Another Mixed (Up) Review

Too Sweaty For This World: A Life of Portis Filch

By James Lentil

Crumb Hill House; 302 pp.

Why did Portis Filchabandon poetry? The question has haunted and irritated scholars for decades,given the promise of his early work and the tragically odd denouement of hisshort career. Sadly, the poetry has been overshadowed by the outlandish eventsthat followed, but it is worth remembering just how dutifully Filch’s earlypoems answered Ezra Pound’s call to “make it new.” (Though, as James Lentil’snew biography points out, that famous quote has been taken far out of context:in reality Pound spoke those words to a man behind a deli counter who failed tohold the Russian dressing on his Reuben, as Pound had requested.)

Filch, of course, wroteonly in Greek, and celebrated peasant life – or so we thought. The new volumeprovides the first new English translation of the poems since HelgaMuffenstruss’s standard 1932 edition, and some of the differences are striking.For example, it seems that his most famous Ode,  “A Stroll Along Heffernan Lake,” was not an appreciation of the fallharvest, as long believed, but an expression of Filch’s distrust of gourds.

Every poem Filch everpublished was written before his twentieth birthday. But just as he started togain recognition, he fled America,complaining of the smell. Touring the capitals of Europe, he met Ibbicus Howe,an American expatriate living in Rome, whoworked as an usher at the legendary Rivaldi Theater by day and stayed up allnight working in his tiny, cluttered third floor studio, which he referred to,somewhat grandiosely, as Blue Raven Hill Community Gardens.

Filch had fallen in lovewith the Rivaldi Theater, with its crystal chandeliers and aisle seats dustedwith truffle shavings, and he met Howeduring a matinee intermission. Based on more than sixty conversations withrelatives of fellow expatriates close to both Filch and Howe, Lentil hasrecreated their first fateful conversation.

Howe: I’m sorry, sir, you can’t stand there.

Filch: I most certainly can.

Howe: I’m sorry, you’re blocking the concession stand. If you wantto stand there, you have to buy something.

Filch: Pig!

Howe: My dear sir, there’s no need for name-calling.

Filch: Brute!

Howe: May I suggest the salted cashews? Delicious, and the price isquite reasonable.

Filch: [looking at the price tag] Oh my, that is actually veryreasonable.

After thatevening’s performance, Filch accepted Howe’s invitation to return with him to Blue Raven Hill Community Gardens. Stepping intothe studio, which doubled as Howe’s workshop, Filch renounced poetry on thespot. Howe believed the workout apparel of the time was crude and didn’t allowthe body to properly breathe. That first night, as Filch listened, captivated,the older man lectured for more than six hours on thermals, the pros and consof polypropylene and the deleterious effects of clogged pores.

Howe hoped, in theconfines of his studio, to design and manufacture a line of workout apparelthat, as he put it, “would work with, not against, your body’s natural oils”and, as his tombstone reads, “Never, ever sacrifice comfort for style.”  Lentil is silent on the much-rumored romanticrelationship between the two, but perhaps it is better that way, since thescant evidence consists entirely of a single photograph, which shows Howebuttering a stack of wheat toast as Filch, nearby, looks on with appetite,though whether for the toast or Howe is unclear.

But the book isrich with stories about the American literary establishment’s abandonment ofFilch. Leading New Yorkintellectuals savaged his reputation after, in a letter to the Partisan Review,Filch declared, “mesh garments are the new poetry.” And when, in 1930, Filchfounded the journal “American Acrylic,” critics contrasted the poorquality of the articles with the high quality of the Spandex binding. Unable todisagree, Filch used the fabrics originally intended for the second issue toconstruct what is believed to be the first semi-formal jogging suit.

Gregory Beyer is a writerliving in New York.His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The NewYork Times.