“No Apology or Cuteness: On Gil Orlovitz” by Daniel Green

No Apology or Cuteness:

On Gil Orlovitz



To even the most well-informed readers of fiction and poetry who reached their age of literary maturity after, say, 1970, Gil Orlovitz is no doubt a mostly obscure, if not totally unknown figure. Orlovitz died in 1973—although he had achieved sufficient obscurity even by then that his body was not actually identified until several months following his passing—after a nearly 30-year career as poet, playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, and while some effort was made in the years just after his death to appreciate and preserve his achievement, in particular through a 1978 special issue of American Poetry Review, in the years since then his books disappeared from sight and his name dropped out from most discussions of postwar American literature.

In addition to pathos there is some irony in Orlovitz’s fading from view, since he became something of a ubiquitous presence in American literary magazines in the 1950s and 60s, although he never really found a place in the most prominent publications, his work generally regarded as overly “difficult” for mainstream tastes. His novels Milkbottle H (1967) and Ice Never F (1970) certainly did little to connect him more firmly to those tastes, as both were conspicuous failures, both commercially and critically, although the critical response was decidedly more positive in the U.K. and Europe, where Orlovitz established a favorable reputation as an innovative successor to the great modernists. Whether these failures significantly contributed to what appears to be a subsequent downward spiral (he had especially invested some hope in the mammoth and ambitious Milkbottle) is somewhat uncertain 50 years later, but by 1973 he was more or less down and out, when he died in what remain rather murky circumstances.

As I look at the whole of Orlovitz’s available work (Tough Poets Press has commendably republished most of the fiction, including the novels, as well as some of the poetry, although much of the latter is still essentially inaccessible after a half century of neglect), it seems to me that the contemporary writer he most closely resembles is Gilbert Sorrentino. Both writers fundamentally were poets, both loosely associated with the poetry of Pound and Williams through the Beats, and both went on to write radically iconoclastic and disruptive fiction, Sorrentino on a more sustained basis and successful enough to maintain a relatively long and productive career. Sorrentino’s fiction is more uninhibitedly comic, ultimately more unruly, than Orlovitz’s, but both Milkbottle H and Ice Never F, like Sorrentino’s novels, are full-on aesthetic deconstructions of novel form, although where Sorrentino reconfigures the form with his own skewed versions, Orlovitz comes in these two works as close to formlessness in fiction as may be possible while still maintaining a connection to the genre.

Both Sorrentino and Orlovitz in their different ways expose “form” in fiction as at best a transitory convenience, a provisional invention always subject to modification and metamorphosis, insisting that the only constant in literary art is the imaginative play of language. Thus it is indeed that fiction has its origin in the poetic impulse, although in Orlovitz’s case this means that his two novels are as idiosyncratic in their verbal manner as his poetry. A newcomer to Orlovitz’s poetry is no doubt likely to identify it as hermetic, or perhaps surreal, but further reading reveals it to be less surreal than radically informal and heterogeneous in its imagery, less self-enclosed than veiled in its personal references, invoking characters and scenes at times parallel with or abstracted from the poet’s direct experience, at others more fully displaced, closer to Orlovitz’s practices as a writer of fiction. While some of Orlovitz’s poetry could appropriately be called “lyrical,” it is a lyricism of strange juxtapositions, colloquial diction, and punning wordplay, not the usual sort of figurative expression.

The most illuminating analysis of Orlovitz’s poetic practice is an essay by Gerald Stern, part of the special section on Orlovitz in the 1978 issue of American Poetry Review. (“Miss Pink at Last: An Appreciation of Gil Orlovitz.”) Stern groups Orlovitz’s poems into three categories—lyrics, sonnets, and satires. To the extent Orlovitz is still remembered as a poet, it is probably first of all for the sonnets, although his most striking use of language is arguably in the satires. (Sterne’s use of this term may be a little too capacious to really encompass all of Orlovitz’s poems outside the lyrics and the sonnets, two categories that themselves have a good deal of overlap.) As Stern himself says, the matter of Orlovitz’s satirical poems arises not from a motivating “idea” but grows “inevitably out of the language”:

As such, there was no satirical “mask”; there was instead the haunted satire-riddled face, or voice, of Gil Orlovitz himself, nothing now standing between him and his subject. I mean myths, yes, “poetic” masks, metaphors, echoes, ditties—because he was a poet—between him and his reader, or among him and his readers, but nothing between him and his subject, no apology or cuteness.

