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Donald Phelps

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This essay first appeared in VORT (Gilbert Sorrentino/Donald Phelps Issue), Vol.2, No 3, Fall 1974 (NY and Maryland, USA) — republished here with the kind permission of VORT editor Barry Alpert . Thanks are also due to Donald Phelps and Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books’ The Comics Journal ( and

Form and authority, it seems to me, are two of the most hastily dismissed, and discarded, virtues among too many writers today; and that he has always affirmed and, indeed, consecrated them, is substantial reason in itself, to me, for following the career of Gilbert Sorrentino. Going back to my encounters with him as a rough, rectangular eminence in the pages of Leroi Jones’ Kulchur, to which he contributed reviews and essays; through his several pamphlet-sized poetry collections (Black and White, The Darkness Surrounds Us); his arrestingly original novel, The Sky Changes, and his insularly comely poetry selection, The Perfect Fiction; through another, fractionally promising but ultimately disappointing novel, Steelwork, and a lamentable ‘novel’-recitative, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things; back again, with a kind of season’s cyclical hope, to his current excellent poetry selection, Corrosive Sublimate. To follow the course of Sorrentino’s career somewhat evokes a journey through one of his southwestern landscapes in The Sky Changes: a desert country, bleakly elaborate with abutments, mesas, arabesque trails repeatedly ending in dead-stops.

The most imposingly and movingly distinctive feature of Sorrentino’s work was always, in some of that word’s best and many of its worst senses, its reactionariness. More than the sinuous patter of Leroi Jones reviews or poems, which, basically reactionary, had their own inquisitive rhythms, Sorrentino’s block-like essays, often pummelingly indignant, occasionally hortatory (as, his study of the then-little-known Hubert Selby’s fiction) seemed founded on some promontory of sheer affirmation, massive response to particular occasion. In his writing, this reaction was predicated on neither barriers denied, nor barriers created; but rather, on fervent and visceral response against barriers which, correctly or not, he seemed to feel were prescribed and impassible: existing, therefore, only to be identified and either hailed or denounced — usually, the latter. Every such barrier represented, for Sorrentino, an implacable issue of taste, or candor, or esthetic integrity.

It was a source of his basic, however abrasive strength as a critic, I think, that Sorrentino was both reactionary and, in the profoundest and most mobile sense, conservative: something but rarely encountered, liberal suppositions to the contrary; one reason being, that genuine conservatives, at least as much as genuine liberals, prize their spiritual autonomy and fluency. The impulse toward containment and sustenance of intangibles — toward, in a word, conservatism — produced, I daresay, much of the stertorous haranguing with which he laid upon targets of, sometimes, elephantine obviousness in the veldt-country of Kulchur magazine. But it also evidently induced and projected a kind of foursquare unapologetic arrogance, and reinforcing it a reverence, which could be both refreshing and heartening; and were so, oftener and oftener among the increasingly salamander-like critiques which Kulchur multiplied with its final change of editors. At that time, indeed, Kulchur had become an imaginary garden infested with real lizards; Sorrentino’s staunch outcroppings were almost the last remnants of authentic landscape; and the more heartening, at times, in their very unfairness and parochialism, his insistence on his partisan rectitude. In his fine polemics against “The Apes of God Revisited” — the dilettantish mannerists of “Pop” or “Minimal” Art — or some ditheringly eclectic poetry anthologies, Sorrentino can inject one’s spirit with calcium by his very “one-sidedness”, i.e., his disavowal of glibly omniscient tolerance, by making it plain that his field is a battlefield; that the situation, let alone encounter, is real, the intangibles palpable, and not a phantasmal milling of “relative values.”

And this bellicose, downright assertiveness is fortified, in his best work, by his devotion to, his identification with, principles and procedures of craftsmanship. This is the area in which Sorrentino’s ethical conservatism and his visceral force of personality find their solidest meeting-ground. When he writes capsule evaluations of fellow authors like Joel Oppenheimer or Fielding Dawson, or when he warmly and sentiently appraises Jack Spicer’s contribution to poetics, I feel that not only the subject, but Sorrentino’s own personality has come into focus. The claims of hard-nosed reportage seem to have provided him not only with a new voice, but with a new geography, as well. What one takes away from these pieces is a sense of process, of active observation and analysis, informing and mobilizing the at times stentorian rhetoric. In such writing, the double ideal of Form and Authority reach as near-complete realization as they ever do in Sorrentino’s work, save his poetry, and that on his own terms: a priori justification, the principle that these values exist because they must be, and that they are to be instantly recognized because of their existence. For his estimates of other men’s craft do not, themselves, represent justification of Sorrentino’s ideals, nor explication of them: only evidence of their existence and, in their existence, their justice.

