I thought Renee was trying to drive me crazy with her quotation marks. Sometimes she didn’t use them. Okay, William Gaddis didn’t either. But sometimes they were in the same story that they were not. And sometimes there was a “ but no.” And sometimes, springing up unexpected, like a toadstool on a sidewalk, was a ” when there was no, “ unless you counted the last unanswered “ several pages before, but that could not be because she had several paired “s's” between.
I took this personally. I had bitched to Renee about quotation marks the first time she handed me her collection, The Poet of Transparency. This was the third or fourth time. I finished it the first but not the others. That time they had been “stories.” Then “feuilletons.” Now they were “a unit.” Some were the same. Some different. Some differently ordered. The title had changed and changed. Renee’s dog’s picture was on the cover now.
This time, Renee had decided “with” could be “w.” Except when it wasn’t. All other words were what you expected, so why “with”? But compared to the quotation marks, it was a small problem to put up w.
Rants transposed to art
I had met Renee in the hot tub, when she was reading Letters to Milena. She self-published her writing and gave it to members of the health club. Most responded like she was handing them, well, toadstool. This was her third collection. The world beyond the club had responded with one review (“[T]ransposes...rants into art”— Jewish Daily Forward). I thought her writing was brilliant.
“Do you really like them?” Renee would say. “Do you really like them?” She would leave the same question on my answering machine. “I forgot what you said, Robert. Could you write down why you like them?”
Renee is an 84-year-old grandmother from a New York City family of leftist butchers and furriers. She has been married to and divorced from a failed stand-up comedian who became a therapist and an anarchist who owned Berkeley’s finest used book store. One of her three daughters is psychologically impaired and lives with Renee. This daughter’s great pleasure is the health club’s pool, and Renee spends much of each day circling the pool while her daughter, buoyed by a flotation vest, bobs in the deep end. Renee wears baggy sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt and drapes a towel over her head. Behind thick glasses, her eyes peer, soft and sad.
They remember Roosevelt
As I was saying, “brilliant.”
Usually the stories concern a woman. Sometimes two. These times it becomes difficult to impossible to tell them apart. (Renee’s idiosyncratic use of quotation marks deepens this confusion.) There are constants: Failed marriages. Disappointing children. Financial woes. Once the women had a professor who praised their paper on Wordsworth.
They remember Roosevelt. They eat bee pollen and rub cocoa butter on their stomachs. They pee in their pants and expose their clitorises to the sun. They get haircuts at Yosh and glazed pots at Zen Aesthetics. They wear Bolivian straw hats, Tibetan beads, Tantric bracelets. They live in Berkeley. They name their children Solidarity and Forever and give them acid at 12 so they are not “strung out by school.” They live in “an endless old woman’s bedroom piled high with broken toilet seats and blind cupie dolls.” They have “too much anguish, careers, friends, husbands, divorce, children the tragedy of children.” Their mothers told them they could not be the tap-dancing girls with Shirley Temple curls or the stick-twirling girls leading the parade. That was “for the goyim.” Jewish girls could only “give blow jobs...[so] on your wedding night you’ll at least be a virgin.”
They are “too old for shy and...too old for maybe.” “Fuck you, world,” one says:
and all your fucking lies and murderers and your nihilism and your narcissism and fuck your cruelty and the grief only women understand because after all, they’re the ones w the blood gushing out of them, and the babies w the blood also, and as for men, as far as they’re concerned, let’s face it, what’s a man after his hard-on wears off, after his brown-nosing and low-class hustle proves less than ordinary “speak truth to power” bullshit-whistle blowers screamed, but did they ever even have one lousy baby and was the red blood gushing out of them?
The push-pull of associations
Renee’s creations lack what we usually expect of prose, or poetry, or even the customary avant-garde. Elements pull our associations toward each steadying label, but before we attach it other elements bounce us away like rubber balls. The mix of specificity and ambiguity, beauty and vulgarity, spontaneity and deliberateness, the varied pace of rush and trudge make them something their own. An acupuncturist, Renee writes, “treats all the big names like Uki Tuki, Smilin’ Jack, Franz Kafka.” The mind that links High and Low and Nonsense is unique.
I think of a jazz soloist, with Renee’s page the axe she swings. She opens with a standard’s bars of (meeting for coffee, staircases), then veers into tones and rhythms, exploring the unknown. Word follows word, like note follows note, determined by the words that came before and the inner tumult that produced them, and these words and tumult influence the future ones. They are linked by the drive for personalized difference, while grounded by familiar riffs (blood, tears) repeated and snatches of old tunes (Fireside Chats, Richard Nixon), like Thad Jones quoting “Pop Goes the Weasel” during “April in Paris.” You take away shards of energy, shards of emotion, sounds never before heard, thoughts never experienced, delivered by a questing vision, passionate, committed, uncompromised, persistent, defiant, in the teeth of health-club disdain and a prize no greater than the Forward’s words.
Recently, I asked Renee why she wrote. Oh, she said, once she wanted to show how smart she was, how special, how sensitive. “Now I know I’m just a jerk with all the other jerks, marching in a jerk parade.”