Taking Tea with Gordon Lish

Ready? I take my tea bag (or you take your teaspoon), one bag or one spoon for each five ounces of water, which is cold when I start and boiling up a rumpus before I pour, which I do, into a teapot that’s already hot, which condition of temperature is crucial.

 

So I pour furiously boiling water into good and hot teapot over bags or over loose tea or over bags or over tea bomb, slam top down, wrap entire business in dish towel, which is what I saw my mother do during the blizzard of ’46 and it made a tremendous impression on me, she being my mother and all. I understand some people are willing to buy a tea cosy—but, so far as I’m concerned, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

 

Anyhow, it sits for five minutes—you know, it steeps. If the waiting makes you edgy, go fold some paper bags. The next step is the last step, which is to hurry up and divide the product from its makings. Well, truth to tell, there is one more step—but that’s drinking it, drinking tea—which is a step I’m going to get around to, all in good time. When coffee scoots up over a sawbuck a can.

From Gordon Lish’s 1977 piece in The New York Times, “A Teaser on Tea, with a Footnote on Bags.” By way of context for that last line: the price of coffee soared in 1977 after a harsh freeze killed Brazilian crops. High coffee prices led to a coffee boycott. And tea drinking.

Because It’s So Damn Cold, Donald Barthelme’s Recipes for Fine Homemade Oxtail Soup and Fine Homemade Leek Soup

In his introduction to The Teachings of Don B, Thomas Pynchon praises Donald Barthelme’s soups:

Those recipes. That oxtail soup mix. That “burgoo,” with the frozen ducks in it? A notable moment in chef psychopathology, to be sure — yet such is Barthelme’s genius that even the most porkophobic or duck-intolerant among us is drooling, unashamed, by recipe’s end.

I don’t own The Teachings of Don B, but Pynchon’s description (which I found while looking for something entirely different) piqued my interest (first and foremost: was the recipe even a real thing?). Anyway: Via Maude Newton, via Overnight to Many Distant Cities, and then an additional Google search to The Purest of Treats:

FINE HOMEMADE OXTAIL SOUP

Take Knorr Oxtail Soupmix, decant into same any leftover meat (sliced or diced) from the old refrigerator. Follow above strategies to the letter. The result will make you happy. Knorr’s Oxtail is also good as a basic gravy maker and constituent of a fine fake cassoulet about which we can talk at another time. Knorr is a very good Swiss outfit whose products can be found in both major and minor cities. The point here is not to be afraid of the potential soup but to approach it with the attitude that you know what’s best for it. And you do. The rawness of the vegetables refreshes the civilization of the Soupmixes. And there are opportunities for mercy–if your ox does not wish to part with his tail, for example, to dress up your fine Oxtail Soup, you can use commercial products from our great American supermarkets, which will be almost as good.

And if you’re into Lenten observation:

FINE HOMEMADE LEEK SOUP

Take one package Knorr Leek Soupmix. Prepare as directed. Take two live leeks. Chop leeks into quarter-inch rounds. Throw into Soupmix. Throw in ½ cup Tribuno Dry Vermouth. Throw in chopped parsley. Throw in some amount of salt and a heavy bit of freshly ground pepper. Eat with good-quality French bread, dipped repeatedly in soup.

(See also: Gordon Lish’s recipe for chicken soup).

“Go read Jacques Derrida or the like, something to break your brain on” | Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup Recipe

Get lost for two hours. Go read Jacques Derrida or the like, something to break your brain on and convince you that mind is nothing in the comfort department compared to the things of the spirit, which is what is going on in back in the kitchen. And down’t worry about setting a timer. The fevers sailing the ethers will call you back the instant you’re wanted.

From “Not Just Any Soup,” Gordon Lish’s recipe for chicken noodle soup, published in The New York Times in 1977.

Before you can get lost in Derrida (or the like) for a few hours, you’ve got to fill an 11″ by 5″ pot with three inches of water and inch of beer. Set the heat to low and add “scrubbed carrots…chopped chive, slivered celery, sliced onion, minced garlic, ground dill, paprika, Dijon mustard, pepper, salt, a dash of cinnamon.”

