Fifteenth-Century Cher: A Conversation with Robert Glück on “Margery Kempe”




AT THE TURN of the 15th century, Margery Kempe, an English Christian mystic, wrote one of the first known autobiographies in English. She dictated it to a scribe and then a local priest. Much later, the book was found in the library of a wealthy English family, just recopied and with a recipe for medicinal candy added to the margins. Kempe’s book is high drama. After the first of her 14 children was born, she saw a parade of devils and demons for almost eight months. They smelled terrible, even in dreams, and they wanted Kempe to forsake everything and kill herself. She refused, and eventually she heard a secret song that banished that evil for good.

With the power of this song, and the visions of Christ that came along with it, Kempe started communicating sexually and telepathically with him, weeping and writhing in public, and wearing all white (which horrified people, since she wasn’t actually a nun). The available descriptions of Kempe and her visions, which are the bulk of her autobiography, are not unlike the reviews of Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass. Both women were on a mission, with passion and looks. They freaked other people out hard.

Shortly before 1994, Robert Glück, an American writer from Cleveland and San Francisco, fell for a man named L. As a way to explain this love affair, which was also an obsession no less passionate or sexual than Kempe’s obsession with Jesus (meaning it was very passionate, very sexual), Glück wrote a novel about his love and L.’s, mirrored and braided with Kempe’s and Christ’s. In this book, sometimes Glück is Margery, sometimes listening to her. Sometimes L. is himself, and often he is Jesus. Both narratives shine clearly, and inform each other through anxieties about love, money, and disease. “Is my love amazing because it exists?” Glück writes, asking a question so much more revealing than “Is this really happening?” 

From another writer, Margery Kempe could be a work of appropriation and entrapment, but from Glück it is a work that clarifies faith through abjection, obsession through desire, and romance through love. It believes in wonder, and a gender-fluid Christ. It is also composed of sentences perfect as crystals, especially for readers interested in the body and how we feel. (Some of my favorite death metal sentences in the world are here too, for example when Margery looks out of her own grave: “She raised her head — a skull that was already empty. He looked at the sockets hopefully. They heard a two-syllabled call followed by the muffled purr of rapidly beating wings.” Here, Glück’s “they” is what freaks me out. Does he mean Jesus, and Margery elsewhere, but listening to her own skull? Did Jesus’s pronouns change? Both could work, and neither changes the novel fireworking forward.)

In March 2020, right when quarantine started in many parts of the United States, New York Review Books reissued Glück’s Margery Kempe, which was initially published by High Risk Books. Its inside cover trumpets marigold, and Colm Tóibín wrote the introduction. I had the pleasure of emailing with Bob about everything.

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MAIREAD CASE: At POETRY, Megan Milks quotes Bruce Boone on what the New Narrative formula is: “Just do our lives, autobiographical — and throw in a lot of theory that shows we’re smart, so all the straight guys that command this respect will say, ‘Whoa. That’s kind of interesting!’” Obviously, you have talked about this formula a lot! So, how would you describe the theory of Margery? And the “just do your life” part of Margery?

ROBERT GLÜCK: What a complex question — let’s make it more complex. My idea of autobiography was, to quote myself:

By autobiography, we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture; the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies, and distortions of the self; the enjambments of power, family, history, and language.

To further turn autobiography into New Narrative (NN), let’s add performance to the mix, since we were trying to make the irreversible happen on the page, and inviting the complicity of the reader/audience as spectator.

As for the Language Poets, you can’t overestimate their effect on Bay Area writing in the ’70s and ’80s. Our essays were published mostly in their excellent journals, for example. I suppose we wanted both to please and annoy them.

I mean this respectfully, and as someone who has spent a lot of time reading and thinking about your work: does it seem lazy or tedious when someone asks you to define NN, again? Is this like when Sean Evans asked Paul Rudd if he even really remembers how he got started anymore, now that he’s been asked that question one million times?

