Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s influence over the field of queer theory remains undiminished in the seven years since her death in 2009. That influence, like the weather, has wafted through the various disciplines her work touches, shifting critical vocabularies, introducing new modes of reading, and informing a generation of readers interested in the range of desire, affects, and identities (and so on) that today “queer” connotes. Brian Glavey is one such grateful recipient of Sedgwick’s atmospheric effects. His witty, erudite, and lushly written book, The Wallflower Avant-Garde, is at once an act of homage to the late critic’s radical legacy and an in-kind formalist reading of what he calls queer ekphrasis.
The rhetorical figure—conventionally understood as the literary representation of a visual image—is, Glavey argues, readily queered: ekphrasis expresses its affinity with difference and the intersections of identity and, as such, is a model for an exuberant relationality that thrives on intermingled forms. This aesthetic alliance rather than opposition offers new reading strategies for modernism, and for queer forms more generally. Citing Sedgwick’s posthumously published The Weather in Proust (2011), he writes that her turn to the meteorological “should not be seen as a shying away from the sexual. Instead it is an example of what I am thinking of as a kind [End Page 691] of wallflower avant-gardism, defined in part by its reluctance to being ensnared in the sorts of oppositional thinking that would pitch the antisocial and the utopian as opposites” (3). Here he introduces the method that will become the pattern of his study, modestly refusing to accede to opposition, instead taking the middle path, in soto voce, as he traces a relational mode that opens out a spectrum of affective possibilities. His objects will be portraits, vessels, and grammatical and temperamental propensities, such as ellipses and shyness. The only real wallflower here is John Ashbery. The others—Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Frank O’Hara—are hardly retiring figures, like the diffident poet, but rather in-your-face disrupters of the status quo. But Glavey’s interest is in the ways their works employ ekphrastic modes to empower an unlikely modernism, one less defiant and more conducive to seeking out a generative and even conciliatory aesthetic.
Glavey begins with Stein’s portraits as a relational model that express some kind of likeness, hardly mimetic, as any reader will instantly understand, but one that nevertheless produces a condensation of word, image, and identity that effects a kind of similitude. This is a version of the reparative—it presents no hidden truths, rather it complicates and renders interesting its object. The book turns to Barnes and then Nugent with abundant readerly pleasure, as it surveys a range of verbal and visual modernist texts. Glavey provides a wonderfully rich account of Barnes’s “chamber pot modernism,” for example, reading the five gilded chamber pots inscribed with poetic lines that open her early novel, Ryder (73). The pots are eventually smashed, leaving only one with the word “Amen.” Glavey writes, “Although Barnes’s prayer aspires toward circularity and slow time, it does not offer any transcendent solutions to modernity’s ills. The poetry of broken chamber pots does not allow one to leave the sublunary world behind. Instead, it remains attuned to the body and its needs, offering what limited comfort it can in a world governed by necessity” (50). Reviving Joseph Frank’s once-influential essay on spatial form, Glavey shows us how Nightwood (1936) provides the pungent, even deathly, ground from which a theory of the novel might nevertheless spring.
Glavey situates his readings in relation to ongoing debates in queer theory, from Nightwood’s no future (à la Lee Edelman), to the alternative futures of Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” (à la José Esteban Munoz) unfolded via the story’s visual motif of ellipses: “the extra ink dotted across the page appears as a sort of visual excess. Indeed, this is perhaps the interesting thing about the figure of ellipsis...