Review by Lesley Moon
I can look at a clock and only see the time; maybe I do not even see that, but only notice the shapes on the dial; or I see nothing. On the other hand, I may be seeing clocks potentially, and then I allow myself to hallucinate a clock, doing so because I have evidence that an actual clock is there to be seen, so when I perceive the actual clock I have already been through a complex process that originated in me. So when I see the clock I create it, and when I see the time I create time too…
–Donald Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From
My 1980s contains 39 essays in its 315 pages. I found the book on my dining room table sometime last autumn. It wasn’t intended for me, but Warhol’s Polaroid of Debbie Harry’s over-the-shoulder blue eyes called from the cover. I took it and have been reading it since then, having finished two weeks ago. After jamming through the varied and brilliant table of contents, I cracked its pages somewhere in the middle to read “Warhol’s Interviews.” Concerning Warhol and others, Wayne Koestenbaum praises many modes of diectic disfigurement—masks, hirsute disguises (and men, elaborated in his essay on Cary Grant), under-doing it, grids, thick paint, abstraction and other dynamics of resistance that can morph depending on their context. At the same time, he writes from a deliberate first-person position (positioned-to first person).
Koestenbaum recounts his inner experience with tenacious specificity, recording far more than most can hope to have the attention to realize. Miraculously there is a pleasant drift to his reflective ambulation: no pressure. Everyone is granted volition. His analysis comprehends the language of the body—registering gestures and gaits with absorptive rhythm. It is easy to see his connection to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, to whom he dedicates the essay, “A Manual Approach to Mourning.” As readers we are constantly buoyed by self-deprecation, opera, porn and poetry, much pleasure. Tedium is oblated by an advocacy for affinity, and his chatty sensibility. Somehow Koestenbaum’s convincing declarativeness still has me relaxed.
In the title essay, “My 1980s,” Koestenbaum recalls a “sustaining, mood-brightening” crush he had in the summer of 1989 on a handsome UPS man. He imagines how perhaps thousands of men and women in New Haven must have also had crushes on him at the same time. He closes the brief paragraph: “If you ask me to describe him, I will.” The words fade through my eyes. The withheld description of the UPS man is like Koestenbaum’s writing: a note given, folded, waiting to be opened, maybe never to be opened—but it is in a pocket, in many pockets, being thought upon, fingered and re-folded. The center of this writing is between the author and the end of his pen and my imagination. What does it mean to have a crush on the man who delivers your packages? On the preceding page he asks, “Does any of this information matter? I am not responsible for what matters and what doesn’t matter.” I think of Virginia Woolf’s 1921 essay, “A Mark on the Wall”, a maximally long meander around a mystery object that is never really described at all. In 1921 Man Ray photographed Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy.
#. Like I said earlier – when I first picked up the book I carefully and excitedly combed the contents. I saw that there was an essay called “The Pump: Towards a Theory of Stupefaction and Shininess.” This was the first thing I thought of:
Immediately following a weight training exercise the muscle may seem full and tight for 15 to 30 minutes, or ‘pumped’. The muscular ‘pump’ is caused by trapped plasma within the muscle. During muscular contraction the contractile elements exert a force inward upon themselves; the muscle diameter increases as it shortens. During intense muscular contraction, this force inward momentarily occludes the vasculature, backing up blood flow through that particular muscle group. A compensatory increase of blood pressure forces plasma from the congested capillaries into the interstitial spaces of the muscle cells.
–ExRx.net “Pump and Burn”
But this was an essay about the opera singer Anna Moffo’s Salvatore Ferragamo shoes going up for auction, and their scuff marks. Still, I couldn’t help but get tangled up in my preoccupation with getting pumped, this pump, the frequency of the word ‘pump’ within chats and sexts, how many of those chats are referring to footwear or fucking in the weight room—smithed on the Smith machine? Getting your preacher curled? Did stupefaction and shininess have anything to do with “the pump”? I hoped so.
“The pump was on its way to oblivion but someone pressed the pause button and arrested the pump in a position between use and uselessness.”
Virtually as soon as I began reading My 1980s my mind began to echo and parrot Koestenbaum’s authorial voice. I can’t say I enjoyed this at first, but like a heavy riptide swallowing a weary swimmer, I was easily consumed. I tried to fight it by parallel-reading Harry Crews and others, but nothing else stuck and before I knew it I was entertaining fantasies of cruising in Berlin cemeteries. (Like Koestenbaum I too can’t explain Berlin to my mom—for many different reasons.)
An idle moment on the street-corner waiting for my bus became a minor reverie-monologue concerning the boots of the man to my right: their soles recalled the first lug-soled boots I had. They were a ‘90s riff on Palladiums. I wore them in tenth grade. Tentatively, then proudly. Also the extra inches they gave me, the way they squeaked when I walked on the big Spanish tiles at school and the way they felt on my ass when I sat on my knees in my uniform. I wondered if the man next to me ever had his feet tucked under him in those boots.
Koestenbaum’s voice in my soft parrot daytime head was a diaristic one with flounces of as much literariness as I could advance across the stage of my imagination, like silky schmattas flying through an experimental theater set. I remembered the sound of his voice from the Warhol documentary so well. On the street, I deeply lamented never having listened to Anna Moffo like Koestenbaum. (Sheiß!) Visions of sugarplums, rhetorical poisons, hopes and vested life circulated through me. I had been re-convinced of Barthes’ genius, and the genius of nuance: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other.” Oh yeah. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Softly.
My dentist showed me how to brush my teeth again—and I really did change the way I brush. The brush angled down at my gumline (she called it “the gingiva!”), not too much pressure, small circles. I thought about my mouth, about the things that go in my mouth, the things that come out of my mouth, and the things that go in and out of my mouth. This hole in the face of unformed language had the pleasure of receiving these thoughts as I stood with my bare feet on a cold bathroom floor, rubbing this thing against my gums, inexorably refreshed.
Wayne Koestenbaum, My 1980s and Other Essays, (Macmillan, 2013)
Images: Cover of My 1980s and Other Essays