Introduction by Eileen Myles
From here I can probably forget to remember why I wanted to edit this book. To make it come into existence. I do remember—I taught a class in San Diego in 2006 or 7—it was a graduate seminar called Pathetic Literature. As a professor I had the opportunity to teach a literary seminar rather than only writing workshops to undergraduates or a writing workshop for graduate art students because in fact I had no graduate writing students, there was no graduate writing program in San Diego when I taught there so really I taught the seminar called Pathetic Literature to credentialize myself, to demonstrate I had expertise beyond just teaching people to write poems.
For ten years, the critic Liz Kotz and myself had been yucking it up at this concept of Pathetic Masculinity in the art world; it merely meant (we thought) feminism for men. They could get personal now and make diaristic work, do crafts and make banners and cushions and do all the silly things that feminist artists had done in the 70s but the men (unlike the feminists) would get giant art careers. And that begged the question for me—and what would Pathetic Literature be? It was obvious that it was people like myself who wrote in a driven and rambling and seemingly unpretentious way about their habits and their sex lives. And immediately that included my friends like Bob Glück, who’s kind of the daddy of the New Narrative scene in the Bay Area. Bob was one of a group of former poets who decided to write prose instead of poetry because language poetry didn’t like sex and my friends Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy and Dennis Cooper did like sex and writing about it. Is sex pathetic? I think so. It was natural to fold in Samuel Delany who wrote so accurately about how different contact (in porn movie theaters of the 60s, 70s and 80s) was from networking, the predecessor to the internet in terms of human engagement. Contact is both dirtier than networking and it’s also a wild card. You get the thing you went in there for but you always get something else. It’s like foam.
All of these literary works produced (within themselves) some kind of residue, like foam on trees, or spit. There’s always some kind of waste product in a pathetic work that does not drive the plot. Pathetic fictions pile up to an ecstasy of skewed intentions. Death is pathetic, queerness is pathetic. AIDS was mightily pathetic. Guns are not pathetic I should say. War is not pathetic.
I think the book is about belonging. A party of sympathy in a way. Even for you to have read this far suggests that you are complicit in some way with this line of thought. It’s kind of a blurry invitation to take a word that’s mostly mean and be kind to it until it begins to kind of shiver and speak wisely then foolishly because that’s how it feels. How do you act when your first lover is becoming a corpse right before your eyes. The world has been growing increasingly inappropriate for a while now and there are a lot of us writing this sort of work. So here’s Bob. No I mean, Robert Glück. His work is so virtuosic, meanwhile it truly belongs.
– Eileen Myles
Editor of Pathetic Literature
Ed and the Movies
Ed and the Movies by Robert Glück
Seven on a warm June evening. The glossy light is full, the shadows are mild. Little brown birds make thin music, weak metallic trills. I’m walking through Ed’s garden to his front door. It’s overgrown and orderly, the smell of damp earth and heavy roses. There are fronds and branches to duck, red and green marble-sized apples growing out of their flowers on espaliered trees. Something in pots, and the brugmansia, night-scented trumpets, sweet and sinister. I climb the wooden steps. The porch light is on already. I’m empty handed.
No, I hold the string of a white pastry box heavy with two lemon tarts and two chocolate éclairs that satisfy my greed under the pretense of fattening Ed up. He’ll probably eat one bite. I feel sleepy and itchy as though some emotional demand will be made, and what will I do then? I sense his death behind the door. I don’t need to knock, he buzzed me in at the gate. The door swings open, he’s very animated. Would you rather see me lifeless, he mocks. I hold up the pastry box and we moan with satisfaction. Death is too serious for us. I hug Ed and I want to say I love you but choke on the words as though I’m lying (I’m not).
I smell the Japanese half of Ed’s childhood—soy and ginger. He intends to perfect a recipe for barbecued short ribs as he did for lemon bundt cake and sushi rice. It’s Tuesday, my night with Ed, an ongoing joke of self-interest. I contribute to Ed’s welfare by eating complicated meals involving the stove, the oven, and the microwave, that take Ed all day to prepare. The table is set, the food is a picture. Roasted pig—I start chewing before it is served, imagining fat. I can’t get enough of the salty, burnt-sugar succulence. We dissect the flavors—more rice vinegar? ginger? Sophie, a small gray and brown tabby with a vexed expression, heedlessly scrolls against my shoes, burrows into my armpits, and vanishes.
