advance review of Jaimy Gordon (ca. 1979)

I see the NY Times has discovered Jaimy Gordon. But my horse got there fustest. Here's a review I wrote for the estimable East Side Monthly (Providence) in 1979. Yes, that's 1979 : a review of 2 early Gordon works (my writing odiferous, toward the conclusion, with my own preachy-adolescent sociology... urk.... oh well, I was young then too).

Jaimy Gordon's Songs of Life

Circumspections from an Equestian Statue (Providence : Burning Deck, 1979)
The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (NY : SUN Press, 1978)

Local writer Jaimy Gordon has written two stories, one in free verse and the other in the form of a comic novella. They are like night and day, polar opposites, yin and yang. One thing they share in common is their setting - the stories take place right here in Providence. Ms. Gordon is what they call a "dynamite" writer, and at this point where the two stories meet there is an explosion, and the whole town is blown up.

Circumspections (etc.) is about the "Establishment", memorialized today by lamplit Benefit St. Back in 1860-1870, when this story takes place, the wealth strata of society was just beginning to settle back on its velvet cushions and relax into real aristocracy, just like in Europe, only more "modern." The chief protagonist is General Ambrose Burnside, one-time Governor of RI and self-proclaimed "idiot," remembered today as the architect of that great military disaster of the Civil War, the battle of Fredericksburg, and also as the inventor of "sideburns." An equestrian statue of the general stands today in Kennedy Plaza, and supports a large pigeon population.

Burnside carries on in the grand style of American polite society, managing to become powerful both financially and politically without once ceasing to be a bumbling fool. The story describes how Burnside's wife, a well-known nymphomaniac, becomes the all-too-willing subject of one of the pioneers in gynecology, one Dr. Wishey of Paris, France. The tale develops with wild comic flair, employing a number of stock elements of Rhode Island humor - ghosts, Victorian mansions, the Biltmore Hotel.

"It should be understood that by now all three gentlemen had sample extensively the opulent list of the Cafe de Paris.
The doctor said, 'Perhaps you should simply haul your ghost before a drum-head court-martial, and bang, smash, kick and throttle him to death?'
'I believe that to be hanged from the clothesline until dead is the usual treatment for ghosts,' the Reverend remarked.
'May I ask you one last question, General?' said the doctor, holding up his champagne. 'If you are not a music-hall performer, why do you wear those ridiculous sidewhiskers?'
The reverend looked up sharply at this question, since he wore an identical pair in yellow.
'Because I desire to separate the hemisphere of my mouth from the hemisphere of my brain as strictly as possible,' the general answered.
'Would that all the world did likewise!' He paused in triumph. But then the hemisphere of his mouth added injudiciously : 'Besides, I am famous all over the world for my moustaches. Who would know me without my moustaches?'
'Precisely,' said the doctor, rising to his feet, case in hand. 'And now let us proceed to Mrs. Burnside, as we have traveled 3000 miles by sea just for that reason.'"

The precision and economy of this comic tale is worthy of Gogol, allowing this RI combination of laughter/horror to assume archetypal dimensions. In the Garden of Eden, "they were naked, and were not ashamed." Here, all has fallen to utter baseness. The sense of human strength, goodness, intelligence is completely overturned. Burnside (as revealed in the flashbacks to the battle of Fredericksburg) is an absolute beast of inanity. His wife is a harlot seated on the seven hills of Providence. And the whole society is bound to the devil. The metaphor of voyeurism runs through the story ("circumspections...") which begins and ends with the characters looking through the new invention, the Stereopticon. And the minister, Rev. Augustus Woodbury, strikes a bargain with Dr. Wishey, which will allow the good reverend at last to view his own wife's private parts.

"But for him also the devil had invented a spectacle - for the contract he had made, he knew, was not with the doctor, but with the ringmaster of darkness, the Phineas T. Barnum of hell, and it was signed in ether."

Circumspections is a comedy about the established powers in society, where the whole world is bought for the price of a soul. Human nature is covered with a false veneer of gentility and pride, and sexuality becomes something one must bargain with the devil for, and view from a distance. The Bend, the Lip, the Kid goes to the other end of the spectrum. It is a free-verse story, based on real life, set in the true social center of that underworld made up of all those who, because of race or class, are excluded from that tidy genteel world. The story is set in the ACI (Adult Correctional Institution). It is about the relationship between a woman writer and a young prisoner and ex-con - their friendship, her desire to help him, her need to escape. There is no "solution" to their difficulties, no idealized illusions. But the spare honesty of the story gives it a kind of tragic pathos. The characters are not romanticized, although they create their own romantic aura. The are human beings, and one recognizes the environmental, political nature of their fate - the needless suffering and cruel punishment. And when people are powerless, oppressed, lacking any comfort from the world, then the simplest kind of friendship takes on aspects of tenderness and love. These characters are caught in a society which imprisons and separates friend from friend, parents from children. But even if they are powerless to help each other, something remains. What is that something?

To live with the Kid, the present.
To life without him, the poem.
Not that
"having emerged from the darkness of time...
(s)he understands the necessity of art"

Not for the sake of something
invariable or incorruptible
Not even to guarantee, if not the world at large,
a local & transitory buzz 'in the community of poets'
when they put her into the box

But to reply in her own nature.
Is it nature, or a deformity in nature
to need men,
but to have to escape men to survive them,
to see her own life
as inevitable as the life of an other.
Sure she is not acting,
sure that this voice of unsureness is her voice,
lost but awake in it,
she believes no other condition.

His question is, can she be real
a light year behind
the surface of her attention?

She writes the story to take you in,
a story so you can get lost in following,
so it will be painless to follow
unlike, if you have an ego, your love;
a poem because she says so,
only real, because of the lives.

It only remains to say that along with this serious aspect, The Bend... displays the same exuberance and sharp perception, and mastery of language, as in Circumspections... These are extraordinary books.

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