Chants of the Erotomane: On Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Stubble Archipelago”

Bailey Trela reviews Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Stubble Archipelago.”

By Bailey TrelaMarch 21, 2024

Chants of the Erotomane: On Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Stubble Archipelago”

Stubble Archipelago by Wayne Koestenbaum. MIT Press. 104 pages.

I’M ALWAYS WARY of claiming this or that critical statement, to be unearthed in this or that essay or letter or diary entry, should serve as a passe-partout to a writer’s project as a whole. And I don’t want to make that claim here either—or at least, not exactly. But when Wayne Koestenbaum observes, in a passage from My 1980s & Other Essays (2013) on the American symbolist Hart Crane, that the “point of queer poetry may also be to make murky, to distort,” it feels like half a revelation about his own work. “His aim was not to neutralize or domesticate desire,” Koestenbaum continues, “but to present it as failed: desire equivocates and betrays.”


Koestenbaum is a polymathic poet, with the polymath’s manic analytic powers. He seems to toss off kernels of compressed analysis as if it were second nature, managing to do so in a way that’s precise and scholarly and yet somehow excruciatingly personal, all at the same time. There is a brightness and incisive clarity to much of his writing that seems to run counter to his self-professed interest in a queer tradition of murkiness and distortion. That he so often manages to combine these tendencies successfully is a testament to the sheer energy of his writing, and to the nature of desire itself. What attracts Koestenbaum to the meaning-machine of desire is that it peddles truths that truly blaze, that exist purely and authoritatively, but only for a brief time. The truths of desire, in other words, are all-consuming and immanent—until they’re not, and we’re returned to the murk of formless longing.


Admittedly, making categorical statements about a writer as stylishly protean as Koestenbaum can be tricky. He seems bent on getting every form he takes up to perform itself, stretching outward into something new. Many of the self-styled fables in The Cheerful Scapegoat (2021), for instance, read like prose poems with a streetwise, surrealist slant. “Green is an underrated color—it can include viridian and grass and jade and ocean and tiredness and a near-death experience at 4 p.m. in a nether city shaped like one or two or three of your dormant orifices,” we read at the end of a piece called “Gardener’s Scarf.” Whether the piece could best be described as a story, a poem, a study, or something else entirely seems beside the point; it inhabits a space between these categories, a zone of playful indeterminacy. Greenness is stretched out like the titular scarf, like the period of waiting before a rendezvous with a “no-show gardener,” the piece’s true subject. On a first read, it can be difficult to tell at what point in the sentence logic has definitively warped, at what point we’ve twisted into nonsense.


One challenge Koestenbaum frequently confronts is how to stage the complex experience of desire. How, his poems ask, might one convert the turbid thrashings of the libido into a performance, or better yet, a practice? Koestenbaum’s most recent poetic work is a trilogy comprising The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015), Camp Marmalade (2018), and Ultramarine (2022). As the title of the trilogy’s first volume suggests, the books experiment with trance poetics, taking the linguistic free association of automatic writing and adding a heightened erotic charge. One way to think about automatic writing is as an emptying of the vessel of the self, in preparation for achieving a state of heightened receptivity. Trance poetry, by contrast, is an active, vibratory state; the poet isn’t simply channeling spirits, but wrestling with them. Koestenbaum’s experiments with trance poetics, it would seem, have allowed him to make a method of his appetites and avidities, of desire itself.


Koestenbaum’s latest book, Stubble Archipelago, published this month by Semiotext(e), doesn’t entirely do away with the frenzy of his trance trilogy, though it is, in a very literal sense, a return to form. Composed of 36 “quasi-sonnets,” the collection reins in Koestenbaum’s more sporadic tendencies by fitting a loose formal cage around his prosy poetry. The poems are dense, clustered. Koestenbaum prefers to call them “poetic bulletins,” and the description fits—images are pinned together haphazardly, as though connecting the dots of a low-stakes conspiracy, the absent core of which is desire.


