David Hadbawnik

Blast from the Past

Kenward Elmslie
Skanky Possum Press
$12.00 / 87 pages / ISBN 0970395213

During a recent tribute to artist Joe Brainard at Berkeley's Fine Arts Museum, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass introduced a group of Brainard's cronies, including Ron Padgett, Anne Waldeman, Dick Gallup, Barbara Guest, and finally Kenward Elmslie, whose new book Blast From the Past has just been published by Austin, Texas-based Skanky Possum. As Hass described the close-knit group of friends—most of whom came from small-town Tulsa or Colorado Springs and later haunted New York City together—it became clearer than ever that poetry is born of just such circles of folks who fall in love with each other, fight and fuck, bitch and joke, swap ideas and secrets, and, most of all, egg each other on to newer and better things. And never before had a writer like Hass—approved by academy and country, anthology and awards committee alike—stood in such stark contrast as a sort of teacher's pet next to these snickering back-row clowns, who collectively may have done more to alter the poetics of their time than anyone else.

What crystallized for me in that moment of watching them all pay homage to Brainard with such affection and humor was the notion of the kreis, as Duncan or Spicer would have it, but in the best possible sense, not to establish some sort of poetic pecking order but to advance the group mind by any means possible—such selflessness being illustrated by the collaborative Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan and Dick Gallup, in which none of the poems were signed.

It was Brainard, after all, who reportedly developed the "I Remember" technique—later to find wide use among most of the "New York School" poets—while visiting Elmslie in Vermont in 1969. Elmslie spends a good part of this book revisiting Brainard, as well as the "I Remember" way of writing short vivid memory shots in fluid bursts of prose, full of gossip and hilarity, to fine effect:

I Remember on my way to meet Igor Stravinsky in the
Philharmonic Green Room, post-concert at Lincoln
Center, Frank [O'Hara], in front of the Hotel Chelsea,
demonstrated with balletic precision how I was to
kneel, teaching me how to pay homage to a Great
Genius, Old Russian style. Or so Frank claimed.

Elmslie began his career as a lyricist and librettist, and his extraordinary ear for rhythm and rhyme make for some funny and technically stunning poems, poems that practically beg to be sung as Elmslie himself would sing them in performance.

From the opening poem "Touche's Salon," we get rhymes such as

At Touche's Salon,
The ambiance is chichi
It's hard to distinguish hetero from he/she.

And later, "Squeegee Bijoux of '99":

Time to jet up.
Allah Kazoom.
Don't get het up.
Hop into Squeegee Bijoux.
Test model, year '99.
Assembly line hype we won't feed joo.
Glam its sleek peekaboo design.

When I read Elmslie here I'm reminded of Lew Welch's self-described "ear-wash" poems, sharp songs right on the edge of the jingle or Broadway showtune that were meant to clean out the student's ear with clear rhymes and inventive turns of phrase, going forward more by the music than anything else.

In that sense this book is an excellent primer on the larger scope of Elmslie's career — not only does he recount his early encounters with the bohemian life of New York through John Latouche, a semi-successful Broadway librettist who inspired his own efforts in that regard, but he samples many different styles of his writing, from the deliberately campy songs to the serious odes to old friends, to the plays and prose of the "I Remembers." Some of the latter, especially, are particularly moving, especially the 26 that concern Frank O'Hara, which conclude with a poignant tribute:

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.

It's hard to tell sometimes whether Blast contains all new Elmslie or artifacts from his vast output over the years. Some of this work has appeared recently in small magazines, some performed as musicals with frequent collaborator Steven Taylor, or choreographed for dancers. Dale Smith, publisher, seemed to think it was all new stuff, yet there's the Brainard birthday poem dated 1976 and the "I Remembers" sandwiched around sections of Lizzie Borden, a libretto that dates from 1965.

But that's OK. With all the old photos and drawings of friends mixed in, what this slim volume ends up feeling like is a funky yearbook in which Elmslie, always the biggest cut-up of the New York School, comes across hilariously and powerfully as ever.


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