This seems an apt characterization of Orlovitz’s writing (poetry and fiction) in general, not just the explicitly satirical poetry. The poems are indeed strongly engaged with their subjects—often framed as seemingly direct personal experiences, but even those poems employing a persona seem like pretty thinly displaced vehicles for the poet’s experience as well. However, the treatment of those subjects depends not on their inherent lyrical connections but on the verbal connections (or disconnections) the poem leaves in its unpredictable turns of language. The poem “Hymn” begins, “fivethirty a.m./the electricgenerator/started off like an immortal scream,” presenting us with a coherent if clamorous aural image, only to abruptly mix it with a discordant and somewhat grotesque visual one: “whelped in low key and smothered in thin snot/and exploded into a sickbelly throwup of fiery/eels. . . .” After a pause (the first of several caesuras in the poem), as if preparing the reader for the change in orientation and focus about to occur, the poet’s own perspective is suddenly altered: “and there was my woman/my love/outside my window. . . .” But before we can adjust to this strange development, mid-line our attention is again disrupted as the speaker avows that “god in the alleyway/went infinitely upstairs in a striped prisonsuit/of irondrunken firescapesteps. . . .”

Although we return to “my woman/my love” (who beseeches the speaker, “don’t let me die”), by the time we reach the end of this relatively short poem our contemplation of its imagery has become so thoroughly unsettled that it is indeed tempting to declare it a piece of surrealism that deliberately resists our full assimilation—or even to consider it simply incomprehensible. Perhaps we could interpret it as a species of dream—although the poem’s title seems oddly inappropriate for this sort of exercise—or, somewhat more fruitfully, that it represents the movements of the poet’s consciousness at a particularly fraught moment. But while either of these perspectives might afford a kind of cursory coherence to a poem like “Hymn,” since many of Orlovitz’s poems unfold according to similar sort of discontinuous logic (or nonlogic), it seems more applicable to say simply that his poetry consists more in self-contained flares of veiled expression than in the subordination of such expression to the broader development of a poetic “thought,” a more visible unified aesthetic construct.

Probably the most conspicuously indulged display of verbal excess in Orlovitz’s poetry is the frequent use of puns, most often in the satires, as in the very first stanza of “The Rooster”:

the rooster crows in my belly

an old hangout for the billiard cues of the morning

and table-hopping hail hail the ganglias all here

after sunset like a mouthwash last yesterlight

and the white tails of the gorillas on television

and that liberal politician stumping for twilight supremacy 

down by that old



As I buttonholed the Ancient Auctioneer

how goes America going 


But Orlovitz just seems to ignore any strictures against punning as a disruptive or self-indulgent gesture. His poems cultivate the disruption as another turn of language, the introduction of disparate elements to form another brief image—the politician both creating and standing beside the “shill stream”—that reinforces the poem’s reliance on adjacent figurative and imagistic verbal devices rather than continuous elaboration of thought.

The insistent punning in Orloviz’s poetry seems most reminiscent of Finnegans Wake (it and Ulysses continue to be a dominant influence on Orlovitz’s fiction as well), and perhaps the dream language of a work like this could itself be taken as a further analogue to Orlovitz’s practice as both poet and writer of fiction. Certainly the perpetual juxtaposition of disconnected images in the poems creates a background of distortion comparable to dreams, but it seems to me that Orlovitz is less interested in mimicking the unconscious mind that in reorienting the conscious mind—the reader’s. The poems ask us to not presume that the poet’s language is a representation of a recognizable reality, nor even an attempt to cloak that reality in a misrepresentation that might still be reclaimed for interpretation, but is instead a transformation of the poem into a source of reality itself, which the reader experiences through the multiplicity and incongruity of its images.