Ed pokes at the meat with his chopsticks, takes a few bites of rice, praises himself for eating as much as he does. When we lived together, he could warm up to dinner with a double bag of potato chips. His voice is strong but the air is seeping out of his posture. He’s down to 120 and wears a disorganized expression. He brings me up to date on the daily horrors. He has neuropathy—the nerves along the soles of his feet strum like electric guitars. Some fungus looks like fur in his throat. He started a new med. Dr. Owen said if the new drug causes pain in his muscles it means they are disintegrating, so his body started pulling apart like taffy as the doctor spoke. Owen added that if Ed feels pain in his liver he should call him at once. Ed tossed and turned all night, a finger jabbing him there. I confess I don’t pay much attention to these sagas, which are, like his blathering when we were together, tedious and appalling. I hear myself recite the same stupid good advice I bestowed on Ed six years ago—and I hear my mother’s voice in mine, calming, distancing. Ed’s days are obviously precious but also lonely, threadbare, and twisted by fear.
What do I have to say? It’s still the eighties. I feel so intensely that the party is happening elsewhere you could call my distraction a disease. That is, I feel like I’m reading a bad translation, with the knowledge that a better one exists. Distance installs itself in me, from thrillingly difficult technical vocabularies to the ascendency of the grid on, say, Calvin Klein sheets. Distance replaces the excesses and heartfelt essences of the seventies. Meanwhile, Ed sustains losses, giving up job, travel, movies—increased nakedness before death. He fights a hollowed out feeling, hard to portray, not dramatic.
Last winter, flattened under the buzzing lights, Owen told Ed he had a few months left. Ed went home and planted a hundred and thirty tulip bulbs. When he worked in the park, he would bonsai two hundred chrysanthemums for Easter. I’m bloated and wan. My life does not seem to apply and resists being shaped into anecdotes. Striving seems vulgar. I’ve eaten too much fat. While Ed talks I actually dream for a few seconds: I can’t find my pen, and when I do it’s on the kitchen table laid out between knife and spoon. Eating words and writing dinner. My dream sees me this way.
What am I leaving out? I remind myself to tape some conversations with Ed. Is that too gruesome? Half asleep, I brew strawberry tea for Ed and black tea for myself in the blue and white spongeware mugs that belonged to Ed and me when we were lovers. I’m almost taking them down from my own cupboard. The clear flavor of the tea is so welcome that some of me goes into it. Ed opens a window—I’m surprised by his initiative because I expect nothing from anyone. He actually does eat his share of the pastry, which is a satisfaction. “You never cooked like this when we were together,” I complain good-naturedly.
As though explaining, Ed says, “Remember Marty?”
“Who lived next door?”
“That greasy little guy who always wore the same sportcoat?” I’m surprised Ed knows his name.
“We had sex. He’d just finished eating a can of sardines.” Ed exhales to show the sardines swarming in Marty’s breath.
I’m laughing and stung by this thirteen-year-old infidelity. I feel it more deeply because I’m single again. Denny and I broke up two years ago and my insecurity has new life. I experience my only moments of hope when I think of him. How to extinguish the useless surges? The action of the disease makes Ed’s body attractive to me again. Is my love for him realer than I know? I attributed intention to his beauty because it had power over me. I remember the tenderness of snuggling in bed, soft cotton t-shirts and naked below—the cotton erotic, the hot and cold of train stations, a mix of directions. Ed replies with a look, What do you see? The face that detained me for so many years. Galaxies.
Why is Ed telling me about Marty? Ed was not confined to beauty and safety. I used him to experience risk, as I do in this story. The rough desires passed around at night by guys in a park or an alley. I’ll bet Marty is where Ed discovered rimming. One morning Ed seemed to know all about it—what a surprise that was. Pleasure hidden like treasure in that scary place. I hid my face in simple justice of representation and my body made noises that meant it had instincts I’d never considered, like a school of salmon migrating up my butt.
These carnal updates from Ed and his primeval romps give our marriage a weird posthumous life. Since we are on the subject, I remind Ed of the evening fifteen years earlier when I cooked an elaborate birthday dinner for him. He turned up around midnight, explaining without remorse that he had been patiently guiding Sean into bed, a straight friend he was “liberating.” “Having a reason doesn’t mean anything,” I cried. I blinked like a flustered professor and my body stuttered. Ed laughed in alarm and mimicked my frantic gesture. Then he offered, “You’re just a victim of circumstance.”
Ed laughs and says, “Well, weren’t you?” He places a buttery crumb on a desiccated lip. He tastes, separating the flavors into a panorama. I ask him if he’s painting. “Every morning from my studio I see a nanny push a buggy up the hill. I think she’s Nicaraguan. She looks really young. She puts the brake on the buggy, climbs a long set of stairs, unlocks the door, and then goes down for the baby. That buggy points right down the hill and it’s held in place by a thin piece of aluminum. Every day I expect the baby to go flying down the street into traffic.”
We share an expression of horror. Ed lives on a very steep hill down which the buggy already careens. I say, “Someone has to tell that woman!”
