Kenneth Koch, The Collected Fiction
[ISBN 10:1-56689-176-0 $18.00 6 x 9 408 pages Paperback Coffee House Press]
Reviewed by Laura Steele
The first piece here is The Beverly Boys' Summer Vacation (1958) - twenty-one chapters in six pages: this reads like the wide-eyed text to a beautifully illustrated picture book, each chapter a short paragraph, a summer vacation in postcards:
Chapter 2. A LAST WINKThe tale begins with the slight emotional and physical displacement which has launched a thousand children's books. Instead of the summer at Town Hut, by the lake, the Beverly Boys are to spend the summer at Roundup Hut, "in the interior of the woods". So the narrative question is, Will they have a good time?
The Beverly Boys knew it was their last night at Town Hut, where they had had so much fun in previous summers. In the morning Bobby didn't want to get up right away because it made him so sad to leave the summer home. Aunt Bertha let him stay in bed an extra five minutes, so as to have a last wink of sleep at Town Hut.
Of course they will. And there is no slip in the tone of telling; no mixing of registers: Bill and Bob Beverly will see a lizard, meet an orphan called Tugboat Ted, and even climb up Top-Notch Peak. The Beverly Boys' Summer Vacation is the form of breathless summer adventure set into chaos by Ashbery in Girls On The Run. In this collected volume, it stands as an invitation to read further: the boys' adventure story will be elaborated on at length in The Red Robins (1975), a novel about a group of young aviators who fly around Asia. But there are no such extensions here; instead, a crystallised sunniness is seen to bleach a little as it fixes into place:
Chapter 19. GREEN ARE THE TREES*
On the ride back everyone noticed how green the trees were. "It is September already," said Aunt Bertha smilingly, "and yet the leaves have not yet begun to turn. Maybe the trees are like us, and want to remember and enjoy as long as possible the fun they have had during the summer."
The Postcard Collection is a long story written in 1964, a time when Koch had got into his stride as a poet but was yet to relax into the easy splendor of works such as The Art of Love (1975). For a writer who gives the impression of superabundance, it was written during an interesting lull between Thank You and Other Poems (1962) and The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems (1969).
The Postcard Collection occupies what is by now a familiar space: an explication of three postcards by a narrator-writer who has something else on his mind, the resulting analysis full of wild conjecture. The meaning of the antique postcard-enunciation cannot be reliably deciphered: why this picture of an old woman picking flowers in Auvergne? Was it a frail irony, a sentimental gesture, or a robust statement of love, saying that, without you, this is what it is like for me in Auvergne - bright, false, too-colorful, without depth. The written texts are fragmented and smudged, and what does this signify, "a large one"? "A kiss, perhaps, or a hug; maybe a drink - perhaps the writer was explaining that someone had given her (him?) a big glass ... of delicious local Auvergne wine". Then parts of poems, parts of addresses and signatures emerge in this fabulation:
Is there not, inside every one of us,The effect is not as madly elaborate as Nabokov's Kinbote of two years before nor as haunted by the unspeakable as Derrida's The Post Card: the concept which Koch returns to several times is penetration. The postcard itself is an arrow, putting it in the mail box is "impelling an object forcibly toward another who may be expectant but is by the nature of the situation passive". What if we fail to penetrate life, but instead float off, even as we are ourselves penetrated by intense emotion, as the narrator is, suddenly beginning a paragraph "I love you".
An "intellectual," who, when the bus
Is ready to depart, says "Do I really
Want to get on?" and makes us miss it nearly?
The little death of a written text (postcards and poetry are conjoined) later prompts the narrator into a dialogue with poetry itself:
The essential quality of all these immortal works is that they have annealed inside them "death, time, hopelessness, all present and accounted for, Sir." Who? are you calling me "Sir," lovely poem? "Yes, Sir, we have ever treated you with respect, we great poems, but you shall die all the same. May I make your bed?" No, will you just keep handing me those postcards, please; there's a good poem. As William Blake said, "Enough! or Too Much."Poetry is seen as "inoculation" against death, against the "air" of affection. The task for a new poet would be to encourage less inoculation and more penetration.
Had Koch read Borges' conceptually compelling ficciones? Not if an anecdote from a dinner party at which Koch sat next to Borges can be believed (both were teaching at Columbia in the 60s). Koch mentioned his story, unaware of Borges' own, and Borges replied, "Thank you for being influenced by me without having read me." Drifting off to Guadalajara: finally, The Postcard Collection shares with Ashbery's 'The Instruction Manual' a narrator who, in the process of conducting a formal literary task, finds that a sensual world is now conceived of more brightly due to present strictures.
