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 Filch abandon poetry? The question has haunted and irritated scholars for decades, given the promise of his early work and the tragically odd denouement of his short career. Sadly, the poetry has been overshadowed by the outlandish events that followed, but it is worth remembering just how dutifully Filch’s early poems answered Ezra Pound’s call to "make it new." (Though, as James Lentil's new 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 to hold the Russian dressing on his Reuben, as Pound had requested.)


Filch, of course, wrote only in Greek, and celebrated peasant life – or so we thought. The new volume provides the first new English translation of the poems since Helga Muffenstruss’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 fall harvest, as long believed, but an expression of Filch’s distrust of gourds.


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


Filch had fallen in love with the Rivaldi Theater, with its crystal chandeliers and aisle seats dusted with truffle shavings, and he met Howe during a matinee intermission. Based on more than sixty conversations with relatives of fellow expatriates close to both Filch and Howe, Lentil has recreated 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 want to 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 is quite reasonable.

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


After that evening’s performance, Filch accepted Howe's invitation to return with him to Blue Raven Hill Community Gardens. Stepping into the studio, which doubled as Howe's workshop, Filch renounced poetry on the spot. Howe believed the workout apparel of the time was crude and didn't allow the 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 cons of polypropylene and the deleterious effects of clogged pores.


Howe hoped, in the confines of his studio, to design and manufacture a line of workout apparel that, 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 romantic relationship between the two, but perhaps it is better that way, since the scant evidence consists entirely of a single photograph, which shows Howe buttering a stack of wheat toast as Filch, nearby, looks on with appetite, though whether for the toast or Howe is unclear.


But the book is rich with stories about the American literary establishment’s abandonment of Filch. Leading New York intellectuals savaged his reputation after, in a letter to the Partisan Review, Filch declared, "mesh garments are the new poetry." And when, in 1930, Filch founded the journal "American Acrylic," critics contrasted the poor quality of the articles with the high quality of the Spandex binding. Unable to disagree, Filch used the fabrics originally intended for the second issue to construct what is believed to be the first semi-formal jogging suit.


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


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