I think Paul Rudd has been asked that question 9,999,995 times more often than I! Still, I wrote “Long Note on New Narrative” to say it once and for all — but there’s always something to add. The NN group has been surprisingly consistent given the changing fortunes of NN itself. We have enlarged our projects without changing the basics much. For example, I’m writing a long poem called I Boombox — an autobiography, about 100 pages now. It’s a list of my misreadings, my version of the modernist long poem, interrupted only by the author’s death. You could say I’m dreaming on the page, so it’s a picture of my subconscious: sex, politics, art, sex, politics, art, with grueling puns. I joke that I discovered a new genre: not creative nonfiction, but creative nonpoetry.

I did read Margery’s book many times, and the sentence in my book is a collaboration with her. [Colonel W.] Butler-Bowdon discovered her text in a country-house library in the 1930s and published it in 1940. He called her “poor Margery” in his preface, because he was disappointed by her vulgarity and the faults in her piety — the exact things that draw me to her.

Most of my story and emotional heat is given to Margery. Bob and L. are a frame, so you are invited to read through. That’s how I was able to tell my story. If I could have written more about Bob and L., I wouldn’t have needed Margery’s story, with its supernatural desire. I wanted her story to express my disastrous love for L., but also I wanted to leave her story alone. I hope it’s evident when I am telling her version and when I am projecting myself into it.

Say it’s drag, and she’s the 15th-century Cher. That is, projecting myself into Margery’s story is part of the story. At first I was tempted to keep it pure — Flaubert’s “Julian the Hospitaller” was a model. It would have made an easier book to write and read. But finally, I decided to include this dynamic and make an impure book.

“Pure” meaning Margery’s story alone, right? Layered “only” with your research on food, birds, clothing, and landscapes?

Yes. And the energy of my love affair, without naming it.

You were holding workshops in your house while also writing Margery, right? How did that work, physically and emotionally? Do you consider yourself an extrovert?

I ran a workshop at my house attended mostly by longtime members of my Small Press Traffic workshops, at their request. I am no more an extrovert than anyone else who needs to earn a living. The workshops were formal — I read and discussed some writing that interested me and then we considered the work of the participants, many of them lifelong friends. Occasionally I gave writing prompts to those who wanted them. They tended to be impossible tasks, like write a novel in four pages, describe a film you never saw, describe eating an apple, or tell me what the truth is, no irony allowed (based on our reading the Gnostics). Leading a workshop is an act of love in the form of attention. That’s the ideal. I don’t really like to give public readings for the same reason — I don’t like to be distracted (from what? — my solitude?) by pleasing or displeasing. It takes me a few days to recover my equilibrium. Does that describe an extrovert?

I remember talking with you at Naropa about how people paint drops of blood. As I reread Margery, I kept thinking of that conversation because it reminded me one big reason why I personally keep coming back to this book: the wonder and confusion in it, and how that wonder and confusion shimmer when a person also takes them into their body (through sex, through care, through perspective [“I’ve never encountered nakedness that was not also an invitation”]). I think this is a technique, and a communication that freaks people out for a number of reasons, maybe especially when they don’t realize it starts in wonder: looking at that drop of blood. 

Anyway, I really love the moments when you/r characters shift from admiring something at a distance (a drop of blood, a body part) to merging with it (bleeding, fucking). But do you think about it that way?

I love that you remember our conversation about the German and Flemish artists painting drops of blood that are almost three-dimensional — Grünewald, for example. My love of these paintings, and the late middle ages generally, was a starting point for Margery. You could include the medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, who describe blood and suffering in a hyper-real fashion. And thank you for your observation about wonder. Yes, we assume a book should lead to understanding and resolution, but what if a book leads to uncertainty and wonder?

Instead of solutions, it’s fine to give expression to problems, to chaos, disorder, bewilderment. The book I’m just finishing, About Ed, is an AIDS memoir that ends with 50 pages of Ed’s dreams. In the Commedia, the afterlife is a fixed image, a final place, as most art strives to be. In About Ed, heaven is endless narration, image replacing image.