Yet, how can one read any sequence of these reviews and essays, without recognizing that they involve at best as much denial as affirmation? One misses, always, that counterpoint of mind and personality to the surface declarations, those synaptic fusions of statement and reflection, which let us chart, through a critic’s writing, a course of personality, of very existence. Where one might expect to find some crucial interlocking, there is only another gap, or cul-de-sac. Fair enough that this should be true of the polemics: I generally find critical attacks dull; because critical attack must, unless the critic or his performance prove exceptional, present a dead-fall. Striking off the work from a body of literature, striking himself off from the work, the critical attackers must (often necessarily, to be sure) deny himself the major power and grace of his vocation: that diffusion, of perpetuating fluency of associations and insights, the amplitude of life which he prophesies.

Yet, even in his obviously warmly persuasive championings of writers like Selby and Spicer, one misses in the critiques that quickening of the subject-writer’s personality, that discovery of the writer as an original force, disseminating his own discoveries, his traits and principles alike, throughout his world, including the work of his fellows and the souls of his readers. One’s feeling from Sorrentino’s encomia is, that these writers are not so much forces, as exemplars; and, that what they exemplify is the irreducible value of the specific. His praise of them has some of that harsh hortatory tone of socialist critics praising doctrinaire realists; yet the sociological terms themselves — one discovers on re-reading the Selby piece, for example — are secondary to the almost morose sort of evangelism with which Sorrentino praises their sheer sense of the concrete, of the uniqueness of data. It could be, would be mystical, save for the positive joy, the glad epiphanies, of mysticism. Nor does such bleak seeming-empiricism disclose any of the constructive passion of empiricism; not the glory of data as revelation; only the saturnine satisfaction of data as corroboration; and that corroboration of the worst.

Sorrentino’s morose veneration of the isolate fact has much less to do with the realist-socialist two-fisters of the twenties and thirties, than with the furious inventories, the obsessive tabulations of Samuel Beckett (whose jocund, mordant cadence can be heard in the Invictus of Hubert Selby’s The Room); or even the transfixed tile-like floridities of Alain Robbe-Grillet. To Sorrentino, it seems to me, the irreducible specific is the rain-grey sentry-box at the last outpost of functioning consciousness; that borderline which some of us never cross in either direction. The fact is not, for Sorrentino, as it is for Beckett, the savagely vivacious and hallowed unit of one’s minimal salvation as a living organism; nor is it the hypnotic (because inert) plaything of Robbe-Grillet’s speculations. For Sorrentino the fact represents the mind’s sense of its uniqueness, in all the depressive implications of that term: the implications of obsession and distraction, of that which can neither incubate itself in permanent separation from all others, nor yet immerse itself among its approximates and simulacra. This is not the uniqueness of the oxidyzing vapor, of immediacy and self-liberating intensity. Sorrentino’s poems and novels have little portion — although much common cause — with Beckett’s dervishings, his thrashing self-diversions. Sorrentino’s motion is that of a regularly-spaced nod, of repeated identification with the fact itself, with neither expectation of any true discovery, nor expectation that freedom will evolve from the distraction.

The most original and absorbing of Sorrentino’s writing — his first novel, The Sky Changes; his two major poetry selections, The Perfect Fiction and Corrosive Sublimate embody, I think, if “triumph” be too euphoric a word, the fullness of his self-articulation and self-definition.

