounced.

At their best, Elmslie’s poems are funny but also moving, with narrative disjunction evoking the effects of aging, grief, and death.

The theme of loss and the passage of time surfaces elsewhere in the collection, in an explicitly autobiographical vein. In ‘26 I Remembers of Frank O’Hara,’ Elmslie reveals how O’Hara helped him to bridge the ‘culture chasm between poets and songsmiths’: ‘I remember watching Frank revise a poem about a bridge. The Seine. Paris. Ned Rorem was setting it Poulencishly and needed some word changes. How happy this made me! Frank, as poet, understood how to write a song lyric. Words get cut, altered, fixed. Comes with the turf.’ As does the inevitability of loss: ‘I Remember waking up from a dream about Frank that skittered away as I surfaced into morning reality. A double loss. Dream gone and no Frank to phone.’ The work of remembrance embodies this collection’s insights into the nature of its own art, an art open to getting ‘cut, altered, fixed,’ built from the active, ongoing dialogue between creation and loss, present and past, individual and group, poetry and the vernacular.

For an artist as multi-talented as Elmslie, the book is a limiting format:  one wants to see and hear his musical works in performance, to visit the galleries where his visual collaborations are displayed.  But the very ability to elicit this desire — to reveal poetry’s affinities with song, theater, and visual art — is a measure of the talent of this unique poet.

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