The discontinuities of Orlovitz’s writing not only undermine whatever expectation we might have that it will resolve itself into a completed thought (a thought about something outside the poem, not a concrete experience of the poem) but makes interpreting a poem’s images as potential symbols mostly fruitless and beside the point as well. Indeed, Orlovitz himself, in an essay entitled “The Ubiquitous Symbol” (What are They All Waiting For?. Tough Poets Press) tells us that “my intent is quite simple: to transmit through images the paradoxes of experienced phenomena.” However, the image “will contain the paradox of the experienced phenomenon, but it will go further: it will try to convert the experienced phenomenon into an experience itself. For me, symbols in poetry do not simply connote reality: my intent is to make the symbols pieces of reality themselves.” Orlovitz may seem to be conflating “symbol” and “image,” but what he is really doing is attempting to explicate the way in which his poems are enclosed in the poet’s digressive language, which seeks to realize the “paradox” that only the verbal turns themselves can signify.

Few writers are as radical in their determination to make language itself both the form and content of the literary work as Gil Orlovitz, in his poetry and his fiction alike. For this reason alone it is perplexing that both the poems—or at least the best of them—and a novel like Milkbottle H have so thoroughly fallen out of the collective literary memory. The latter especially remains a prodigious achievement, as notable a product of the late modern/postmodern sensibility as any written by an American novelist, even Sorrentino, Gaddis, or Pynchon. Perhaps, however, what those writers provide in addition to their formal audacity is something that Orlovitz’s work may be lacking: Each of them substitutes for the more conventional pleasures of traditional narrative fiction—familiar plot devices, recognizable types of characters—alternative formal and stylistic strategies that work to offer not “entertainment” in the most reductive sense of the term, but certainly an experience of aesthetic delight that ultimately redeems whatever “difficulty” the work at first seems to present the reader. Both Orlovitz’s poetry and his fiction may seem to some readers to cultivate difficulty for its own sake. 

This impression is no doubt especially strong for the reader who takes up Milkbottle H. It was certainly the impression left with contemporaneous American reviewers, one of whom declared that “it is written in a pseudo-Joycean manner that is relentlessly monotonous, persistently garbled, unendingly devious, a manner that lacks the humor of Joyce’s that unlike Joyce’s obfuscates rather than reveals” (Carleton Miscellany, Spring 1968). This reviewer likely means by the Joyce comparison no more than that Milkbottle H is an unconventional work that lacks the usual markers of a proper novel, markers of plot and character that allow the critic to assess the work according to the usual formulas, without needing to more closely examine the actual strategies the writer might be using, or consider the effect those strategies may be designed to produce. If the critic were in fact interested in pursuing the connection to Joyce, he might have noted that the “manner” of Milkbottle H only superficially resembles the conceit structuring Finnegans Wake: Milkbottle H may indeed depart freely from the constraints of time, space, and consistency of character, but not because Orlovitz is casting his narrative as a dream. Instead, Milkbottle H treats reality as if it already possesses the mutability of dreams.

Thus the reader is given a few ostensibly stable features consistent with most novels’ narrative trajectory—a protagonist, named Lee Emanuel, a setting, in the city of Philadelphia, certain recurring images such as the street sign that gives the novel its title—but those features do not reinforce expectations of conventional development. The novel does loosely follow the life experiences of Lee Emanuel (who is a not very heavily disguised version of Gil Orlovitz), especially focusing on his love affairs and marriages, yet the chronological displacement in the novel’s rendering of his experiences is so thoroughgoing  and extreme (in a novel of over 500 pages) that even his identity at times wavers, while the other characters so frequently transmogrify into each other that ultimately it is questionable whether we should finally even identify them as specific characters at all. Given the novel’s disarticulated structure, with its seemingly random fluctuations of scene, we might regard Milkbottle H as a synoptic view of Lee Emanuel’s life all at once, blurring the distinctions of story and character that normally a work of fictions seeks to clarify.

Although the novel can seem largely formless, ultimately we could say that this formlessness contributes to a more encyclopedic kind of form. This promise of an ultimate unity of sorts, however, doesn’t quite provide a plot. Indeed, the novel’s amorphous formal quality serves it best if it deflects the reader’s interest away from the prospect of formal or narrative resolution and draws it to the execution of the discrete episodes in their acts of metamorphosis and displacement. Many of these episodes are in fact very funny, although it is true that Orlovitz is not necessarily trying to be a comic writer. (Sometimes anger seems a primary motivation.) He is instead attempting to be all-encompassing in his accounting of Lee Emanuel’s life (an effort which is supplemented by Orlovitz’s other published novel, Ice Never F, also featuring Lee as protagonist), and this necessarily involves the more embarrassing moments in Lee’s life—such as his cuckoldry, brought about by his unfaithful first wife, or an extended scene (extended in fact throughout the novel) in which Lee attempts to take a bath without letting any of the dirt that he washes off touch him again.