How much of each? Lish is unwilling to list amounts: “Amounts is for the insurance business…The heart with good posture doesn’t stoop to check amounts.”

Add the chicken (sans fat and skin), cover, lower to a simmer, and get lost for two hours.

After you’ve read Derrida (or the like) for two hours, add the noodles — “the slenderest money can buy” — and take another hour off. To kill the time, Lish prescribes Jack Gilberts’ Views of Jeopardy — “the last poems the English language needed”).

Once that hour’s passed, stir the mixture again, thoroughly: “Lid off, the eucharist rolled over in his languid waters so that the bottom shall be the top.” Put the lid back on and wait for eight hours. Lish advises using the time to think.

Huge thanks to David Winters for sharing the recipe with me; David found the piece as part of a great big important research thing he’s doing on Lish (he also interviewed Lish for the project, so we’ll have that to look forward to—but it’s not going to be in his new book, Infinite Fictions, new from Zero this January).

“Nothing but Trouble” | Gordon Lish’s New Collection Goings Plays with the Problems of Language

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Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?

Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.

In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:

Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.

In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:

I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”

Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.

At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.

“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):

Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?

I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.

Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?

“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.

Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”).  There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.

This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.

Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.

But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:

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Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.

Riff on Not Writing

1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.

3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).

4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.

5. (And so I’ve done this before).

6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed  up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.

7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).

8. These books are:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

Middle C by William H. Gass

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish

Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark

The majority of Donald Barthelme.

9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).

10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.

Continue reading

Some books I wish I’d written about this week (or last week, or the week before)

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Gordon Lish’s Goings In Thirteen Sittings (Book Acquired, 1.13.2014)

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So I read five of the thirteen stories in Gordon Lish’s forthcoming collection Goings In Thirteen Sittings (OR Books) the afternoon it arrived. Each story, told by a narrator named “Gordon,” I could not help but here in Lish’s precise but gruff voice. Great stuff. Full review forthcoming.

Bonus:

Today, Electric Literature is running Lish’s story “In the District, Into the Bargain.” First paragraph:

Here’s a bit for you. It’s an impressive one too. My bet is you are going to be really refreshingly impressed with it, or by it, which I have to tell you is what I myself was when the woman involved in the event disclosed her heart to me. First, as to setting—temporal, spatial, all that. So, fine, so the thing starts maybe all of an hour ago just a block from where I am sitting right this minute typing this up for you to read it and get out of it the same kick I did. She types too—the woman. She is always typing, is my understanding—or was, back when I used to see her somewhat, let us just fancy, social-wise. As a matter of fact, when I said to her, “What’s up? I mean what are you doing here in this neighborhood? Do you have a pass, were you issued a pass, a license maybe, any kind of a permit you can show me authorizing you to come up here into this restricted district of mine?” she laughed. I think she thought I was trying to be funny. Let me tell you something—that’s the one thing I never try to be—namely, funny. No, no, I was just doing what I could to maybe get away with having to snoggle for the usual sort of talk, lay on her a smart-aleck greeting of a sort, which apposition I only went to the bother of just now constructing so I could say sort and sorts, repeating and repeating stuff to stuff the insidious silence with insidious sound, however otiose or bootless or inutile dexterity appears (to be?) on the surface. You get what I’m getting at?—the stressing of the effect of there being something sly down beneath down under things as regards below the surface, see? But which surface, eh wot? Or, anyway, surface of exactly what, eh wot? (You see? Can’t help myself. It’s like this thing I’ve got which is like an irresistibly compulsive thing.) Oh, boy, I am all of a sudden so tired. I, Gordon, son of Reggie, am all of a sudden so suddenly utterly all in, just fucking pooped. Like, you know, like weary, wearied, ausgespielt if you’re German, right? Nap. But, hey, before I fall and hit my head, I’m just going to go ahead and take myself a little teensy tiny nap, fair enough? Be back in a shake, I promise.