Letters To Early Street by Albert Flynn DeSilver
(La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2007)
Forward Homage, or Fromage!
Say cheese. Sensation is alive and well on Early Street. So is imitation, which is just as often a callout as some stylistic resemblance or aping of _______________ (Pick one: O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, Notley, Berrigan).
This would be a good time to mention Kent Johnson’s poem “The New York School, or, I grew ever more intense.”
Also, see Brent Cunningham’s Diagram # 16 (“The Minutes of Frank O’ Hara”).
Various influences, various poses.
Whether it’s Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, or Philip Whalen, DeSilver has digested all these people pretty smoothly.
There’s hardly anything left of Berrigan’s jelly. It’s all been eaten.
At one point, I considered painting over the sign that said Early Street. I considered painting new words, like the Valley of the Berrigans. I would have emboldened “igans.” Early Street has the market cornered on these -igans.
The book does break out of its adopted poses every once in a while for a little commentary. These are good moments:
Moment # 1:
Letter 44: “voluptuous thoughts flushed through the continuous present”
Moment # 2:
Letter 45: “Begin by addressing general reader with respect via astute vacuity”
This could be taken as a little swipe at New York School antics. I like it, Albert. My pupils are dilating.
Moment # 3:
Letter 43: “I’m applying to be a resident of a place I already am”
That’s the whole problem stated right there isn’t it? At least for those of us still applying for membership.
The line between trivia and homage blurs. These moments I have singled out are the book’s statistics. Statistics are weird in that they vacate. In that, they are also helpful. They are a vacation from the rest of the writing, the imitative part. Not that imitation is bad. But this imitation does not feel instructional. It feels too studied, which sort of crashes the whole “I’m still crushing on Ted Berrigan” vibe that the book gives out. Most of the time, studying replaces crushing, right?
Objection: Trivia is homage.
I mentioned Kent Johnson’s poem because it feels like a statistical simulator, projecting probabilities and scenarios for readers. Setting potentials, profiles. And of course, Brent Cunningham’s diagram profiles one of O’Hara’s more famous Characteristics. These two seem to be getting at something more necessary about the New York School, a criticism (or at least, consciousness) of tendencies, most of which have been overplayed for two or three centuries. Letters to Early Street seems reluctant to impose any curb on these tendencies, perhaps out of sheer appreciation. It’s hard to say why the Critic makes so few appearances on Early Street. There’s no question he’s there, swimming underneath Frank O’ Hara’s pelicans. The book’s celebration feels a little too regimented, a little too much of a march. For an interesting comparison, I recommend another book steeped in New York School antics, Matvei Yankelovich’s The Present Work.
Yankelovich’s book is much zanier, yet still manages a sustained examination of the New York School’s romance with Art Criticism.
This is not to say that DeSilver’s book isn’t well-crafted or a pleasant experience. But by the book’s middle, its business of in-jokes becomes grating. Letter 41 demonstrates this pretty clearly, as an imitation of Hart Crane fails to extend beyond repeating the word “borage” and other selections from Crane the Strange’s lexicon. Letter 51 rebounds from this low point, as DeSilver successfully translates Philip Whalen into this hall of mirrors. Here, DeSilver is for once engaging a poetics yet to be exhausted by writerly attentions. This is one fresh letter, and its distinction underlines the book’s main inadequacy: failure to acknowledge the breadth of readings already surrounding the New York School. To its credit, the book wears its heart on its sleeve, but after its fourth or fifth epistolary gush, you see this heart’s content to be a tributary.
Paul Klinger's recent work can be read at String of Small Machines, Eyeshot Hindenburg, ab ovo, and Parcel. His book, FESCUE, will be released by Dusie Press in early 2008.