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Russell Edson: A Farewell

As many of us are just learning, Russell Edson died a little over a week ago. His influence was enormous: he taught several generations of aspiring writers that poetry could be something other than what they had imagined it to be. Poetry could be brutal, and strange, and funny—and it had a right (to borrow George Santayana’s language in “The Comic Mask”) “to enact a pose, to assume a panache, and to create what prodigious allegories it [would] for the mere sport and glory of it.” Edson’s poems were rich in sport and glory. And they were singular. Despite his many imitators, it’s difficult to imagine coming across an Edson poem and mistaking it for anything other than an Edson poem.

And what a thing to be! An Edson poem! A block of prose in which shadows fall into epileptic fits and corpses are dragged to French restaurants. In which old men eat spoons (and then themselves). In which husbands and wives, guarding themselves against the “hurt of the young,” stockpile guns, and lay traps, “and put bags of acid in the trees.” In which apes are seduced and then knocked out with frying pans, only to be cooked and served up to cuckolded husbands who then eat the evidence of their wives’ infidelity. (Bowing before Edson, I subtitled one of my early-aughts lit classes “Sick of Ape Every Night.”)

Edson favored straight narration over metaphorical asides—but, when a metaphor would appear in one of his poems, it often took over, like a virus. Here’s “The Fall,” in full:

There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.

Look, it is spring—and we’ve lost one of our giants. Edson called the prose poem a “cast-iron aeroplane that can actually fly,” and it was that attention to comic paradox that made him so formidable. His range was narrow; his aeroplanes flew high.