A nineteenth-century porcelain pap feeder
A copy of The Waves
The china collection of a seven-year-old Glück
A white Pyrex cup
Some years ago the poet Rob Halpern, in that OMG-you-haven’t-read-him? way that we have about the authors we are passionate about, insisted that I read Bob Glück. Enabling my impending addiction to the author, Rob gave me early editions of Glück’s novel Jack the Modernist and his first book of prose, Elements of a Coffee Service. Now I, too, am a Glück pusher. I have taught his work repeatedly and shiver and shudder to think I might have lived without reading his original, tasty, and oh-so-queerly reflexive rom-com. If I may borrow the expression, he is a writer’s writer’s writer, rotating, as he has, at the axis of intersecting literary cults that have radiated brilliance outward, anon. But in fact, with his disarming tone, his highbrow/lowbrow narrative aesthetics, and the luminous precision of his autobiographical insight, he is any reader’s writer. His self-teasing and his striving to be awake as he tells his true stories are, I think, ways of befriending and including us, the very dear reader. Gossip and friendship are central to Glück’s oeuvre, particularly his friendship with Bruce Boone, whose own collection of stories (tellingly entitled My Walk with Bob) is regarded as a core text of the New Narrative movement, said to have stemmed from Glück’s writing workshops in his Noe Valley home in San Francisco.
Part of the pleasure in reading Glück lies in the loosening of the grip of certain rigid self-hyphenations: self-judgment, self-destitution, self-protection, self-abandonment. Roland Barthes meets Groucho Marx; observant wit meets existentialist slapstick. If to ridicule is to imply you have nothing in common with your victim, to intelligently tease is to give the other (reader, lover, friend) a chance to feel equal to the relentless dilemma of herself, i.e., forget self-help books: read Proust, Barthes, and Glück and know your scandalous self. From Jack the Modernist: “Getting fucked and masturbated produces an orgasm that can be read in two ways, like the painting of a Victorian woman with her sensual hair piled up who gazes into the mirror of her vanity table. Then the same lights and darks reveal a different set of contours: her head becomes one eye, the reflection of her face another eye and her mirror becomes the dome of a grinning skull/woman/skull/woman/skull—I wanted my orgasm to fall between those images. That’s not really a place. I know. The pious Victorian names his visual pun ‘Vanity.’ I rename it ‘Identity.’ ”
Glück is the author of nine books of poems and narratives, including two novels, Margery Kempe and Jack the Modernist; a book of stories, Denny Smith; a book of poems and short prose, Reader; and, with, Bruce Boone, the collaboration La Fontaine. The recipient of too many awards to name here, Glück was codirector of Small Press Traffic and director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, and was named one of the ten best postmodern fiction writers in North America by the Dictionary of Literary Biography, in 1994. Elements of a Coffee Service has just been reissued in a new edition by Ithuriel’s Spear. He teaches at San Francisco State. This interview transpired via email in San Francisco, in the spring of 2012.
THE BELIEVER: Your writing is often grounded in place. What are your decorating/homemaking influences?
BOB GLÜCK: This is a good place to start, because at present I am hiding out at home, endeavoring to enter my writing while undertaking the secretarial chores of assembling a book of essays. Yesterday I got to “Yoko” in my documents folder, the last item. Now I will start going through file cabinets. Being at home without outwardly directed work, like classwork, is a great pleasure. Sometimes I abandon my writing and settle into a movie. Daytime TV—forbidden fruit! I am particularly fond of precode films from the early ’30s. Sometimes I go online and look for dates or hookups—the fascination of the hunt, or is it the fascination of shopping?—or I just witness the broad, mighty river of sexual self-description that is craigslist. One day I will write an essay called “Carpal Tunnel as an STD.”
But there is more to domesticity than screens. I have often written about the objects that touch me physically. The wooden spoon I eat with, which has been worn away over the years—its humility and loyalty are moving to me. I have a white glass cup that has often appeared in my fictions. It is the simplest of shapes, nothing fancy, more the idea of a cup, tipping in and out of existence. It’s in “Purple Men 2000,” and the book I am writing now, and lord knows where else.
It is a kind of language of the body, these objects that are worn by use, by touching, washing. I got rid of my dishwasher—I never ran it, I just stored china in it. That’s because I want to touch dishes—washing them connects me to a benign history, an ancient activity, like pouring tea. These objects have a humility that is also a kind of glory, shoes rubbed by our feet into different shapes, a triumph of the vernacular shaping and subverting the mass-produced. As [the Jesuit scholar] Michel de Certeau might put it: a music of hosannas. That they are ephemeral, that they do not appear on the stage of history, only increases their splendor. Let’s say it is part of the ongoing discovery of the irreversible. Rubbed smooth, abraded, softened, torn. Processes that work against conservation, that give an object an opposite valence. A story of decay and death and transformation. I mend my clothes and I turn the collars on my favorite shirts in gratitude. When I die, some of these objects will find a place in other households and lives, and help define what is normal and even invisible.
If you think of it, the other senses have art forms that isolate them aesthetically: music, food, visual art, perfume, but there is none that isolates touch. Sex? It involves all the others as well.
Especially moving are objects from other households. They were chosen and used for whole lifetimes, for several lifetimes; they carry that intimate history with them when they are new in my household. After a while that frame disappears, though not always. I just bought a nineteenth-century porcelain pap feeder in Maine, white porcelain, about seven inches long. The spout is half the length of the whole shape; it looks like a creamer except the spout is a tube that sticks straight out. It’s for giving pap or panada to babies and invalids, the dying and the newborn.
I suppose this is just another way of talking about the body—which is torn, rubbed smooth, abraded, softened. There is a passage in The Waves that I often think about, about a woman who becomes a farm wife, the opening and closing of the bins and cabinets, the heavy sacks of flour, raisins, sugar—now where is my copy of The Waves! Is this sentimental?
These objects that we touch are not a part of the estrangements of our lives, which are so topical and easy to discuss, so they don’t have value in that conversation. Our relation to these objects seems to exist before language, in the language of gesture, similar to our relation to pets. A relation so pure because it occurs before language, before narrative, so it does not take part in that most spectacular and goriest of summer blockbusters. To eliminate it from our writing because it does not jibe with the towering estrangements, outrage, satisfactions, damage, irony, and horror that are also part of life, and partly generated by the contradictions of our historical moment, is to falsify our experience.
There is another way that objects operate in my life. I’m a collector—art and obscure ceramics, Jalan, California faience. And sentiment cups—lumpy, abject cups from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries decorated with mottos in faded gold luster: think of me, love the giver, and, my favorite, a present. (It’s like Achilles’ shield.) When I was seven I had a china collection—mostly bone china and ivory—and a cabinet to display it. I wanted to be somewhere else and these objects were like passports. I suppose the collecting impulse is like any obsession, that is, the desire for safety, the impulse to put something between oneself and death.
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