The Pink Trance Notebooks, by Wayne Koestenbaum. New York: Nightboat Books, 2015. 416 pages.
IN A 2010 ESSAY essay on Frank O’Hara, Wayne Koestenbaum hymns what he calls the poet’s “excited devotion to the state of excitement itself.” It’s an apt description of Koestenbaum’s own modus as critic, poet, and essayist; his writing tends to verbal excess, to unabashed confessions of shame or humiliation (he has even written a book on the latter subject), and evinces an exorbitant urge toward meaning-making. “We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death,” he writes in The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012). And yet there’s always a sense in Koestenbaum’s writing that indulgence and risk are countered by extreme care at the level of the line or sentence. He sounds thrillingly torn between mastery and abdication, even outright failure. As he writes in The Pink Trance Notebooks: “syntax a baby I know / how to pamper, / syntax a baby / I know how to / miscarry.”
The book is the result of a year during which Koestenbaum abandoned his customary journal for a less conventional form: part dream diary, part poetic “waste book,” wholly the product of an intense, untethered mind. (This way of writing is related, he has said, to his practice as a painterpart of the same “Pink Trance universe.”) The entries read like early-morning revelations or dead-of-night confidences, more than a little hopped on the hallucinatory gift of mental and physical fatigue. The lines are short, the fragments set off typographically by spare but stubborn horizontal lines; in the text itself the em dash plays a crucial role as transition or punctum at stanza’s end. “Punctuation is evil,” he declares in one of many aphoristic asides. Also: “Onions are / affordable, bisexuals are / not affordable.” There are fragmentary forms within the fragmentary form: Koestenbaum is a lover of lists, as in his laconic inventory of past and potential erections, which plausibly includes “a Goethe scholar in the / fog boner.”
At times, The Pink Trance Notebooks sounds like that great litany of vintage queer and near-queer interludes, Joe Brainard’s slyly prosaic I Remember (1970), except that Koestenbaum’s swish-kid memory flashes are also excuses for lexical oddity and delight. “We saw Marnie / with a boy just entering puberty / he hugged the dog while / Tippi Hedren underwent / frigid conniptions, hair / designed by Alexandre de Paris.” “Frigid conniptions” manages to sound both fabulous and stricturedthose four upright little i’sand thus of a piece with the anxious, attentive young WK we’re asked to picture elsewhere: the boy who couldn’t master a cursive Z, who “thought poop was / Satan.”
If you haven’t noticed by now: Here is one of the most flirtatious writers around. The Pink Trance Notebooks is in part a deadly serious reflection on the stakes of flirtation in life and on the page“fear of / non-flirtation, abyss (le / néant) of non-flirtation.” (Could there be a move more alluringly provocative than to introduce a line break into the void?) Koestenbaum has written brilliantly on Andy Warhol and Roland Barthes, gay men who in their different ways turned the reality of sex and seduction into something distanced, matte, and melancholic. He’s learned from their methodsblank repetition, doleful anatomybut writes about sex more joyfully and more pointedly. Still, discomfort and disappointment are never far away: “supposedly gargantuan / but then it turned out / to be puny,” or “his face in my ass / even if I don’t / want his face / in my ass.” What he shares most with Barthes and Warhol by way of sensibility, however, is a certain diffuse utopianism of flirtatious opportunity: “no wish for sex / with anyone but intense wish / for sex-vibe experienced / randomly with everyone.”
The Pink Trance Notebooks is populated by many bodies and transfixed by their failures and faux pas. The author’s ill-timed hard-on alarms a James Taylor look-alike; he notes with horror the wax gathering darkly in the ear of an otherwise attractive man. But the book is troubled most of all by the body of the poet’s mother, who lies motionless after a stroke. Her predicament (“corpse position”) produces the least syntactically assured or elaborate of lines: “her scrawl, / her breathing / tanks of oxygen . . . this activity / represents a symptom of / neurological damage.” In this last example, Koestenbaum adopts the tone of the professionals at his mother’s bedside, or the kind of dread-filled reading one does around the illness of a loved oneit’s a reminder of the way language, medical or poetic, wants to skitter away from its subject.
Such is the nature of the notebook, ever ready to leave its recording role behind, or rather to OD on indexicality (as Koestenbaum puts it) and travel somewhere quite else, with its “lines ending up / abstract because / they’re so intently / concentrated on / capturing observed form.” In an essay on Goethe, Walter Benjamin described a species of empiricism so precise it flipped over into pure theory; The Pink Trance Notebooks is not quite that, but it’s a teasing lesson in the ways a writer’s first-thought journal may translate itself into something formally exotic and profound.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art in London.