Upon that golden shore, kids
We’ll lie on beds of orchids.
—John Latouche, “Goona Goona,” from the musical The Golden Apple
Kenward Elmslie’s perverse, scabrous, gorgeous poetry and prose have astonished his fans for over fifty years—decades during which he remained the pride of small presses, the happy secret of cognoscenti—but it is safe to say that the vast audience his work deserves doesn’t know what it’s missing. He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked, poet in America.
Elmslie is the nearly invisible fifth member of the quintet that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. The generations of poets they inspired sing Elmslie’s praises, but he is most brilliantly described by Ashbery, his comrade-in-arms. Elmslie’s voice, writes Ashbery, is “that of some freaked-out Levi-Strauss, a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.”
When not invisible, Kenward Elmslie is misnamed. In his first big book of poems, Album, there is a two-page collage by Joe Brainard, made from a sheaf of documents, including a citation for “Vagrancy by Loitering” in New Orleans, issued to one Kennard Elmslie. The other scissored clippings include an announcement of a musical comedy, a “tuner”—this must be from a showbiz paper, perhaps Variety—to be titled The Yellow Drum with book and lyrics by Kenwood Emsley. Another clip reviews a piece written by Kenneth Elmslie: “The children in the audience approved mightily.” Kenward Elmie is praised for an opera libretto based on Strindberg. Kenward Elm is praised next, followed by announcements of operas and poetry readings by Kenward Emslie, Kenwood Elmslie, Kenward Elmsee, Mr. Elnsie, and Edward Elmslie. Is it any wonder that the same book, Album, contains a play, Furtive Edna, in which the heroine sings a song called “Change Your Name”?
Hidden identities, camouflage, and transposition are the essence of the work of Kenward G. Elmslie. The narrator of The Orchid Stories remains nameless throughout, although in a love letter he uses the affectionate nickname “Gloop-silv.” Is a nameless narrator unusual in a novel? No, not necessarily. But it’s certainly unusual in a coming-of-age novel entirely about the narrator. Everything about this novel is bonkers, especially that it is called The Orchid Stories. Stories?
Eager to see what the manuscripts and drafts look like, I visited the Elmslie papers in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego. While there, I found two extraordinary things: the pages, many of them glued together by a mysterious fungus—an accident in the lab?—are versions and revisions of materials that are almost identical, except for a few words. Then, a specific example of Elmslie’s process that I thought might help readers to understand his language, especially how language for him has always been a procedure involving some kind of breakdown, fissure, evolution, or reimagining.
In the poem “Sin in the Hinterlands,” from Tropicalism, we find this stanza:
Lip-sync, a life of lip-sync,
it’s like a life of lip-sync, lip-sync of tip of vat, hot vat.
A draft of this poem reveals that “tip of vat, hot vat” is a variant of “tip of hat, top hat.” These phonetic cousins might look identical when reading lips.
Elmslie vigilantly mishears and misspells. In his world (not just postmodern, but postnuclear), language and the visionary imagination are fused, as are the deterioration of language and the inherent radioactivity of the landscape. This is the world of wonderful nouns—things called into being by the magical act of naming, or misnaming, them—and no sooner is a thing named than it begins to decay and mutate. Elmslie’s obsessional, regressive fantasies pile imagination on top of imagination until the structure self-implodes and you have, as Gauguin said of the people in Gustave Moreau’s paintings, “pieces of jewels covered with jewels.” Elmslie is a highly dedicated craftsman, and he appears to want decorated decoration in his work.
His ornate density of language is signaled here by the orchid, the most extraordinary and complex of blooms. The Orchid Stories coincided with the tenderfoot love between Elmslie and Brainard, who was painting orchids at the time. “My Buddenbrooks,” Elmslie has called this book, a coming-of age novel he read aloud to entertain Joe, just as Mann read his coming-of-age novel in sections to his family.
In The Orchid Stories, from what we can tell, the nameless narrator’s childhood is filled with the trauma of parents dying, divorcing, and remarrying, alongside their strained attempts at rebonding with the child. Names change frequently. (Don’t expect the usual cues for how to deal with gender or time, either.) Right away we meet Mattie, Edith (nicknamed “Lady Knickers”), and Bubbers, their profiles “sketched” by a painter on the front door of the Locust (“low-cost”) estate. But before we can figure out who Bubbers is, Edith and Mattie both die, and Bubbers becomes Mummers. The narrator is sent to school, then boarding school (the Blue Institute) and then, following a breakdown, to observation by Dr. Schmidlapp, who once also observed the narrator’s parents. They had “breeding” problems—the narrator’s mishearing of “breathing” problems; Schmidlapp is an upper respiratory specialist.
The Orchid Stories bubbles with head-spinning mixtures. Its combination of energy and boredom astounds. There are at least a dozen procedures, most of them irretrievable to this reader, that make this book an ongoing fantasia of representation. Its wildness keeps me going, even as I forget what had delighted me a page before; I go on, gleaning bits of Elmslie’s masterful hyphenates, portmanteaus, fold-ins, cut-ups, feminine rhymes: even pun-cum-trick-feminine-internal-rhymes (he learned a lot from his first lover, the lyricist John Latouche). You can read this book repeatedly, as I have, and it’ll be fresh each time, an eternal palate cleanser.
Very few books in literature are as singular as The Orchid Stories. Among them are Raymond Roussel’s novels, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Progress of Stories, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, and John Ashbery’s Flow Chart. Elmslie belongs to that great countertradition to classic poetry and prose. He lets imagination spiral into contradictory zones, but he is casual about this, feeling that “we belong here, stirring, where it’s beautiful to be.”
A longer version of this essay appears as the introduction to The Song Cave’s reissue of The Orchid Stories, published earlier this month.
Michael Silverblatt is the host of KCRW’s Bookworm.