The Sky Changes is probably Sorrentino’s most stringently blunt and intense act of self-projection at much length. As such, it embodies, I believe, a nearly-perfect achievement of form and authority: as he both honors and saturninely parodies the chronicle-novel, in a series of glum stereopticon slides. His narrative is the cross-country via dolorosa of a mutually-exacerbating married couple, who, with the wife’s lover acting as driver, are performing the compulsive character of a “second honeymoon”. Sorrentino’s voice, here, is the blasted consciousness, and soul, of the husband; whose hopeless, jejune perspective turns each American landscape into a horror chalky vulgarity or grinding stasis. This focusing on the man’s paranoiacally frozen vision, the relentless stricture of his present consciousness, is what, I think fulfills here Sorrentino’s authority: that authority which the author can only entirely realize by attesting to the freedom and autonomy of his form, through identifying totally with it; committing to its advances the assertion of his identity. I would add to this only (but this point is most important, and neglected, I think even in what shamefully piecemeal critical attention has been paid The Sky Changes) that its richest fulfillment is as a romantic novel. Not in any muzzy or hysteric connotation of the word, but as a declaration of an identity’s absoluteness, by consumately projecting that identity into the novel’s universe: here, the haggard flatlands of southwestern America; which are not merely pathetic-fallacy orchestration for the hero’s depression, but the very testimony of that depression. I hope I don’t seem overly eccentric in saying that The Sky Changes most reminded me of Joseph Conrad; delivering the same sense of huge passivity, of a contemplation which identifies its author by registering the somber inertia of its landscape.

I think the next two novels — Steelwork and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things — mainly record Sorrentino’s insularity, abetted by his romanticism at its distracted worst, skittishly withdrawing from the prospect opened by The Sky Changes. Both, in their way, parade his romanticism at its dangerous closest to sentimentality; with its faith in the ability to fuse, through intensity of will, actually disparate characteristics or devotions; as, here, Sorrentino’s devotion to the concrete datum, and his no-less-impelling devotion to the notion of the author’s transcendent authority. Steelwork was another sort of chronicle — that of a Brooklyn block, and its decline from the raucous funky vigor of the thirties through the spiritual dropsy of the World War II forties. The book comprised a series of grid-like episodes; vignettes from the Depression past and forties present, methodically intermingled; poolroom gestes, and items of nickel-beer lore. I think the peculiar inanity which I experience in Steelwork is explained by the novel being predicated on the, I believe, deliberate omission of a crucial factor: i.e., the author himself. “Factor” in its most precise sense: an operative force, a cohering and catalytic agent. For, it seems to me, a novel so local in its scope and subjective in its orientation not only invites but impels its readers to ask: “Whose is this garden?” Nor do I mean merely that the absence of the author’s self-identification leaves Steelwork’s intent mysterious in a way never true, say, of Waldo Frank’s City Block, or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. I am saying that the novel proceeds from that self-withholding, that self-withdrawal; its movement is centrifugal; it is, in toto, an operation of distraction. Thus, the clearest impressions which emerge, are those of the author’s virtuosity (very notable at times: the vocal range on display here is enough to startle one long-time Sorrentino reader) and discipline. Yet, here is not simply detachment (which he may have hoped to effect) but non-identification. Instead of the Sorrentino who so arrested and persuaded us in The Sky Changes, we are offered here two surrogate Sorrentinos: a young boy, whose fantasies and seclusions (including some hilarious and poignantly discerning masturbation fantasies; including too, I’m afraid, some all-but-lethal retoolings of episodes beautifully projected in The Sky Changes’ reminiscent passages). We have too, alas, a voice of Auctorial Omniscience calculated to leave us in no doubt as to its decibel capacity, or of any narrative points we may have overlooked. Yet, without the informing presence of that Sorrentino — neither Sorrentino-as-Westbrook van Voorhis, nor Sorrentino-as-Danny O’Neill — whose voice galvanized and defined The Sky Changes, we are left with sentimentality: the fetishistic handling of events, the disorientation of memory to create a synthetic past.

