Russell Edson, who died this week, wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t heard of him. A self-described hermit, he was content to hoe his row outside the public eye and prevailing literary taste, ‘just happy to be writing’, as he told Mark Tursi in 2004. Best known as a prose poet, Edson also wrote plays and novels, and often illustrated his own work.

But he came to my attention, in the early 1990s, via a cassette tape: a friend’s copy of A Performance at Hog Theatre, a recording of a 1979 public reading in Amherst, MA. In his precise, wry baritone, Edson recites a few dozen poems to a small, attentive audience, playing against the crowd’s uncertainty: is this poem funny? Or is it serious? Should we laugh? (They should, and do.)

He laughs, too – it’s impossible not to join him when he cracks up uttering the phrase ‘waist deep in blood’ in his poem ‘The Howling’ – and occasionally takes breaks to smoke or drink water, or comment on the poems. His voice, with its precise New England R’s and woodwindy vowels, is incredibly rich and arch and funny; he’s got the timing of a great comic actor. Indeed, I think of this tape (I’ve got my own copy now) as one of the greatest comedy albums ever, as infectious and distinctive as the Steve Martin, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor records I spent my adolescence memorising and mimicking.

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Edson’s work is about mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, houses and theatres and furniture. He wrote about apes, pigs, cows and other animals. He wote about sex – as blunt, clumsy, ridiculous and faintly embarrassing. He wrote about eating, and never let you forget that what you eat, when you eat meat, is body parts, which he seemed to regard as darkly hilarious. He wrote about writing, as in this bit of sage advice from ‘Toward the Writing’: ‘If you wish to write something of value you will get yourself a mouse that has died of some dreadful disease.’ In ‘A Man Who Writes’, he wrote about eating and writing both:

Mother said, I’m leaving if all these people come to dinner.
But the man wrote dinner all over the dinner.
When dinner was over father said to his son, will you write belch on my belch?
The man said, I will write God bless everyone on God.

The leap from broad humour to religious mystery is typical of Edson; he regarded creativity as a kind of dream state, intuitive and impervious to analysis. From Mark Tursi’s interview:

In gross terms the two basic forms of creative writing are fiction and poetry. Language is consciousness, and this is where fiction is made. Poetry springs from the dream mind, the unconscious. Poetry is never comfortable in language because the unconscious doesn’t know how to speak. All writing is storytelling. Fiction describes reality with words, poetry with images. I would guess in the history of literature fiction came first and taught poetry how to speak. The process I’m talking about, I call dreaming awake. Being fully conscious while still dreaming on the page.

On the subject of his detachment from the wider academic and literary community, Edson says: ‘I've never thought of myself as marginal or mainstream... Of course the literary community is very much a social club, and I'm really too distracted for organised fun.’

Edson’s work is about disorganised fun, the kind that values chance and absurdity and sudden, unexpected revisions to the rules that govern physical reality and narrative sense. He was a master of the carefully chosen white space, and he loved the ellipsis – there’s as much going on in his pauses as in his words. He delighted in contradiction (‘He thought, I have no thoughts’) and recursive logic (‘then another old woman visited the first old woman, and spoke of another old woman, who had spoken of still another old woman’).

If I had to choose a favorite moment in Edson, it’s a little bit of misdirection in ‘The Neighbourhood Dog’, a poem in which a dog climbs the wall of a house in an attempt to reach a window, alarming the woman inside, who sits beside a cedar box where she keeps a hatchet: ‘She might want to chop at something; it is, after all, getting close to chopping time.’ Through repetition of static detail, offered from several points of view, Edson generates intense suspense, which he punctures with a surreal punch line: when the woman at last ‘goes to the hatchet in its box’, he writes,

it’s gone bad. It’s soft and nasty. It smells dead. She wants to get it out of its box (that same cedar box where she keeps it). But it bends and runs through her fingers.

It’s reasonable that poets should regard Edson as one of their own, but few fiction writers have internalised and subverted narrative form as deftly and hilariously as he did in the strange baubles that made up his body of work. From Edson I learned that there’s no idea too obscure, silly, or disgusting to fashion into a piece of writing, that the most satisfying writing can come from pleasing oneself, from inviting the reader to join you in your strange little cul-de-sac.

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