Rachel Eisendrath. Gallery of Clouds. New York: New York Review Books, 2021. 160 pp. ISBN: 9781681375434. $19.95 hardback.
By now, it is almost a cliche of the avant-garde: take a Renaissance text and do something to it. There is Ronald Johnson’s erasure of Paradise Lost, Radi Os (1977) and Robert Duncan’s imitations of metaphysical poets, ‘A Metaphysical Suite’ (1973-4). More recently, there are no fewer than three book-length responses to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Stephen Ratcliffe’s [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG (1989), Jen Bervin’s Nets (2004), and The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare (2012), edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault. Some of these texts are relatively shallow – avant-garde pranks at the expense of canonical texts. But many of them are surprisingly learned. One emerges from them with the sense that the avant-garde itself has become deeper, stranger, and more complex through its encounter with the resources of Renaissance poetics.
Yet it must be noted that the list of writers with whom avant-gardists are willing to engage is curiously partial, even shallow. Why Paradise Lost and not The Faerie Queene? Why Shakespeare’s Sonnets and not Astrophil and Stella? There is an issue of legibility here – Shakespeare and Milton are simply better known to modern readers. But one suspects there is more to it than that. As Rachel Eisendrath writes in her new book, Gallery of Clouds, ‘Shakespeare seems modern’ (44). She goes on, ‘He seems modern because … he appears to be pulling us out of the realm of art and pushing us into the realm of reality’ (44). In this sense, Shakespeare’s work anticipates the restless, reflexive character of a work like Nets or Radi Os. Whatever the pleasures of this Shakesperean gesture – and they are ample – it might be seen to foreclose a set of pre-modern aesthetic capacities. As Eisendrath writes, ‘There are some artists who actually want their readers to remain within the artful world of the text – and they resist ever breaking the aesthetic terms they establish’ (44). Eisendrath is one such artist. And so, she argues, is Philip Sidney: his Arcadia ‘never … [tells] you to wake up’ (45).
Gallery of Clouds steps where other avant-gardists have feared to tread, engaging directly with Sidney’s poetics. The book is not quite a monograph on Sidney – though Sidney’s Arcadia is at the centre of its concern. Nor is it exactly a prose memoir – though it is often autobiographical, straying from the strict impersonality of scholarly reading to account for a world beyond, around and within, its reader. Gallery of Clouds is an ambitious and potentially radical book – but its ambitions emerge only slowly, through a series of lateral movements that require Eisendrath’s reader to weave across her scholarly and creative work.
Indeed, the book does not even begin with Sidney. Instead, it opens with an image of queer communion and temporal collapse, in which multiple generations of queer women find each other in heaven. ‘I died and then found myself walking across a large, green field’, the book begins. Approaching a group of women lounging on the grass, the narrator sees Virginia Woolf among them: ‘I thought: —Oh.—Thank God.—There are gay women in heaven’. Woolf’s presence triggers a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis in the narrator: ‘I was growing older, climbing up through the ages of myself so that, as she watched me, I slowly regained the age I actually was, which was close to her age. But it was as if I had drawn those earlier ages up with me and so was now all the ages of myself at the same time’ (2-3). The moment bears some relation to queer unhistoricism, as articulated by scholars like Madhavi Menon and Carolyn Dinshaw. Eisendrath isn’t much concerned with the niceties of historical method here, though. Her communion with Woolf is physical, embodied: there is an exchange of glances between the two: ‘Each movement of her eyes made my eyes move, which made her eyes move, and so on’ (7). Then, Virginia Woolf takes a copy of Eisendrath’s manuscript for Gallery of Clouds and starts reading.
As we turn the pages that follow, we are therefore haunted by the presence of another reader. In reading the book, are we to imagine that Woolf is reading by our side? Or does our reading embody Woolf’s reading? It would be easy to dismiss such a gesture as a flight of fancy or a flowery preface. But its effect is more serious than it initially appears: it dematerialises the book. This book is only partially present with its flesh and blood readers. The other part of it is in heaven, with Virginia Woolf. Fittingly enough: this book is, after all, a gallery of clouds.
In the pages that follow, Eisendrath describes the apartment building where she grew up, the manicule, Adorno’s theory of the lyric, the 1940 expedition made by Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and Leonard Woolf to Penshurst, as well as Verrazzano’s exploration of North America in the sixteenth century. One could continue almost indefinitely: each page of the book is rich with detail, association, and learning. Working outside the context of a monograph, Eisendrath is empowered to display the full range of her learning and to follow her associations wherever they lead. Her approach – moving fluidly across a wide range of literary and non-literary materials, working from the present but making contact with the past – is a recognisable strategy of the contemporary lyric essay, recalling Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood (2010) or Jena Osman’s Motion Studies (2019). But where those books emphasise their fragmentariness, Eisendrath pushes back against such a model of literary production. Summoning up the spectre of Petrarch and his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, she notes, ‘[it] might suggest a theory of mind: that there was once something whole that has been disrupted, dispersed—a paradise lost, a childhood lost, an intimacy with God lost’ (4). Eisendrath refuses to make such loss the centre of her literary practice: ‘Although this book, like a collection of lyric poems … is written in pieces, in a non-narrative mode, it is not written in fragments, shards, or scattered rhymes. No unity has been lost because there never was any unity’ (4).