Flâneurialism, unsurprisingly, is central to the collection. As part of the poems’ compositional process, Koestenbaum would stroll around New York City, scribbling odd lines and phrases as they occurred to him, capturing sights and minor events, the trivia of city life. “Saw truncated (dismembered?) pumpkin on road,” the speaker of one poem observes. “Massive flower-delivery outside St. Regis hotel,” notes another. Elsewhere, the speaker finds, abandoned in a stairwell, a “CorningWare casserole / cover—glass, forever / severed from the squat / vessel it was meant / to surmount.” Many of these moments are voyeuristic. “Straight guy in row D at Elaine May play itched his ass / through black jeans / while wife rolled / her eyes in disdain,” one poem reads. The flâneur traditionally took the art of collecting and etherealized it; he became a collector, not of trinkets but of the ephemeral—of moments, sensations, impressions. In line with this tradition, Koestenbaum’s is a devouring poetry, ever ready for the next opportunity to gorge. In the work of what other contemporary poet, for instance, would Lotte Lenya and Henry Kissinger rub shoulders suggestively, only for a phrase like “memento mori pubes” to crop up a few lines later?


The poems in Stubble Archipelago are abject, dense as babka, sticky as the “honey-cyclone” that whirls through #7 “[Books by Lana].” (Stickiness is a Koestenbaumian leitmotiv.) This density can often result in an almost inscrutable referentiality, as in the poem #4 “[Flatiron realness minus]”:


(Paul Newman), nose in his pubes. Noémie,
Henry James’s failed artiste, fecundates
identification’s sausage—
his VD my Tod-relic.
“Liebestod” crackers w/ strawberry jam, ricotta,
charnel-rumors? Arthritis
tenderloin, 3 a.m. snack.
Body unpopular, gut a Mona Lisa cam-glimpse,
jack-off Chekhov cues
Victor/Victoria Weltschmerz-lees.


What do you do with a poem like that? Notice, first and foremost, how names accrue. Flipping through the book, you encounter, among others: Domenico Ghirlandaio and Jethro Tull, Barbara Stanwyck and Johannes Brahms, Joan Crawford and Marcel Marceau, Stanley Tucci and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Édouard Manet and Dylan Thomas, Matt Damon and W. G. Sebald. But the manner in which they appear is tilted, the opposite of name-dropping or simple stanza-stuffing. Take Sebald’s cameo, for instance. “Dildos as dowsing rods in Schwules Museum: handle / with care on / Sebald’s Yahrzeit,” one poem reads, distilling the German writer into a marker of time. Other names are converted into complex adjectives and nouns, often the butts of discourse-collapsing jokes.


In a similar vein, the collection indulges Koestenbaum’s interest in diva figures like Maria Callas, Jackie Kennedy, and Kim Novak. (“Idolizing grand women from the past and making them come back,” he writes in 1993’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, “are pursuits dear to gay culture.”) These women seem to embody a struggle between a vibrant public persona and a private self, offering a model for the dynamics of queer desire. This is a bit reductive, of course, and too explicit to do justice to Koestenbaum’s readings of the diva phenomenon, which, like the best of his criticism, are sinuous and multifaceted. But it does point out that the interplay of the internal and external self is a critical engine in his writing: “Writing is a process of turning myself inside out: a regurgitation,” Koestenbaum writes in Humiliation (2011). “I extrude my vulnerable inner lining. I purge. And then I examine the contents—my expulsed interior—and begin the bloody interrogation.” His interrogation isn’t a search for meaning, necessarily; instead, he’s interested in the point at which disintegration becomes collage.


As a result, Koestenbaum’s poems often recall the finely minced obscenities of Antonin Artaud’s own poetic practice, which Koestenbaum has referred to as an “oracular merde-fest.” And yet elsewhere, the bumpy rhythm of nonsense verse crops up, as in the opening lines of #8 “[O razor in]”:


O razor in the bathtub, glee
reifies you—
shampoo, too,
a species of Prometheus, promotes
bubble déjà vu.


Koestenbaum’s ear is sharp, capable of evoking the wit of Noël Coward one moment and the homespun didacticism of Dickinson the next. “Death took me shopping for dildoes and poppers,” we read in #12 “[Fruitlessly cruised flat-assed],” and because the poem cannot stop for death, the line is broken harshly with an em dash before going on: “neophyte subordinate to / Socratic anal-muse.” The poetry is frequently very funny, full of strange, unimaginable puns. Consider this command: “Conjugate Adorno: adorno, adorni, adorna, / adorniamo,” or the one-off “onanism con ragù.”


