by Julie Larios, Contributing Writer
“Two cups in a cupboard. Someone looks in, I do not know which cup is which cup. Now someone looking in faints and falls to the floor. Someone on the floor wakes up. One of his feet has a fedora tied to it, the other foot is bound up in an apron; father’s hat and mother’s apron.”
These were the words I encountered in 1966 on first opening The Very Thing That Happens by the poet Russell Edson. His prose poem, titled “Someone Falls to the Floor,” goes on for another three paragraphs, but it was this opening that stopped me in my tracks. More, more, more – that’s what I could hear the little rebel’s voice in my head saying.
I felt an immediate connection with his surrealistic, anti-establishment humor. It was 1966, after all – “anti-establishment” was in full swing, and the turn-on/tune-in/drop-out world of Hippies, while not quite full-bloom, was in the air.
Edson’s death on May 7th sent a wave of grief through me – not a big one, just small and gentle, but hard to explain since my personal discovery of Edson was ancient history. I suppose I was mourning the loss of myself, to some extent, and the girl I was when I took that book off the shelf and read it straight through, from cover to cover without stopping. I was seventeen that year, still in high school, caught between the black-turtlenecked Beatniks and the wackiness of the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. I was searching for myself and was quick to decide I’d already missed the Beatnik bus, but Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were already on the highway, and the Beatles’ work in Hard Day and Edson’s work in The Very Thing That Happens appealed to my emerging counter-culture self; it was different, it broke the rules, it chided its audience, it allowed for whimsy, it made me laugh, it made me feel something larger was being said below the strange, wise-cracking surface. There was no one else doing quite what they did.
We built a large kite to which we tied grandfather. And from the back of an automobile we attempted to launch the kite. But for some reason, like grandfather had forgotten to say his prayers, the kite would not leave the ground.
Father at the wheel screamed, shall we go to Norfolk or New York? But father had left the road with his love of trees, and we were in a forest driving rapidly between trees as father asked, is that an oak or a sunflower? Meanwhile grandfather was having some difficulty in back of the automobile because of the trees.
(opening paragraphs of “The Kite”)
1966 – that was a year before I headed to Berkeley and decided outrage and protests in the street were more productive than fables and whimsy. I was nothing if not politically charged as a college student, and life was all about what we mis-named the “revolution” (which amounted to sticking roses in the gun barrels of the National Guard boys), not about any lessons we could learn from the Canon, nor from Russell Edson’s world of compressed stories. Years later, reading through another book of Edson’s (The Tormented Mirror), realizing how disturbing and – yes – tormented most of it was, I tried to find the girl I’d left behind in San Francisco’s City Lights Books, sitting on the steps reading Edson and laughing. I couldn’t conjure her up. How could I have been so cheery, so upbeat? How could I not have recognized the heartbreak at the center of it, how could I not have known yet about confusion, self-doubt, terror, befuddlement?
Edson’s work, I discovered on later reading, was not about whimsy. It was about personal worlds turned upside down. As Donald Hall once said about Edson’s work, “It’s fanciful, it’s even funny—but his humor carries discomfort with it, like all serious humor.” I think I sensed that in 1966, but I had little personal knowledge yet of living with contradictions. “Heck, there’s nothing wrong with a sad prose poem,” Edson once said, ”as long as it’s funny. The sense of the funny is the true sense of the tragic. That’s what funny is all about.”
At seventeen, I must have been all about nonsense and delight. Not too long ago, I did feel the presence of that girl when a prose poem I submitted to a literary contest was named a runner-up for the prize. The judge had been Edson himself. Edson read my work and liked it? That thrilled me. Edson! I was giddy with it.
But it was that girl’s absence I felt when I read about Edson’s death – as if someone had quietly and firmly tapped the last nail not only into his coffin but that girl’s, as well. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself about what I felt then and what I feel now. Quite a few people in Edson’s poems (should they be called poems?) fool themselves. They think they’re doing one thing while they’re doing the opposite. They confront puzzles and contradictions without finding solutions. In fact, they often spin wildly out of control while some irrational force directs their lives. Edson’s constructed worlds are vertiginous.