Lee Emanuel is not really portrayed as a foolish or hapless figure, but it would also be difficult to describe him as a “sympathetic” character, either. So fragmented and so subject to shifts in time and perspective is Lee Emanuel as presented in the novel that we can’t finally get close enough to him to really judge him at all. He is not a coherent character of the traditional sort (“flat” and “round” seem beside the point) but is mostly an artifact of the author’s insistently discontinuous method of composition. He is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic but acts as the novel’s discursive point of attraction around which its narrative transfigurations swirl. To an extent, these transfigurations do serve in their very distortions to illuminate Lee Emanuel’s experience and evoke his personality, although they are not designed first and foremost as an alternate means of creating character. Something like the opposite seems predominantly the case: Lee Emanuel, his perceptions and experiences, is the vehicle for the work’s formal and verbal variations.

Certainly Lee’s experiences include the sort that most readers would expect to find in a more conventional chronicle of the ordinary circumstances of its characters’ lives—which is essentially the focus of concern in Milkbottle H, however much that focus is prolonged beyond the scenic confines of most realistic fiction. Perhaps the most prominent of these would be Lee’s interactions with his family, especially with his parents, as well as his efforts specifically to reckon with the relatively recent death of his father. The glimpses of the parents at various stages of Lee’s life do actually provide a kind of summative account of family influence, although as with all of the other episodes depicted in the novel, it is an elliptical account that asks the reader to hold immediate meaning in abeyance, to allow that a literary work can accrue meaning through juxtaposition and contiguity rather than asserting it through linear progression. Perhaps it is here where Orlovitz’s fiction shows the greatest affinity with his poetry: It is not so much that the language of the novels is conspicuously “poetic” (although neither is the poetry itself poetic in any conventional way), but that image in the poetry and narrative time and space in the fiction are set loose from the imperative to unfold according to a sequential logic that essentially renders literary language invisible. In Orlovitz’s work, language is indeed “real.”

This attribute is also on display in Ice Never F, published after but actually written before Milkbottle H, although its structural dislocations are somewhat less radical, and thus at its briefer length Ice Never F is arguably more accessible. It also involves Lee Emanuel, as well as most of the cast of Milkbottle H. (The two extant novels seem to have been at Orlovitz’s death part of at least a trilogy set in Philadelphia and centered on the life of Lee Emanuel, but the existence of third unpublished novel in the series, while the object of rumors in the years since, currently seems uncertain.) While no conventional work of narrative fiction, Ice Never F nonetheless ventures less into the mixing of identity, and its scenes are often more fully sustained, although still sharing with Milkbottle H a paradoxical kind of narrative scheme, offering a constant flow of narration subject to incessant and unannounced time shifts covering all phases of Lee’s life (including a good deal about his childhood). Also as with Milkbottle H, the actions and events depicted in individual episodes work less as pieces of an ongoing narrative than as the parts of a larger verbal and discursive mosaic registering Lee’s presence in the world that has made him.

Perhaps Ice Never F might serve as a less intimidating introduction to Orlovitz’s fiction (in something like the way Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 has been a more compact alternative to the meganovels), but it is Milkbottle H that will be the center of attention in any widespread reconsideration of Gil Orlovitz’s achievement as a writer (if such a thing could plausibly happen). The poems certainly reward the effort to understand the aesthetic principles motivating their discordant imagery and seemingly capricious wordplay, but it seems unlikely that Orlovitz’s variety of “difficult” poetry sufficiently stands out against, say, the work of John Ashbery or the Language poets to find a place among their company. Milkbottle H, although surely an experimental novel by any definition of the term, is not exactly “postmodern”; it does not interrogate the authority of fiction as a mode of representation but seems more like an extension of the modernist aspiration to represent reality at a more fundamental level than surface realism. In this case, Orlovitz’s novel seeks to eliminate all constraints of narrative and place in the name of a more comprehensive rendition of experience. There really is nothing else in American fiction, that I can think of, at all like it. ♦

Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a multitude of publications, both in print and online. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (Cow Eye Press) and maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience, which he started in 2004