Ed solemnly agrees. “One sentence could save that child’s life.”
“But Ed, why don’t you tell her?” I feel a surge of relief—finally I can save someone’s life. “All you have to do is walk across the street and tell her!”
It’s so easy, but Ed has a question. “You think I should tell her?”
“Certainly, tomorrow morning.”
Ed’s head falls forward, his eyes pop and his jaw drops in amazement. Once I thought that was gay body language, but then I learned it’s Japanese.
“Do you know how sick I am?” He’s thinking, Why should all of civilization rise to protect that stupid baby?
In self-defense I think, You are well enough to cook dinner, to paint, to dig in your garden. “You could do it—it’s your responsibility—as a neighbor. Ed, you still go out all the time.” I blanch at the word still.
Ed’s really angry. I’m a whirlwind in his head. The baby I can’t save will not grant me permission to save some other life. His face is rigid and his mouth works on its own. “I am not responsible for that baby. Don’t I have enough to worry about? I don’t know that baby. I don’t know those people. I am trying to stay alive!”
I grin in desolation. Ed is slightly revolting—I remember the absorbing spectacle of that jaw working against me, a perpetual motion of amazing insult, the smashed furniture, the wonder I felt when his fury jumped a quantum level, beyond caring, heedless. His thin body or anything could be thrown onto the blaze. I know when I’m licked. Giving up is hard work. The other baby must live or die without us. The buggy plummets and I lack the willpower to alter its course. I picture Ed by his window, the witness of this drama which inspires no call to action.
Like most of the world, I watch TV to be somewhere else without exerting myself. Exertion is the only way to go somewhere else, so dissatisfaction builds up. It’s hard not to be bitter overall, as though I’d actually seen all those daytime talk shows. The entire message of TV is that life is not fair, more daydream than nightdream, yet the victim has his faults.
Not so with Ed—when we were together we watched TV with joy. In the early seventies, a cousin took pity on us and bought us a little black-and-white Zenith. We watched it through the night in Ed’s studio. Ed painted and I kept him company. I am describing hours of perfect contentment. We liked Fred Astaire and musicals in general, but horror movies were even more histrionic. Ed and I felt delectation for these images of mayhem.
In Ed’s bedroom, light is a translucent rectangle even though it’s almost nine. The white glass arrests dappled shadows. Ed lies under the heavy indigo blanket, wasting; I lie on top, succulent. I’m happy to be lying down and I feel perfectly relaxed on Daniel’s side of the bed. The disease leads some of us into a deeper engagement with the world. Denny became a science writer for AIDS Treatment News, and Loring joined Gran Fury. (At Bo Houston’s funeral, his mother says, “Thank you so much,” as though I’d done anything, and before I can stop myself, I say, “Thank you,” as though she’d done anything.) An epidemic is like a mystery with heroes and villains, but I drift from my bedroom to Ed’s bedroom, where light falls through frosted glass in a certain way. Above us the screen doles out images we love: the pre-WWII unknown lurches basso profundo through shadows and dry ice; the supersized zoo of spiders, locusts, snakes, ants, and lizards climbs out of the squashed air of the 50’s desert. Ed and I love bad horror films for the lyricism of their failed effects. We must be among the few to have twice seen Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, a film that couldn’t afford a visible monster or even gore. Branches twitch on the jungle trail, the mike slides into view, the victim screams from off-screen. Its very artificiality makes Curucu a convincing exploration of the afterlife, like a church service.
Tonight we watch a Mario Bava film in which moist decomposition replaces the genre’s earlier effects, as though a horror of decay is more germane to the present. It’s weird to be watching corpses rock back and forth in their own putrescence while lying next to Ed. The monster shows the world what she is: she throws open her robe with a triumphant expression to reveal a red chest cavity packed with roiling white maggots. Because of this image, I don’t look Ed in the eye, as though I’d accidentally seen something too personal. What does he make of the skeletons with rags of flesh? I am the only one who can ask him this question so I do. He rolls his head on the pillow and reminds me in a mild voice that he will be cremated, and that decay is not the same as death. He says, “My death is an emptiness that I can’t fill.” I am relieved, but why? We both know Ed will soon be reduced to ash. He’s dying in stop action like a good make-up job: the chaotic expression, the skeletal jeer, the pumpkin head wobbling with bon vivance on the broomstick neck, the pinched nose, the eyebrows pulled back, the eyes starved and hurt.
The monsters rise up while Ed and I sink into the pillows. But horror movies are actually comedies because death is reversible. Or it’s a consummation: the one taken by the monster experiences the full extent of his death. In his last scream, the victim faces the monster and dredges horror to the limit. Like a sexual consummation, he groans from the deepest place where his body (the world) begins.