Desiree Des. Bowl, 2015, from the series Avoiding the Self-Portraits, photograph in acrylic paperweight. Courtesy of the artist.
First published in 1973 and too long out of print, Kenward Elmslie’s frenzied and highly original novel,The Orchid Stories, is now available in a new edition by The Song Cave. It’s chapter-length tales are knit together at surprising angles, with shared characters and settings, but most abidingly with his deep dives into word play. Tumbling forward from association to association, the effect is rather psychedelic—indeed, Elmslie’s fellow New York School poet John Ashbery characterizes this voice as “a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculation down on paper before everything closes in.” What follows is just a small portion of one of these chapter-stories, which proceeds with a logic all its own.
I felt something bosomy pressing against me. I opened my eyes, and craned around. It was Mummers. His lips were moving rapidly. He squatted down beside me. I took the wads of cotton out of my ears.
“…to share whatever it is you’re experiencing… not a stickler for everyday reality so-called… ha!… see by your eyes you’re onto something… layers… not forcing… trust… mutual trust… wouldn’t force anything… privacy… particulars… not forcing you.”
I said no.
A diatribe followed, difficult for me to make much sense of—an attack on everyday reality, “Satanic” trick, any logical system that can be laid out can be controlled by viewer, dangerous, imposed on other viewers who become feeder stations to original viewer, vision widened with auxiliary antennae—distance between center and perimeter so immense, visions become garbled—weird statistics become law—misplaced zeros—cow is elected President of Meat Board (regulation to implement democratic process)—enforced Daily Poet Celebrations (regulation to implement anarchy necessary to weeding out of outworn regulations)—newsflash: Venice has sunk—all cities try to figure out how to sink (regulation to—to—layers—fragments—)
Mummers gave up.
“…all this mooning in the attic!”
I put the wads of cotton in my ears. When I looked sideways, he’d gone.
What Mummers referred to derisively as “mooning-in-the-attic” was actually a highly demanding but deeply exhilarating ritual I’d evolved, after much trial and error, thanks to a pamphlet I discovered by chance. The circumstances were these: after glimpsing the girl revolving and revolving at the Health Museum, I was transported into a state of such total ecstasy, I was afraid to get off the streetcar at the next stop, as I’d planned, out of terror that any sudden motion would shatter this ecstasy, disintegrating it into tedious fragments, bickering little humdrum fragments that would grow tinier, pettier, and more numerous with each step I took towards the Health Museum, the very source of my ecstasy. Generally, I didn’t feel too involved in what was going on around me, and while I enjoyed being a spectator (one never knew what one would see)—this ecstasy state was infinitely preferable to my customary spectator state. What to do? A second problem: a second sight of the Dog Roots girl might blur the clarity of the first sight of her revolving and revolving, a clarity that had triggered the ecstasy, a clarity more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen. A third problem: the longer I remained on the streetcar, the surer I became that the ecstasy the sight of her revolving and revolving had released in me was so intense, it could heighten the intensity of “everyday reality” around me, transforming it into a heightened state where anything could happen, that is—anything I willed. I was convinced a magic power was within my grasp, and, if only I wished it, the streetcar would grind to a stop, to the conductor’s amazement, inexorably reverse directions, and, obeying the dictates of my desire, zoom past stops, clang through intersections, hurtling backwards till it arrived back at the Health Museum in time for me to see my vision again, still revolving and revolving.
Actually, the streetcar continued on its circular route past the museum district, past the Chair Museum, the Museum of Happiness, the Museum of Fraternal Organizations, the Beauty Parlor Museum, and the Wealth Museum—then past the shopping district, down to the river, along the river to the amusement area, past its flashing lights and silhouetted rides to the factory gulch, which concealed the false city of tin shacks and mud huts, and—back to the residential area in the heights where I’d originally gotten on.
By now, I was in a state of total dejection at having lost my ecstasy source (the revolving girl) forever, as well as having missed Dog Roots. Next week, Fog Toots would be playing, a horror film about night-flying lepers who arouse Air Force pilots with their strong foxy odor.
The streetcar slowed down: time to get off. I felt like a zombie oldster whose sole remaining interest in life is to find a warm body of water to ease into—permanently. I happened to notice a pamphlet on the floor, dropped by one of the mink ladies. I picked it up (perhaps “she” had touched it) and got off the streetcar, wondering if I’d found a rescuer.
A rescuer it was. By studying the pamphlet (The Yankee Way of Knowledge) assiduously, I hit on a means of perpetuating the clarity of my “Dog Roots Girl” memory—my only source of ecstasy. As a bonus, I also stood a good chance of becoming A Man of Knowledge by conquering Four Life Obstacles:
4. OLD AGE
This was the life goal the pamphlet dealt with, and this is how I adapted its tenets to my own individual ritual:
1. CONQUER FIRST LIFE OBSTACLE—
Stare at “Native Innards” box, into which I’d sneaked dried remnants of “Edith’s Death” orchid. Try not to blink. Hold breath. When box starts to glow and pulsate with shimmering light, resume blinking and breathing. Move about attic like protozoic blob, until comfortable Chain of Being spot on floor is found, spot that feels like right position in Evolution Cosmos. Lie down. Resume staring at “Native Innards” box, into which I’d sneaked dried, squashed remnants of “Dog Roots Girl” orchid, retrieved day after ecstasy incident—petals caught in asphalt squishy place near traffic island—scraped them off. Try not to blink. Hold breath. When box starts to shimmer with favorite color (crimson in my case, color of blood coming out of gash on one’s arm on sparkly blue day)—resume blinking and breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. Keep it up. Breathe deeply, deeply. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply.
