Wayne Koestenbaum is my hero, and I just finished a second read through his new book of poems which has the tantalizing title Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (and if you read no other poem in the book, do read the funny and strangely modest title poem and also the bizarre and engaging collection of back-cover blurbs--oh, and I did love the list-poem "John Wayne's Perfumes" too...).
I have written before here about Wayne, I idolize his prose style and his sensibilities (follow these links if you're curious to see previous praise-lavishing posts on Wayne's essay "My 80's", his general excellence and his delightfully baroque novel Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes).
Rachel Kushner had a good interview with him recently in Time Out New York, check it out: "I don’t think I’ve gotten the fantasy of Jewish porn films out of my system. My poem is a manifesto, a call for papers—a comic commentary on the fact that there aren’t any best-selling Jewish porn films. Let’s make some! I’ll start with Diary of a Jewish Sex Fiend."
What I love in these poems is the clarity of Wayne's voice and his absolutely unmistakable diction--someone could say these words to me in the most incongruous and far-flung setting in a funny voice and I would know in a second who wrote them. They're dreamy, dream-like (uncensored), often collecting a handful of shorter lyrics under baroque-noir rubrics.
"Stanzas in My 39th year" opens with "Why I Want X in My 39th Year":
I used to be pretentious;
then I grew simplistic.
Should I devote myself
to pleasure or to labor?
I dreamt of a deep thinker:
Rousseau? A moment ago
I had the idea (it escaped)
that almost saved my life.
I love concentrating,
hugging a periphery
or a hole:
I wish I could prove it.
Somebody strong circled
the word "was" when it occurred
three times in one sentence.
I might have been the figure circling "was."
I love how much work (word-work and idea-work) he gets the word "Rousseau" to do, you would swear it was more than just two syllables....
There are a number of poems here with that puzzle-diction where you can't quite figure out the artificial constraint that produced the extraordinary diction; in "Elegy for Everyone," for instance, which I particularly like, most but not all of the articles have gone astray, with striking but mysterious results. Or what about this sequence of lines in "Observations"?
You can tell when cauliflower is cooked:
it starts to smell like cauliflower.
Rule of thumb:
vegetables are done
when they smell like themselves.
The rule applies to kale, spinach, broccoli,
potatoes. Onions, however,
smell like onions long before they are finished.
I dreamt Elizabeth Hardwick
corrected my verbs--
she told me, "Instead of is, we use lead or invite."
Something about the precision of the observations ("Rule of thumb: / vegetables are done / when they smell like themselves") combined with the transitions and the surprise of the Hardwick grammar correction just ravishes me.
The poem that seemed to me most Wayne-like is another list-poem (there's a real name for that, isn't there? I'm thinking of Christopher Smart and those great long repetitive lines of "For I will consider my cat Geoffrey") called "In this Vale of Tears We Call Existence." It's got sixteen stanzas of five lines each, all following the shape and rhythm of that incantation; my favorite's number five though I don't know that you can get the effect when it's taken out of context like this:
in this genital mutilation I call rickrack
in this gender I call "No Pets"
in this Manolo Blahnik high heel I call rear-entry intercourse
in this intercrural congress I call fastidiousness
in this retro mentality I call assiette variée
And then elsewhere there are a few one-liners (only they are two or three lines) that jump out here and there, I will leave you with a few of these to finish.
my sadomasochistic student
has the smarts for me. (Better than the hots.)
And this (OK, I'm going to have to give you all eight lines):
too much makeup,
or not enough.
I miss confetti,
I'm on a premonition
streak: please slap me.
A good line, that last sentence; surely useful in all sorts of contexts?