At other times, you feel like saying of Koestenbaum what he once wrote of his perpetual muse Anna Moffo, that she “has the habit of darkening a note, infusing it with an unrequested, honeyed dram of significance.” You can sense this, for instance, in #9 “[Regret’s a clod],” which recalls the haunted fugues of Paul Celan: “Regret’s a clod—pebble impurity—in soul-mesh: / rinse scrim, render it / deathbed-transparent.” Grimly compressed, excessively punctuated, the line suggests a formal impulse that is at once rigid and ethereal. As in much of Koestenbaum’s writing, this productive tension between the hard and the soft is deployed to conjure up a new, private language.


Which isn’t to say the poems in Stubble Archipelago don’t offer moments of unalloyed beauty. Here, for instance, is a “gloaming coral sky,” and elsewhere we’re invited to consider “a ripe / peach’s mystic authority.” Sensual pleasures abound, as in the sonic slurring of “Nestle up to night’s shelf,” lovely in its utter euphony. Confessional sentiments surface from the noise and catch the light. “Every novel I love is fragile,” Koestenbaum writes, though whether he loves them because they’re fragile, or they’re fragile as a result of his loving them, remains beautifully unclear.


For all of us, desire rarely achieves coherence. It tends, instead, to misarrange things, to engender slippages. As the collection draws to a close, misheard phrases and misreadings develop into a quiet motif. “Tarte aux pommes” is misheard as “tarte homophobe,” while “professor of sociology” is misread as “professor of apology,” “concentrated” as “castrated,” “financial advisor” as “funeral advisor,” “master craftsman” as “nastier craftsman,” and so on. The gesture is notational—the poem’s speaker is simply keeping track of his mistakes, registering uncertainty and the force of accident. As though the instability of language had leaked into the subconscious, dreams begin to preponderate as well. “Dreamt I drafted a tiny, three-chaptered Jewish book / about La Cérémonie / starring Isabelle Huppert,” one poem reads. Taken together, the poems in the book’s second half effect a loss of control, a ceding to the irrational and incidental. Precarity blooms, as in #30 “[The lamp competes]”: “Dreamt I watched John Ashbery do a three-point turn, / his Mini Cooper in / a tight parking lot / overlooking a gorge.”


Though trance can be a hard state to define, instability and irrationality are among its key characteristics. To the extent that states of trance tap into the visionary and require a motion of “ecstatic surrender,” as Koestenbaum has written, they rob us of our agency, turn us into prophecy-sputtering fools. What the entranced gains is, of course, the vision itself, and the experience of a different kind of freedom—an associative state unbound by conscious norms. As far as language is concerned, this can produce verbal mania. Koestenbaum has described himself as an “obsessive erotomane,” an appellation that cuts to the core of his style. “In the past, I drifted off-topic to explore eroticism; now, I sneak away from eroticism’s falsely fixed topos,” he writes in My 1980s & Other Essays. “Wandering, I announce errancy as my new erotic imperative.”


The maniac finds signs everywhere he looks; the erotomane, in turn, finds eroticisms everywhere he looks. As far as eros requires an object, erotic errancy can seem like a contradiction in terms. Which brings us to a question Koestenbaum poses in Stubble Archipelago, roughly midway through the book:


Why, in trance, does white foam stream from possessed
mouths? Cotton, cornstarch,
saliva, fruit: simu-
lated aethereal cum-
cream-of-wheat écume.


It’s all a little jismy, but I take Koestenbaum’s central observation to be something a little more refined. Trance is that state when consciousness assumes the form of foam, a web of bubbles gleaming, each individual pocket of air a node of perception. You could do worse than this if forced to come up with a description of erotic mania. The erotomane, with each aria, diffuses himself into a libidinous froth; his love, his ardor, washes over the world, bursts, and is gone.

LARB Contributor

Bailey Trela is a writer in New York whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Paris Review, Commonweal, The Baffler, the Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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