Gary Lehmann - Author

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Monday, November 07, 2005

The Weird, Wacky World of Russell Edson

Michel Delville’s book The American Prose Poem [1998] traces the roots of the prose poem to genre-bending works by James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson and Kenneth Patchen. In the late twentieth century, groundbreaking work was done by Robert Bly and Charles Simic, but the father of the modern prose poem, without a doubt, has been the reclusive Connecticut poet, Russell Edson.

Edson was born in 1935 and lives in Connecticut yet. He wrote prose poems long before they became fashionable and for sheer fabulism are unequaled. Over the years, he has published twenty-two books, mostly of prose poems. His most accessible book, entitled The Tunnel: Selected Works of Russell Edson, is an anthology of poems from his earlier volumes.

Edson’s work is hard to describe in traditional terms. It’s fanciful and yet serious, playful yet philosophical, funny yet meditative. Most of his poems pre-suppose that an alternative universe exists where the light shines on ideas with particular intensity. In this place, events parallel ours to inform the issues we half-muddle over back here in reality. Many of his issues are scientific or philosophical, but they are never long-winded or boring. Edson condenses his commentary into a short parable.

Such a unique poetic consciousness had to come from unique ancestry. His father was a New York cartoonist. At 16, Russell was admitted on scholarship to the Art Students League in 1951. Later on, he attended the New School for Social Research. By 1960 his attention turned to poetry. His writing skills were honed at Black Mountain College from which so much late twentieth century talent emerged. Cross these odd biographical elements, and the basic geology of Edson’s conscious landscape emerges. His approach to life and poetry is so totally unique that OINK! Press in Chicago actually published a book entitled Edson’s Mentality [1977].

His poetry is simultaneously wacky and surreal, as if he were writing a word cartoon. But these cartoons have a moral in them and reflect our most serious issues. Into a common setting marches a puppet who enacts the principles behind our faith in the automobile, cloning, relativity, ego-centrism, possessive motherhood, or the theory of evolution. Out of his poems come readers with a new perspective on life.

Not everyone gets Edson, and he knows it. In his book Edson’s Mentality, he acknowledges that his brand of poetry does not suit all tastes. "Take it or leave it, I make it a point not to be a celebrity, most of whom are uncreative scum feeding on the public attention; if I have any public value, it is in my published works, not in my secret dreams. Information as to how I scratched, and where, will make interesting twitterings after I'm dead; not while I still live, and still scratch."


DARWIN DESCENDING by Russell Edson

Do you believe in evolution, oh, thing of easy answers?
Do you believe Darwin was descended from a thing more jaw than head?
…Imagine an early Darwin roving the trees, nostalgic for the future…
A female Darwin slaps him on the back of his small, but promising head; whatcha thinking about, ya brainless brute? she peeps.
I was just wondering about the origin of species, he twitters.
You haven't the brains of a modern chimpanzee, she screeches.
Yeah, but I think that's where I'm evolving; a large-brained primate with an opposable thumb, with which I will oppose all of nature, twitters Darwin.
Oh, stop it, you're hardly on to tools; why, you haven't even fooled with fire yet, she hoots.
Yeah, but one day, Darwinette, I'm gonna talk good, and even learn how to write talking with a fountain pen…
Promises, promises….

But, as we all know, Darwin did descend.
It was at a cocktail party, and he had been roving the upstairs halls looking for indoor plumbing.
And now he was returning via the carpeted stairway.
Everyone turned and applauded: look, the descent of Darwin!
From The Wounded Breakfast (1985)

THE FAMILY MONKEY by Russell Edson

We bought an electric monkey, experimenting rather recklessly with funds carefully gathered from grandfather's time for the purchase of a steam monkey.
We had either, by this time, the choice of an electric or a gas monkey.
The steam monkey was no longer being made, said the monkey merchant.
But the family always planned on a steam monkey.
Well, said the monkey merchant, just as the wind-up monkey gave way to the steam monkey, the steam monkey has given way to the gas and electric monkeys.
Is that like the grandfather clock being replaced by the grandchild clock?
Sort of, said the monkey merchant.

So we bought the electric monkey, and plugged its umbilical cord into the wall.
The smoke coming out its fur told us something was wrong.
We had electrocuted the family monkey.
From The Clam Theater (1973)

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