A woman was fighting with a cow. She had got the cow on its back and it was mooing for help. The old farmer seeing this came running across the field, but it began to rain and so he said, I will go into my kitchen and eat a biscuit. But as he was running toward the house the rain stopped, and so he said, I will turn back and run across the field again. But as he was running back he thought, why not still have a biscuit, for if one has one one is assured of always having had one which is all to the credit side. But as he was running again toward the house he thought….
(from “A Biscuit”)
Speaking of his writing process, Edson once said, “Wherever the organ of reality (the brain) wants to go I follow with the blue-pencil of consciousness.” Of course, Edson’s brain was not an ordinary one, certainly not in terms of logic and “reality,” so it went unusual places.
A woman had just made her bed. A wall leaned down and went to sleep on her bed. So the ceiling decided to go to bed too. The wall and ceiling began to shove each other. But it was decided that the ceiling had best sleep on the floor….
(from “When Things Go Wrong”)
Sarah Manguso in The Believer wrote, “In general, Edson’s poems yield aggregate sense rather than accumulated sense. In other words, they need not begin at a position of mystery or obscurity and gradually yield sense, but might vacillate between sense and obscurity as the poem unfolds.” Sense. Non-sense. I suspect that’s what I loved when I first read his work – the nonsense. Since then, I’ve felt sometimes as if my life were vacillating like one of his prose poems. The Edson version of my reaction to his death would go like this, I think: A woman got upset one day because she couldn’t find herself. I’m lost, she cried. No you’re not said her husband. You’re right here with me. Would you like a cheese sandwich? The man fixed his wife a cheese sandwich. I don’t even know where I am, how can I eat a sandwich? she asked. The man did not know what to say. Will you help me look she begged. The man and the woman looked all day but couldn’t find the woman. They looked in the basement, nothing. In the attic, nothing. They looked in the furnace ducts. They asked the dog but did not get an answer. They took books off the shelves to see if she had fallen in behind one of them, but all they found was someone else’s mouth. Finally the man said I’m hungry. We can split this cheese sandwich you made said the woman, taking a bite. Ah, you’re back, said the man. Not really said the woman, but I’m hungry. I can use the mouth we found for now.
Lately, I’ve been reading Proust, and the news of Edson’s death produced one of those “involuntary memories” Proust’s narrator experiences. Not exactly a madeleine-soaked-in-tea moment, but close. City Lights Books. San Franciso, 1966, me not quite getting Edson. Me, searching for myself. Me, the center of the universe for a few more years. Which puts me in mind of one of Edson’s best pieces:
A Historical Breakfast
A man is bringing a cup of coffee to his face, tilting it to his mouth. It’s historical, he thinks. He scratches his head: another historical event. He really ought to rest, he’s making an awful lot of history this morning.
Oh my, now he’s buttering toast, another piece of history is being made.
He wonders why it should have fallen on him to be so historical. Others probably just don’t have it, he thinks, it is, after all, a talent.
He thinks one of his shoelaces needs tying. Oh well, another important historical event is about to take place. He just can’t help it. Perhaps he’s taking up too large an area of history? But he has to live, hasn’t he? Toast needs buttering and he can’t go around with one of his shoelaces needing to be tied, can he?
Certainly it’s true, when the 20th century gets written in full it will be mainly about him. That’s the way the cookie crumbles–ah, there’s a phrase that’ll be quoted for centuries to come.
Self-conscious? A little; how can one help it with all those yet-to-be-born eyes of the future watching him?
Uh oh, he feels another historical event coming . . . Ah, there it is, a cup of coffee approaching his face at the end of his arm. If only they could catch it on film, how much it would mean to the future. Oops, spilled it all over his lap. One of those historical accidents that will influence the next thousand years; unpredictable, and really rather uncomfortable . . . But history is never easy, he thinks. . .