If Gallery of Clouds is not a collection of fragments, what is it exactly? The question is difficult to answer, in part because contemporary readers and writers may not have a genre ready-to-hand which adequately describes Eisendrath’s book. This review began by placing Gallery of Clouds in relation to other works of avant-garde literature that engage with Renaissance materials. One has the sense that Eisendrath does not exactly seek such company – or, rather, that she seeks a broader range of compatriots than one might otherwise find there. Virginia Woolf, yes, but also Philip Sidney. The lyric essay, but also the prose romance. Describing the romance, Eisendrath writes,
…this genre resists teleology – by which I mean only that romance wanders instead of, as epic does, building toward an end that is presented as fated and inevitable, like (presumably) the founding of Rome. Therefore, romance has to regenerate its momentum over and over. As one episodic adventure ends, romance has to find a way to begin again (83).
This is a fair description of Gallery of Clouds itself. It does not build toward a teleology or even an argument; instead, it circles, errant, perennially beginning again. It relies on the sheer pleasure and enchantment of its language to keep the reader magnetised by its pages. It is a risky literary strategy, particularly in the present. Romances are, Eisendrath admits, ‘hard on us’ (31). Modern readers tend to reject the aestheticism of the romance – its perfumey breath of artifice. We favour literary texts that foreground their own materiality, and that puncture their own artificiality. As she writes, ‘We favor the thing side of things: we call a spade a spade and know aestheticism when we see it in the road’ (31). In the face of this preference for materiality over artificiality, romance withers. And with it, so do related genres, like the pastoral. Writing about the pastoral, Eisendrath notes, ‘It is hard even to believe that the genre could have once touched the wounds of other people’s intimate experiences’ (67). Indeed, she continues, pastoral does not even have the gravitas of other dead genres: ‘The genre is somehow not dead enough so as to evoke our awe and reverence or to lay claim to the dignity that is reserved for what is ancient’ (67-68).
Gallery of Clouds is thus, in part, an elegy for dead genres. In this context, Sidney becomes a particularly poignant figure. Writing about the ‘oratorical style’ of Sidney’s writing, Eisendrath asks ‘What if Sidney’s Arcadia were one of the last and lavish descendants of this style from the era of its dominancy—its final hurrah before falling into desuetude? When we hear this style, we are hearing the distant bellow of a nearly extinct animal’ (53). In this account, the Arcadia is something like the last aurochs – a magnificent and monumental beast, now extinct. Or, almost extinct. Reading through this passage, one might miss the carefully placed ‘nearly’ in the final sentence. It is a small prick in the fabric of modernity. But it is enough to open a passage for Eisendrath. She is, of course, aware of the difficulties of trying to resuscitate dead genres – the lifeless pastiche that tends to result from such efforts. Elsewhere, Eisendrath insists on the fundamental coherency of Renaissance artistic practices, their resistance to modern aesthetic practices and technologies: ‘Whatever the Renaissance was, you can’t portray it in a photograph. You must make a tapestry of it, or compose a sonnet, or write a romance, or dance a morris dance, or bait a bear’ (80). But if the romance is hard on us, it is not entirely alien to us either. It is not extinct, but close to it: there are traces of the high style and passionate, sustained artifice of the Arcadia that persist into modernity. If Gallery of Clouds proposes this possibility, it also enacts it. It is not a romance in any limited sense; there are no storm-tossed lovers or wandering knights in its pages. But it is an attempt to embody the poetics of Sidney’s Arcadia within modernity.
Gallery of Clouds might thus be seen to extend the project of Eisendrath’s recent monograph, Poetry in an Age of Things: Aesthetics and Empiricism in Renaissance Ekphrasis (2018). Her scholarship contests the materialism of early modern studies, emphasising how ‘early modern artworks push back against empiricist objecthood’ (21). In her telling, poems like Hero and Leander or The Rape of Lucrece occupy a slippery historical ground: they are situated on the cusp of a modernity that will increasingly insist on what she calls ‘the empirical objecthood of art’ (23). Yet they retain access to early modes of art-making, which emphasise the aesthetic, the non-empirical, the literary. Located on this transitional ground, such poems refuse to be made into objects. If Poetry in an Age of Things is intended as a critique of early modern studies, it also reads as an implicit challenge to writers and poets in the present. Eisendrath’s quarrel with the thingliness of modern aesthetics might likewise be understood as an objection to the materialism of contemporary avant-garde writing – which has, since at least the 1980s, championed the materiality of language as a political and aesthetic good in itself. ‘No longer is there anything inherently radical about emphasizing the empirical objecthood of art’, she insists. ‘What is radical now, at least potentially, is to enter fully into a complex artwork that questions from within the way things are. If the nonempirical qualities of art are elusive and difficult to describe, that may be precisely because they do not fit in with the modes of thought that currently dominate our world’ (23). Gallery of Clouds responds to this challenge. It is, in the end, a radical text: a text that proposes to break the frames of the present, to expand the aesthetic and poetic possibilities available to us. In other words, it is an avant-garde text – albeit an idiosyncratic entry into the canon of avant-garde provocations. Gallery of Clouds might be said to invert Pound’s famous dictum. Instead of make it new, try make it old.