If Steelwork was a sentimental meander and disappointment, the work following — Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things — was a polemical stampede, and a disaster. The fundamental error of this utterly unfortunate book could be called that of false presumption: namely, the presumption of a moral authority with full title to harangue and villify, without once justifying or even identifying itself. Sorrentino’s procedure here was to re-revisit those Apes of God; this time, as embodied in various relatively obscure New York literati, all of whom were evidently some-time friends, associates or reasonably close acquaintances; whose skin conditions, grooming, eating habits, literary practices and, to be sure, sexual enterprises, all were moltently disgorged from Sorrentino’s hopper into Wyndham Lewis’ gargoyle molds. The scalding avalanche, however, poured and poured, yet never filled: Imaginative Qualities, despite the occasional abrasive infectiousness of Sorrentino’s humor — and, yes, his gossip; which my judgment deplores, but my glands welcome — is a far more vacuous and wearing work than Steelwork at its worst, and for similar reasons. For although, here, Sorrentino’s voice — opinionated, orotund, arch and massively peevish — is not to be denied, his presence — i.e., the full commitment of his mind and heart, has been denied, by Sorrentino himself. Blatantly clear as his opinions and/ or emotions appear to be, they are, in fact, vague and equivocal, just where self-definition is most important. The most egregious inference one may draw from Imaginative Qualities, is that the obviously intended effect — grandiosely pitched villification — preceded everything else, notably moral judgment or satiric perception of any serious sort. The one error Wyndham Lewis constantly avoided making in his gigantesque and rebarbative work of genius was, withholding his interest, or letting it be deflected, from the lives of his targets. For all the betimes oppressive monotony of its densely impacted observation and rhetoric, its insistently compounded scabrousness, The Apes of God is constantly, animatedly concerned, even to ecstasy, with the actuality of Zagreus and Dan and Jo. He inevitably (however exhaustingly) seems, Lewis, not to be fleshing out premises, but to be making wondrous discoveries, which he imparts as confidences. Cardinal to The Apes of God’s ultimate justification, however, is Lewis’ bequest to his characters of moral responsibility, of moral authority; that without which any pretense of saeve indignatio, like Sorrentino’s, must be reduced to scatter-shot ranting. And, in consequence, Sorrentino’s aspiration to authority, and effort to buttress this pretense with a moral-esthetic attitude, defeats itself. For, since he cannot confer reality, hence authority, on his protagonist-targets, he must, with each new insistence, reveal his asserted authority as compulsive, therefore hollow.

After the diffuse affectation of Steelwork, the hectoring rodomontade of Imaginative Qualities, the second-gear romanticism of both, one’s sense of relief, of deliverance even, steepens the impact of revelation in his last two poetry collections. “Revelation”, precisely, I think; despite, but partly too because of, the extraordinary caryatid-like insularity of The Perfect Fiction, which widens only relatively with the reminiscences and landscape studies of Corrosive Sublimate. In these poems, it seems to me, more than in any of his work save The Sky Changes, Sorrentino is declaring the extent of the terrain in which he presents himself, and also its pressures upon him; and, though no less romantic than any of his fiction or, indeed, essays, it affirms that romanticism beyond the evasions or sentimental equivocations of very much of his writing.

The Perfect Fiction comprises a series of contemplations — at best, of the isolate molecular sadness of experience — which are also professions of identity: each a rueful gloss on Descartes. Implicitly at least, these poems are more melancholy than the most rationally pessimistic empiricism; because they deny to the specific any hopeful projected accretion, any logical progress. The self-impaled loneliness of consciousness here is registered as a series of weary but steadfast insistences:

Souls are lost, simply, their
value is in what lucidity
they have, reality is never

changed or tampered with
efficiently, by men. That is
their beloved fiction — if

the moon is paint
in the sky to you, then,
to you, it is paint

in the sky, by God, it
is the moon,
far removed from

all your easy anger, all
the fuming and romantic
fury which you treasure.

Yet, what, indeed, do these lines disclose to us, of a complexity, not to say gallantry, beyond what the morose premise I have summarized implies? For the sadness of The Perfect Fiction is mainly an implicit sadness. Indeed: were its content permitted to absorb the author’s awareness, to dictate its own identity as then it must, what we should have would very likely be other than melancholy: something like, perhaps, the lambent solidity of George Oppen’s or Theodore Enslin’s poems. Sorrentino is, romantically, declaring his identity, as his location and his perspective, and as the filter of his observations; but, more, he is defining that identity as well, he is compassing it and descrying its limitations; and, in so doing, is using the perspective of romanticism to strive with his own romanticism; to the end that he liberate the actual world from the mordant presumption of his own self-absorption. Even in this, since he is still working through the means and limitations of his elected viewpoint, Sorrentino distinguishes only imperfectly between the limitations which he chastises, and the limitations which he brings to bear upon them. Yet the repeated tremor of equivocation only serves to enrich the impounded complexity of his performance here. What permits this is, the trim arrowhead concentration of the three-line-stanza form which he has chosen; which informs us that the personality’s equivocations, its contradictions, are not demands being imposed upon us, but confidences to which we are made privy; which we are, therefore, entitled and, as it were, obliged to welcome. That which represented compromising slackness, concession to the accidents of one’s own temperament, in the sprawling world of Steelwork or Imaginative Qualities, is here admitted, and accounted for, within the poems’ embolism-scope, as an additional goad to the impetus of the poems’ action, another avowal of the pressures which shape and speed that action. Despite the relative insipidness of certain poems — the somewhat Hit Parade-ish love lyrics, particularly — The Perfect Fiction’s tough cogency, its firmly gauged impact, honor itself and its author, and gladden the reader.