2. CONQUER SECOND LIFE OBSTACLE—
Hold breath. Close eyes. Keep eyes closed till crimson glow appears on underside of eyelid, replacing customary black. Still holding breath, concentrate on nothingness (black space void before universe existed), and fill black space up, fast as possible, with:
Whirling silver flecks coagulate.Aerial goobers.Goobers build up into globs.First rain.Mucky ooze.Amoeba.Small lizard suns itself on flat stone.Armadillo trail in muck creates deep and fertile valley, shaded by overhangs from perpetual sunlight.Roaches hang on for dear life on giraffe.Amoeba: six feelers.Amoeba stands erect.Roaches fall off giraffe.Amoeba eats fruit.Changes in brain-cells. Sees “dust.”Dust-storm. Retreat into cave.Memory of dream: chase. Feelers tingle.Laughs at antics of roaches trying to clamber on giraffe—big flood.Amoeba decides to fly.Auk.Humanoid head pops out of ooze.Wings drop off amoeba.Feelers drop off.Globs disintegrate into goobers.Aerial goobers. Vanish.Silver flecks disintegrate.Whirling slows down, stops.
Take a breath. Open eyes. Rest a little.
3. CONQUER THIRD LIFE OBSTACLE—
Stare at “Native Innards” box. Wait for box to look normal—no glowing, no favorite color. Don’t boss it, let it do work. When box looks really normal, like kitchen appliance, or coat hanging in closet—focus on what’s going on outside eye-shaped window. Don’t get up to look out. If strong notion of what’s going on outside, get up fast from Chain of Being spot and check it out. If correct, return, wait for next notion. Repeat. Check it out. Repeat. Check it out. If second or third notion is incorrect (right person, wrong companion—right car, wrong passenger, right companion, wrong direction) better return to protozoic blob state and hunt for right position in Evolution Cosmos. May have shifted in interim. Safer procedure is to start over from scratch. Probably haven’t conquered all fears yet—night, war, death, starvation, poverty, disease, Hell, old age, the Government, insanity, murder, all alone, abandoned, lost, no way out, life sentence, perversions, black magic, return of youth and innocence—power.
I got to be so proficient at correct sightings, I became suspicious. What if my new knack were due to sounds (chugs, taps, bangs) drifting up through the eye-shaped attic window? I took to putting wads of cotton in my ears, which actually hurried things along considerably by eliminating distracting outside interferences (door chimes, sportscasts, distant wrist alarms of doctors hurrying towards appointments). My three favorite correct sightings were (covering a three-month period):
1. Mr. Lindley on his way to his law office. Straw hat, blazer, mustachio. Open car. “Spanish Suez” I thought it was, thanks to Mummers. Musical horn played “Dreaming of Snow,” which Mr. Lindley’d sing:
Dreaming of Snow
I missed you last week
Dreaming of Snow
I missed all you speak
Little things like skol,
Our wishing well, orange bowl,
The time our “teepees”
Tangled in the trees.
You were such a tease
I fell upon my knees,
Dreaming of Snow,
Each crystal unique.
Never heard how it ended. And never really got the right word for “teepees.”
2. Sam Choon’s red laundry truck.
3. Motorcade of family of Hungarian-Jewish-Nagas who lived across the street in a bunch of stucco bungalows hidden behind a Buddha Lying Down berry hedge. Money came from turban wrapping machine invention—use spread rapidly from Sikh laundries and monastic groups to private homes throughout the Orient and N. P. Region. So uppity, they each had their own individual limousine and chauffeur—deemed it abhorrent invasion of privacy to sit with any passenger other than babe in arms of same sex—momentous processions, leave for factory at any hour—confabs.
Back to my ritual. The important, final conquest:
4. CONQUER FOURTH LIFE OBSTACLEOLD
Stare at “Native Innards” box, after a minimum of three correct sightings, or more—if not feeling steady and content inside, with sense of inner balance, being at right place at right time. If OK, get old glow going, plus favorite color—OK to blink, breathe, burp, fart—whatever’s natural. Hard part starts. Keep eyes blinking normally, and at same time, focus on memory glimpse of “Dog Roots” girl, revolving and revolving; edge memory from eyelid underside onto attic surfaces—canoe with hole in one side, porch swing with monogramed “M & E & B,” ebony riverboat spittoon, etc. edge memory glimpse from surfaces towards “Native Innards”’ box. Now comes tricky part. Get memory glimpse of “Dog Roots” girl to melt (still revolving and revolving) into side of box. Gather as many memory glimpses of “Dog Roots” girl, keeping them identical, as possible, edging each one into the box, placing it inside so as not to bump into out-of-visual-range previous “Dog Roots” girls, revolving and revolving in box, letting this new in-the-box awareness carry one along, without fear, without delusion one is gifted with clarity (like everything, comes and goes), with power nuttiness (watch, don’t try to control), and if “Dog Roots” girls parade out attic window, bumping into each other, scratching at each other, shouting obscenities, let them, and also avoid fear of time running out, of aging as each girl revolves (more vision may mean speed quickens due to greater awareness of time), with death staring one in the face, and nothing much to remember. Accept fact these memory glimpses are not actual. Keep going until attain ecstasy. Then exhaustion. Ecstasy of exhaustion—whirling slows down, stops…