I played a game that was not hard for me to play with My 1980s, Wayne Koestenbaum’s new book of collected short essays. I pretended like I had never heard of any of the artists, writers and ad hoc celebrities Wayne mentions. I let the names that popped up be coy fictional characters for whom only a few crumbs of information get dispersed about. The text holds in this firm way, it begins to even advocate for doing away with caches of associations. So we go on Wayne’s specific fascination trip as the sole introduction.
But, I couldn’t really pretend I didn’t know Susan Sontag’s name. Koestenbaum reminds us, as if with a golden rake, that Sontag once wrote “There’s a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions.” And my brain was alive with my ideas of Sontag in relation to his fascinations.
It’s as if I was vindicated for being as thoroughly obsessed with Sontag’s contributions to the domain of the defiant public intellectual. Wayne crafts a story of admiration for Sontag that defines graceful celebration. He does this by balancing a persona obsession with a prose style obsession . Reminding me, oh yeah, focus on the work, not the stories about how Sontag was a bad friend. A violation only one could do in memoriam, Koestenbaum gives away the last three sentences of several of Sontag’s novels to show how terse her message is. And this of course doesn’t manage to ruin the plot. The last three lines appear like Sontag’s cigarette smoke does on a scrim in the recent Builders’ Association play adaptation of Sontag’s journals.
In this essay “Susan Sontag, Cosmophage,” I also learn of Adrienne Rich’s guised attack on Sontag for not being more of a die hard feminist and out lesbian. Wayne’s historical reference, sending me into the New York Review of Books archive, is not without reverberation in his poems. From Koestenbaum’s Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background, there is the fantastical work into how a reoccurring cast writers, artists, and celebrities enter his imaginings, so his secret life with them becomes intimately near. Adrienne Rich is in a dream, in the poem “Speed Bumps,” and it gets 3-D: “Swarthy, she brought a bag of pretzels to bed.”
It’s so familiar, Rich in bed with pretzels, it’s almost coincidental in Koestenbaum’s poetry. There is nothing more mysterious than a fact plainly stated. “He drinks my bleach” Koestenbaum writes of the enigmatically named “guilt-tripper” in Blue Stranger. Pain and poison swirl together playfully of like those new sugar-free gums that include dessert flavors like mint chocolate chip ice cream.
To read Wayne Koestenbaum is to feel a little bit like ditching school while being smarter than school ever was, a characteristic of a renaissance man. But Wayne is totally at school, somehow inspiring many many students, who live fully nourished lives on his dictums, of which one of my favorites is: “criticism, not a parasitic genre, is governed by the same charmed tenets as poetry.”