Christopher Schmidt’s The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith brilliantly connects queer theory with recent work in “waste studies,” offering a Wunderkammer of insights regarding poetry’s preoccupation with waste in both its literal and metaphorical forms. Contributions to the field of waste studies have tended to reductively align trash aesthetics with radical politics. One such study, Maurizia Boscagli’s Stuff Theory: Everyday [End Page 263] Objects, Radical Materialism, opens with the author announcing her intention to “foreground junk as a limit to categorizing, and thus focus on its capacity to signify the redundant, the wasted, the irredeemably out of place,” averring that artistic entanglements with waste enact “a radical critique of the myths of pleasure and progress of industrial and consumer society.”1 The Poetics of Waste, however, deftly avoids overstating the revolutionary possibilities of waste. Instead, Schmidt asks: “can poetry suggest a ‘corrective’ that might make the genre—if not a form of resistance—at least an incisive measure of capitalist damage and waste?” (159). The book’s central premise is that Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Goldsmith, and others “have developed a waste management poetics in response to ideologies that phobically associate mass culture—and its ‘tainting’ or corruption of high modernist values—with female and queer bodies” (5). In doing so, Schmidt builds on a strand of queer theory that conceptualizes queerness as subversively rewriting the “narrative coherence” of reproductive futurism. To be queer is to be non-(re)productive; consequently, queerness is often figured as excess or waste.2 Schmidt maps his figures’ formally excessive, disorderly poetry onto their queer politics, starting with Gertrude Stein.
Chapter 1 proposes that Stein’s work was informed by Taylorist principles of efficiency and waste elimination along with Taylorism’s dietary offshoot, Fletcherism. Writing in dialogue with Kathryn R. Kent’s work on Stein’s queer economy of poetic plenitude, Schmidt explores how Stein’s aesthetics serve “as a model of inefficiency and queer errancy, while at the same time responding obediently to capitalist values of productivity and regularity” (11). Schmidt ingeniously draws together materialist and theoretical approaches, reading Stein’s love letters to Alice B. Toklas alongside Tender Buttons, The Making of Americans, and other, lesser-known works. The chapter connects Stein’s abstruse language experiments to her interest in the texture of domestic life and unravels the queer dimensions of her concern with Toklas’s defecatory productivity.
Chapter 2 turns to Cold War containment culture and the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s (when homosexuality was perceived as a threat to national security) and identifies their imprint on John Ashbery’s poetry. Schmidt focuses on Ashbery’s 1975 “scrapbook” The Vermont Notebook, in which Ashbery litters the lyric form and pastoral genre with “consumerist, excremental, and sexual” waste (90). Herein lie the book’s strongest moments: Schmidt’s fascinating analysis posits that Ashbery’s poetic excess critiques ideologies of purity and homophobia inherent in the romantic conception of nature, which he characterizes as an “elitist escape into the wilderness of the West, from the feminized, racialized, and queer wastes of the city” (62). Schmidt ventures an important political reading of Ashbery’s aesthetics, homing in on The Vermont Notebook’s quotation of an article about artificial reefs and islands created from debris by the U.S. government in Mexico, demonstrating that the poem critiques the environmentalism of the poor through its “references to Mexico as a container for America’s trash” (70).
Chapter 3 focuses on New York School poet James Schuyler’s languid catalogues of his bodily wastes, consumerist excesses, and prolific food consumption. Capitalizing upon Andrew Ross’s conception of camp as the recycling of cultural discards, Schmidt argues that camp performance dramatizes concerns about consumerism and economic instability by “performing on the body the consumption and waste-making that constitute the structuring conditions of postwar consumer culture” (115). Intriguingly, Schmidt invokes the abandonment of the Gold Standard as a context for Schuyler’s use of camp. Though the...