- The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality, and Queer Ekphrasis by Brian Glavey
I wasn't sure what I thought of Brian Glavey's The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality, and Queer Ekphrasis when I first finished reading it. This is not a loud book by any means; thinking ekphrastically, it reminded me more of Keats's "foster-child of silence and slow time" than a work emphatically calling attention to itself. But as I returned to the book and read it again, I was repeatedly struck by Glavey's careful and illuminating literary studies which, like Keats's urn, accrue meaning over time as he invites us to reexamine his ideas through the perspectives offered by the group of authors he examines. Glavey is making a significant contribution with this book, uniting queer theory and modernist formalism through an exploration of what he calls queer ekphrasis.
Crucial to Glavey's argument is the expansion of ekphrasis from its most familiar contemporary definition—"the poetic representation of the plastic arts"—to include "its longer and more expansive history as a synonym for description in general" (8). For Glavey, this definitional broadening deepens rather than dilutes the critical value of exploring ekphrasis and is the source of its underlying queerness, which "has in part to do with a definitional incoherence that vacillates between a minoritizing and a universalizing logic: on the one hand, it is considered a limited and specific sort of lyric; on the other, it is taken to be emblematic of the lyric in general." This duality allows Glavey to read ekphrasis as a formal embodiment of the both/and qualities of queer theory that enables critics to step aside from interpretations rooted in ethical determinations and toward aesthetics and pedagogy. He draws from and expands on the work of many foundational and contemporary queer theorists, including Eve Sedgwick, Leo Bersani, [End Page 785] Jack Halberstam, and Heather Love. Glavey's work is an attempt both to describe and to adopt the kind of wallflower position he invokes in the book's title: that of standing to the side of literary works while simultaneously engaging with them.
The Wallflower Avant-Garde consists of five case-study chapters framed by an introduction and an epilogue. The first two chapters focus on the work of two early-twentieth-century American expatriate queer women, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. Chapter 3 centers on the Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Bruce Nugent, whose "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," Glavey reminds us, is "the first published work in the African-American tradition to deal openly with male same-sex desire" (18). The subjects of the last two chapters, Glavey acknowledges, may strike readers as out of place in a modernist context given their usual associations with postmodernism, but Glavey sees the work of both Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery continuing the tradition of queer ekphrasis in important ways. Each chapter has a particular key work at its heart, but Glavey demonstrates that the queerly ekphrastic aesthetic he traces runs through the writers' oeuvres.
One of Glavey's most unexpected key terms is "interesting" (22), a word typically used in academic criticism to damn one's subject with faint praise. But for Glavey the interesting is important because it is the starting point of aesthetic engagement: "[t]o find something interesting is to suggest that it is worth spending time with, worth coming back to, worth arguing over" (23). With that definition in mind, the two chapters I found most interesting were "Gertrude Stein's Eye Lessons: Portraits and Pedagogy" and "Squandering Your Potential with Richard Bruce Nugent." In the chapter on Stein, Glavey reads her formal use of repetition as an exploration of similitude and familiarity in the development of an "alternative mode of reading" not simply focused on uncovering the kernel of hidden truth within (27). Glavey's discussion of Nugent's "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" finds ekphrastic significance in the text's recurrent ellipses. The use of ellipses, Glavey argues, shouldn't be read as a typical "sign of its modernist credentials...