Corrosive Sublimate, the very latest book of poems, widens appreciably the compass of The Perfect Fiction; and, although more uneven — more notched with lapses, its energies more fluctuating — I think that its very freer variety of achievement, coupled with the unmistakable trajectory of Sorrentino’s will, the more generous force of his self-assertion — give this book an importance as accomplishment beyond any of his previous works. More formally expansive, more ranging than the inclusions of The Perfect Fiction, the poems of Corrosive Sublimate also engage a wider latitude of risk than those of the earlier work. For here, Sorrentino is treading open-eyed a sword-edge path through the terrain of memory and past; that very terrain which, earlier, enmarshed him in self-indulgence and equivocation. Here, however, Sorrentino is not only openly aware of the risks incurred in that ominously extensive landscape; he is plying his awareness in order clearly to identify those fragments which are memory’s issue; and, from them, to define and announce that merger of memory with the past which, with its ever-thickening increment of death, becomes, as we grow older, a more and more importunate pressure; signifying as it does the erosion of our history and our very identity.

The interpermeation of memory and death-awareness, in Corrosive Sublimate, provides these poems, at their frequent best, with a dimensional weight and a locality which is not to be found even in The Perfect Fiction, with its existential forelornness and inertia. Because it acknowledges its author’s stance as interdependent, of a piece with this location, Corrosive Sublimate is one of Gilbert Sorrentino’s least overtly romantic works; his voice seems less strenuously proclamatory, less muscle-bound, than ever before; more freely delivering itself to the situation to which he constantly refers his presence. Again and again, as in “Figure for Tenor Saxophone”, or that fine, blunt iconoclastic address, “Veterans of Foreign Wars”, the acerb, throaty declarations of earlier work are subsumed, not converted but adopted, by a meditation so unposed as to suggest merely the widening, the shifting of one’s eyes. The most resounding impact of “Veterans of Foreign Wars” comes from the unstudied assumption of America’s past by Sorrentino’s memory: his perception, unmarked by masochistic self-recrimination, of how finally his own past, evanescing into universal night, has become one with the national past, even to the rapacious violences embodied by Grant and Pickett. And, at the poem’s very center, his denunciation of our current love-evangelist’s vapid pieties discloses another strain, more darkly and finely-tuned than his typical polemic: his awareness of his body’s perishability, compounded by the fated marriage of personal with national past, his sense of the void which places in relief his polemical anger; lending it both particularity and an added gallantry. The void, I mean, not merely of oblivion; but, of his own projected and, thus, located, inertia and self-pity; a void which does not oppose him but, more frighteningly confronts him indifferently, with its static false alternatives. The heroism of Sorrentino’s attitude in Corrosive Sublimate is of the most resiliently stoic kind, counting his resources, checking his defenses. He has at last defined his geography by declaring his vulnerability: his recognition of, and testimony to, the adjoining void as the definition of his own unrealized, undeclared power. The keystone work of Corrosive Sublimate — the splendid long poem, “The Coast of Texas” — exemplifies the book’s vital merits, as a work of resurrection and self-redemption: returning to the terrain and, fractionally, the attitudes of The Sky Changes; but with the measured reflection, comprehensive gaze and patiently fluent step of genuine self-discovery.

Cover of Funnies

Donald Phelps is a working class intellectual born in New York in 1929. He started writing cultural essays in the late 1950s while working as a clerk for the New York State Department of Parole. In his early days he belonged to a loose confederation of East Coast bohemian writers who were united by an attempt to articulate a post-modern sensibility emerging in post-WW2 mass culture. Writing for small literary magazines such as Kulchur and Second Coming, the circle included Susan Sontag, Le Roi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) and Gilbert Sorrentino. Phelps’ first essay collection Covering Ground: Essays for Now was published by Croton Press in 1969. He edited the collected literary lectures of James T. Farrell and his work was included in The Word and Beyond: Four Literary Cosmologists together with Dick Higgins, Richard Morris and Harry Smith. More recently his perceptive essays on early twentieth century comic strips Reading The Funnies: Looking at Great Cartoonists Throughout The First Half of the Twentieth Century (Fantagraphics Books, 2001) was a winner of an American Book Award in 2002.

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