A Suspended G(l)aze: On Errancy & Arrivals in Camp Marmalade
(Nightboat Books, 2018)
What is the line between distraction and concentration, and where does each converge? Wayne Koestenbaum’s Camp Marmalade (Nightboat Books, 2018), his nineteenth book and a follow-up to 2015’s The Pink Trance Notebooks, continues to track a poetics of errancy with an exuberance hardly seen in poetry or critical theory yet bearing marks of both. Like the marmalade of its title, the book situates itself on the liminal stage of being suspended, always on the verge of becoming something else and yet also floating, a live-streaming signifier of its own velocity. Koestenbaum, who is no stranger to self-disclosure, here assembles something more performative and also political than some of his earlier work, on account of Marmalade’s dual hermeneutics of susceptibility and proximity: a desire (and an invitation) to move closer and to stay open. And one stays open with the knowledge that one need inevitably wait; and in waiting, expectation moves toward desire, and desire becomes another moment of making.
when mood fails, when I
flee failed moods—
pauses turn into
always pretending to be an
intellectual rather than
Koestenbaum, too, in privileging the process of these poetics, reveals his own vacillations between knowledge production and not-knowing, a negotiation between framing or de-contextualizing that gives him “delirium” but also, I think, permits the agency for his continual drilling, without worry of what he might unearth. And like a mixtape, this collection of notes, which moves from track to track through ascending numbers, curates a series of evaporating moods. Readers quickly begin to sense that Koestenbaum, for all his love of the gaze, is not really interested in the image so much as the after-image, whatever lingers and remains lodged in pre-verbal consciousness to seep out moments or years later, a collection that is not just rhythmically musical but also discursively expressive. And so subjects, situations, memories, and names are dropped, only to be picked up and played back pages later, resuming like a jazz song that revels in its own ability to re-assemble at will, as well as through its author’s insistence of “repetition and/persistence and not thinking …”
Koestenbaum, who is also a musician and a visual artist, is here sliding between different artistic media to find or forge a different, spontaneous gesture of motion, inhabiting his painter-self at times to draw upon and re-draw the orality of poetry into a haptic unveiling, a tactile action that insists upon—and requires—the repetition of strokes, the muscle memory of touch; so much like applying makeup; so much like self-presentation as an action-in-process with an indeterminate end. The point, or one of them, is to keep going.
In pairing the notebook with the list form, Koestenbaum orchestrates a rapidly proliferating sequence of interior digressions and quotidian observations, the return of gossip as a literary device, and with it, the reaffirmation of celebrity and fantasy in our everyday lives—all of this under the illusion of order engendered by a bolded number at the top left header of certain pages; and smaller, an italicized line excised from the sequence proper and bracketed by parentheses, as if to say: we will return here later. And we do. Koestenbaum rewards us not only with constant returns, but in his inclination for jump-cuts and even surprising arrivals, readers are forced to engage with the shock of always-being-out-of-place; which is to say, the shock of passing.
Much of the authority of this collection depends upon Koestenbaum’s willingness to keep playing and his stamina to keep up; to invite us in and watch as we engage in our own voyeurism, navigating his own pun on self-censor—“I put/‘penis’ back into the/line after taking ‘penis’/(like a talking cure) out”—with anticipations of reader response—“will the audience/misperceive my remark/as anti-Semitic/and boo?”—and retrospective self-admonishment—“reaching/toward narrative but not necessarily/approving of the reach”—that some might miss the careful, explosive instructions for use: “assemble an/entire life from found/scraps.” But the fact of slippage is also the purpose: an inter-aching caress between writer and reader which is about appearance as much as it is about recursive disappearances. And if Koestenbaum really did begin on the same question I opened my own notes with, then he, too, is performing a version of the theory by extracting a degree of intensity and deep-focus from his readers, along with the careless daydreaming necessary to get lost in the itinerary.