In the opening chapter of Koch's novel The Red Robins (1975), each sentence seems to have been regarded as a window in a cartoon-strip. One sentence relates part of an event, the next one part of a different event and in a different location. Then one or two stay fixed on the same character, or do they? It's rather like this: "Bob watched the varicolored little birds pop around among the trees." Jordan Davis in his introduction describes Koch's technique (in the long poem Ko but also recognisable in The Red Robins) as a "rollicking cartoon scroll of events". These are flickering windows opening on a scroll - like a bundle of Chinese landscape scrolls. The 56 chapters often take one conceit each, a letter, a guide, a presidential brief, newspaper headlines, poems (mostly by Jim). . . Chapter 43 is 'The Stairways of Shanghai':
The "rubber" stairs and the "Banana" stairs in the market section of the town are well enough known from recent literature to need no description here."A fabulous entertainment, then, with the recurring figures of the Red Robins themselves (young aviators, apparently Koch "tried to think of the main characters as though they were really birds. It gave [them] a certain oddness"), and the two villains of the piece, locked in immortal combat, "Santa Claus" and "Easter Bunny". This is not a fight between good and bad but between two forces of daunting joy.
In Chapter 21 Santa and his followers have a conversation with Chinese philosopher "Ni-Shu" on the subject of English-language poetry. Ni-Shu has distinct views on American and English literature: "For English is what the American 'language' or literature is being created FROM, therefore of necessity by very definition fleeing from. Much American snobbery consists in trying to be English, but the snob would be spending his time far better if he would begin being Finn or Afghan, for it is only through that path, in that direction, that he shall ever succeed in his goal of becoming English." A diversion. . .
It is no surprise to find a chapter beginning "My name is Mike, and I am a man-eating tiger." Each chapter an emerging, the novel not an archipelago so much as a generative sea of coral islands rising up and slipping underwater in quick succession. "O Eastern Islands! I believe that if there were nothing else in nature you alone would be enough to make the whole unwieldy presence of sand and onion in the universe worthwhile." Boats are constantly slipping free from their moorings. Women's breasts are shining out, "Rivers would begin to run in Russia when she laid [her chest] bare, there in the evening air." There is no distributive unity, as there is not in Orlando Furioso or, indeed, any Bumper Book For Boys one cares to study, but what remains interesting in The Red Robins is that the dotted lines of character and plot spring out and tail off, constituting an originary world being created with each new turn, the whole certainly ridiculous as it unscrolls but warmed with an exuberant care.
Rocks are displaced, there is a fresh breeze from the ocean, and the day splits into bloom after bloom.*
Hotel Lambosa (1993) is a collection of short-short stories, published 18 years after The Red Robins. The stories switch around different degrees of autobiographical disclosure. In his interview with David Kennedy Koch described the writing of these pieces, "like a certain kind of magnet, writing prose picked up details that my poetry had never been able to pick up". One story is about that moment when you realise your girlfriend Delia is taking on some of the powers of Artemis. Another, 'On Happiness', relates a café-table conversation at the Place de la République, a theory of a "happiness base" from which moments of pure happiness arise. Koch often tries to pull back a veil to reveal a frame, then another frame – a libretto synopsis, how the libretto relates to the life of its writer, then the finishing of the libretto by someone else who incorporates into the libretto his research into the original circumstances of writing the libretto – and these pieces prove less compelling than the ones enfolded in simpler conceits, though the libretto does apparently contain this filling-station couplet:
Fill up our gas tank with TexacoThere are several early mentions of rabbits. 'Impenetrable Life' focuses on them: "The rabbits were startled and began to disappear. Disappear is not usually qualifiable, but what the rabbits did was to dart then freeze, which gesture they, like certain tribes of Indians, believed made them invisible. Then they started to run the rest of the way." I wonder if these stories are formed of a life's memory darting in various directions, freezing into short prose so the writer emerges, clearer, having disappeared into the work. The tales are of a young world, young marriages, different locations – Italy, France, Africa, China. Bright scenes, telling moments; down the page, sensation gives off a sheen and becomes sentiment, over a reveal of time or with a sudden trope.
We all are driving to Mexico
Too many, however, come off as slight, particularly compared to the later poems that Koch wrote treating his life and its zones, though a few stories do accomplish a comparable mixture of delight and affection; throughout, phrases, jokes and descriptions continue to entertain. And how did the Mediterranean form? "Deeper than this were the groundwaters of which the Mediterranean itself would be formed, one fine morning when the chill wind blew over from the Atlantic and the hot from the Sahara, until the rocks and bitter thyme and pollen said, 'Here we have a sea.'"
The New Orleans Stories, written 1993-2000, are seven loosely connected chapters about a family of junk dealers-cum-gangsters living in that city where the sun shines "like fury". Pop carries out violent deeds only while dressed in a red bird suit with knife-like wings. Victims' testimony is thus rendered ridiculous. The chapters cycle through the days of the week (plus Christmas) and are narrated breathlessly by the young Son; each chapter emerges from the middle of a blues-like lyric:
Sittin on the stairs
You Mom and Pop there
To New Orleans Tuesday . . .
The final piece to be collected is The Soviet Room, Koch's last prose work, dated 2000, a short story about the room set aside in an apartment where "people could sit around and talk about Communism." This Soviet Room is ten feet wide by thirty feet long, cramped "Like 'a corridor of history through which we, with the rest of mankind, are passing' as one of our visitors said." It could be a late story by Doris Lessing, sarcastic about the old faith and a little wistfully frightened still by its commitments. "One time Ashkenazy spoke to us, of some aspect of Soviet mining, and we were enthralled." Disillusion and desertion cause the Soviet room to become a closet, full of clothes, and yet, years later, a Russian ermine coat appears. . .