Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.
By Edward Butscher
(Amagansett, NY: Amagansett Press, 2010)
Review by Jim Feast
Humbert Humbert rides again.
I invoke the name of the narrator of Lolita in opening my review of Edward Butscher’s Eros Descending because a great number of the poems, and certainly the most startling ones, in this book describe the narrator’s (obviously not the author’s) affairs with underage girls.
These poems were quite a surprise to me, given that on first looking over the book, I got no inkling of their presence from the publisher. The blurbs on the back of the book talk of the author’s “ethical seriousness” and “torrent of imagery,” while the description of contents on the front flap mentions “a zone of intense lyrical consciousness,” “a struggle between Eros and Thanatos,” and the “aesthetic issues of poetry.”
Imagine my discomfiture, then, when, after this preparation, I turn to poems with passages like the following
embracing her incredible flesh
curves from behind to kiss her
neck and unwinding tongue
one hand slithering down the fur’
treasure cleft to gaff a liquid
clam shiver and sticky prize
the other free inside a silk bra
rolling a nipple hard as a coin …
as my penis achieved a size
only recollected in taverns
and harpooned itself between
the bounding worlds of her
“Torrent of imagery,” indeed. That description is actually a fantasy image, but many others are more straightforward accounts. In “November’s Fabulous Island Girl,” we read: “I am a virgin, she apologizes queenly // but knowing how to ease me inside her // cradle hands mothering taut buttocks,” and “I could (and did) love her differently // than her classmates, secretly caught // in her lustily unleashed raven tresses.”
Not every poem in the book is of this type, though probably a third of them are, but every piece indirectly alludes to it for what the book, in the same way as does Nabokov, provides a sympathetic (though in no way exculpatory) portrait of a pedophile. Butscher, in a manner familiar from Browning, is giving us a pithy portrait of a repulsive, but infinitely fascinating and faceted character.
Let’s look at some traits of this predator, a high school teacher who fancies himself an artistic scholar. Still, every creator he honors, incidentally, has a thing for young girls. He writes of an author in this manner: “Of a Greek girl’s sly // downward smile below // my even slyer [class] lecture // on old J.D. Salinger’s // incestuous pedophilia.” Then he talks of Joseph Cornell, whose art he also venerates, and who incidentally, ate breakfast early in a diner so he could spend time “scoping the adolescent girls (‘teeners’) drifting or hurrying past … [and later] made notes in his diary, mostly ‘reports of nubile teenagers.’” In other words, as he sees it, all the great artistic minds are fueled by the same predilections as guide his orientation.
But let’s go further. As the just cited passage on Salinger suggests, where he uses his class lecture to make suggestive hints to a Greek student, one who he remarks, had “cream perfect breasts,” and smiled shyly as if in acknowledgement of the attractiveness of such love affairs, the literary allusions become means to troll for new conquests.
That’s why his scholarly discussions – in another Nabokov parallel, the back of this book, as is Pale Fire, is filled with “notes” on the poems – can sometimes be thin. Although the character is a scholar who knows his books, and can display erudition, at places it seems as if he has become so immersed in study, not due to a love of learning or literature, but so he can scan art for potential come-ons.
But, let’s move to the author’s boldest stroke. Drawing, I’m guessing, bits from his own autobiography, Butscher gives his character a background that might predispose him for this type of foray, a lifelong, fervid pursuit of young beauties.
What conditions lead in this direction? It might be thought, well, an abused child becomes an abuser; and so the narrator must have been abused. But, no, the thought here is distinctive. Dislocations and disruptions that occur to a child at an early age throw off the psychic mechanism. The narrator’s story begins when “the author’s mother … was removed by ambulance from her home … Taken to Queens General Hospital .. she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.” Without the mother, the family is broken up. “The author and his older brother John were ‘paroled’ to Edith; Ronald, then only two years old, went to Mabel.” But one of the old maids he ends up is herself near deranged and becomes the second family member to be institutionalized.
So, the implication is that the narrator becomes fixated on teen girls because he is (latently) afraid that any older woman he contacts will go bonkers before he can initiate a relationship.
As yet, however, I haven’t reached one of the other central nubs of the work. I quoted a jacket blurb about the “struggle between Eros and Thanatos,” love and death, and that theme does play a structuring role in the book. As in Mallarme’s "Afternoon of a Faun (poem)" L'après-midi d'un faune, the narrator is an old roux, looking back, with some aplomb, at his life’s feminine harvest. But he is far past his prime, and his regrets balloon into a fixation on mortality. His notes become mixed with obits clipped from the Times.
This last layer gives the book melancholy undertone, a heavy backdrop to the cold-hearted sensuality that fills this powerful portrait of a satyr’s last dance.