We, too, are welcomed by the trance. We, too, are forced to surrender to its giddy irruptions and harrowing reversals: a rapid move from the low-level highs and lows afforded to parishioners of our post Internet culture. If the twentieth century replaced “the feeling of beginning at one and ending in another” with “the conception of assembling the whole thing out of its parts,” as Gertrude Stein attested in her lecture, “How Writing Is Written,” here Koestenbaum reveals the flattening of all points into the continual (w)holes of 2018. And so the author’s eager obsessions stretch and expand: a fascination for teeth, babies, death snacks, upper lip zones, and going lower—self-debasement but also the act of descending, slipping on wish fulfillment and our familiarity of stars. It is celebrity once again, married and merged with a general wish fulfillment, that coheres so much of this notebook, and Camp Marmalade is not a re-making of myth as much as it is a return to the reality of fantasy. As the Situationist slogan sprawled across buildings in 1968 reminds us: I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires, and Koestenbaum knows that in a culture of self-stardom and the move from transference to transcendence, he need only ask readers to “open your mouth,/say ‘ah’ and let cheap/thrills enter.” Yet it is the moments in which the larger-than-life stars of the past collide with our internal, persistent and very present desires, and when Koestenbaum allows himself more space than the oft-repeated tercets where Camp Marmalade really unfolds, shifting to something more than sudden awakening or cheap thrills: slow-burn revelation, and an inquiry into all the things (and people) we carry:
in Berkeley bathroom I
telephone potential trick
who describes his chest as hairy
only because I ask him if
he has a hairy chest so of
course he corroborates
good night Elaine Stritch good
night Judy Garland good night
one-point perspective Duccio
Giotto mannerists figuring out
light Georges de La Tour and fore-
shortening, good night Tintoretto
Veronese and the sublimating
Koestenbaum’s eye is as tactile as it is visual, harnessing a sense of touch beyond pure sight, a re-molding of the “echotactilism” that Didier Anzieu described to mean the exchanges of meaning matriculating through touch; a model for a self-reflexive spasm that bears a new understanding of the self as other but also the self of others, a haptic bid for empathy. Empathy, which we could take as the flipside of shame, is redirected and continually sought, whether it’s in the anecdote of the big woman’s “imminent bladder shame”—to which Koestenbaum “must witness … and/empathize, experience/it as fellow torment”—or in the stuttering professor, long since lost, who taught the author “how to read/poetry slowly …” Koestenbaum is endeavoring towards an empathy that is both inescapable and imaginary, vertiginous and at times, vampiric. “[L]earn German,” he writes, several pages later, “so I can live in a German/mouth …”
Koestenbaum’s hallucinations of meaning as koan-like epiphanies also often play with what’s available to be consumed versus what must be taken in through other orifices, and re-constituted not as a means but as a resistance to consumption or consummation. “[E]xtend filth into a novel/and then suck the novel’s failure” he writes, echoing his earlier wish “not to be screwed by/him but to be encircled/by his wish to screw/and by every sign that/in and on his body connotes/worthiness to screw—/to be swaddled/by screw-worthiness.” These rituals of pleasure and the pleasure of rituals that are continuously penetrated but never procured recall a Modernist fascination with the borderline between mass and air, levitation and landing. His fractured language, too, evokes both the synesthetic and subjective de-personalized cut-ups of William S. Burroughs and the daring self-degradation and vulnerability of Hervé Guibert, yet Koestenbaum distinguishes his notes by also imbuing them with perceptive grace and cosmopolitan conjecture, pointing toward both the stochastic and the scholarly through threshold experiences and broken memories, rifted “… through pun/and somnolence.” And through this generous and generative practice, the difference between assumption and ascension, molestation and massaging, Gerry Goffin and David Geffen, observation and delusion, reality and dream, Nicolas Cage and a caption, are all conflated as if to assert: there is no difference.
In fact, although the past, present, and hypothetical fantasy scenario are each re-presented and, through proximity, ultimately conflated, the only indications of real time become the moments in which Koestenbaum pauses to remark on a person’s passing; these solemn ledgers act as a signal to readers, and given the text’s absence of dates, they also provide a tacit acknowledgement of when the author is writing. Here, the notebook becomes a testament to survival and mortality, and an obligation toward accountability. Koestenbaum cannot resist allusions to childhood and a horde of firsts, former lovers, starlets, screaming babies, all of them passing through him—but he also cannot resist the debt he has to his own worldly presence; readily acknowledging his open-ness to experience. What’s here (or the fact that nothing is not) is a testament to the author’s proposal and permission to find inspiration everywhere and from everyone; as he writes in sequence 17: “the only/way to be excited/about life is to have/a sexual relation/with it.” And in this book, too, Koestenbaum is asking us to lend him the concentration necessary to hold it up and let it hover, a leitmotif that carries Camp Marmalade to its g(l)aze-filled end:
we learn to
even if the cloud
we sift turns out
not to be a halo
is to elevate
into a halo through
or recklessness of
reconceive the nature
of the sieve I am—
and through its neutral net
behold the fine
and coarse particles
Marmalade as confection; marmalade as effusive and fastening in its elasticity and in its want to be mouthed, tasted. In his bid for acceleration and accumulation, Koestenbaum is asking us to probe the edge of the frame that eludes the eye and to remember him in all his unaimed intention.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of the Internet is for real (C&R Press) and Drift (King Shot Press). His “Billboards” poem, a response to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world, was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid prose piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. He edits PANK, At Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches Latino literature and creative writing at Pace University and Baruch College.