I did very little research for Margery. I made sure that the clothes were right, the food was right, and the birds were in the right place in the right season. I looked at books of hours, and I borrowed descriptions of premodern landscapes from Goethe’s Italian Journey and Wordsworth’s poems. You know, he was like a photo-realist — the Hudson River School painters, too. They planted themselves in front of “romantic” landscapes, but their depictions were exact, with fantastic detail.

In EOAGH, you said, “I wanted to make a book that could not be closed, that couldn’t be a unit.” That said, how did you know to end Margery, or to stop writing it?

A book project does not compel me till it seems beyond my ability to accomplish. I need to become a different person in order to write it. You could say finishing a book is the same as finishing that version of myself. I’m back to zero. It took a few years before I knew how to write a different sentence from the one in Margery. I did give the manuscript to my friends and I took their advice. Bruce Boone said, make it 10 percent shorter. What hard advice! He was saying I had made it too ornate, and I had. I worked on it till I was haunting the sentences. For the NYRB edition, I had the opportunity to go back into the book and change things, but there was nothing to do, it was still finished. I made only one change.

Do you want to say what it was?

I wonder if this will interest your readers, but sure. Writing Margery, I pillaged anything L. sent me during our romance — I imagined it was mine to use. He sent a postcard of an old sepulcher and copied out a passage on the back, and I used a sentence from that quotation when I described Margery’s tears. Ten years later, browsing in my library, I discovered that he’d quoted Denton Welch. I’ve done tons of appropriation, but this did not seem right. I didn’t want to change my description, so I added the postcard with the Welch quote later in the book. Now a reader can see how I used it. In general, if there’s a problem, I’d rather bring it into the book, rather than resolve it.

Do you think it’s important or essential to write about sex? Or love? Not trying to be clunky or patronizing here; in rereading reviews, etc., of Margery it seems like a lot of people try to answer this question for you. So, I wanted to ask you!

I don’t know. My novels tell a story of disintegration. Maybe that is what comes first, and then I use the materials at hand, body, sex, love. The body is crisscrossed by story, yet sensation is hard to put into words, and that has always interested me, as though I were an explorer drawing a map in darkness lit by flashes of lightning that are sensations. As you know, I asked 20 male and 20 female friends to give me observations about their relation to their body, and I used them to light up these shadowy 15th-century characters, so they have long shots but also extreme close-ups.

I just published a chapbook with Camille Roy. Her part is called Reading my Catastrophe, about the death of her partner, and my part is called Pain, about a weird illness that almost killed me a few summers ago. A bacterium was eating my spine. New Narrative meets death and disease.

I read it last night. It’s beautifully done, and prismatically terrifying, too. Was it originally … an email you wrote to folks?

Thanks! Yes, Pain started out as an email “newsletter.” At a certain point in my recovery, I was urgent to reconnect, to let folks know what happened to me. Much rewriting went into the final version. Sickness makes us narcissists — first my story did not go further than the borders of my body. Each revision enlarged its scope.

NYRB editions feel so special — the introduction, the saturated color inside the cover, the art on the front. How did this Margery come to be?

It came out of the blue. The mother of the editor, Edwin Frank, was a medievalist. Edwin gave her my book years ago, the High Risk edition, and he came across it when moving her books. He volunteered that his mother didn’t much like it, though thankfully other medievalists do. At any rate, looking at it again, he decided to take it on. I can’t say NYRB Classics without anxious laughter — it’s so posthumous. I am grateful to Colm Tóibín for his beautiful intro. He once told me he liked the book, so I dared to ask.

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Mairead Case (maireadcase.com) is a teacher, writer, editor, and legal observer. Tinyis a novel and a translation of Antigone, forthcoming from featherproobooks on 10/20/20.

 

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