Chinese Whispers by John Ashbery. FSG, 2002. $22.00.
As Reviewed By: James Rother
The career of John Ashbery continues the poetic perpetuum mobile of our time. At 75, and with a new book, Chinese Whispers, he may be rounding bases all too familiar from earlier collections; but home runs hit in relation to times at bat keep him well within the Sammy Sosa range of powerhouses, if not Barry Bonds’s. (Has any hitter since Auden been a Barry Bonds?) If hairline cracks in the edifice of praise above and beyond its own familiar amen corner have become discernible of late, this is surely to be expected after almost thirty years spent as the heir apparent of Wallace Stevens. Having dutifully traced that poet’s tracings of ordinary evenings in New Haven from a Template Sublime specially remade for New York, Ashbery should not have it held against him that the better younger poets nipping at his heels are finally drawing a little blood. But, as always, that amen corner has been working overtime not only to keep his name in lights but, since the deaths of his nearest rivals James Merrill, James Schuyler, and A.R. Ammons, shrink the marquee so as to keep a single name aloft. Your Name Here (2000), the volume of verse preceding the present one, was said by Harold Bloom to have joined “Hardy’s Winter Words, Yeats’s Last Poems and Plays, and Stevens’s The Rock as one of the enduring monuments in the language,” and his gratitude for living in an “Age of Ashbery” carries over to his review of Chinese Whispers, where he finds the poet “at his most poignant, lucid and perceptive.” Had the most vocal Him licensed to speak for Intellectual Beauty since Shelley gone on in some detail to cite the splendors lighting up Your Name Here, he would likely have rhapsodized about “Strange Cinema,” a lyric as subtle and unprepossessing as any love poem in that overcrowded genre devoted to snorting Eros in short lines. That being said, whatever virtues accrue to past collections, no doubt may be found in this reviewer’s mind that Ashbery’s latest addition to his oeuvre (and the American canon) has turned yet another trick, which–even if we restrict the number of successes in a row to the last two, Girls on the Run (1999) and Your Name Here–makes it a hat trick as well.[private]
Though not, as has already been stipulated, by any trumping of the competition, since much of it joined ages ago what years of tongue-lashing failed to lick. Nor has the Ashbery head been kept while all about still other wannabes, desperate to stay ahead of the Beat regeneration currently in progress, were losing theirs. Much in Chinese Whispers is indeed “new,” if we take that to mean increased facility with changes rung on the usual somewhat limited thematics. What most decidedly isn’t new is Ashbery’s skill in catching readers off guard, his poetics engagingly off balance, and his meaning off the books. That famous ability to abash, abrade, and amaze readers who can’t stomach what he writes; readers who can’t help ruminating, cow-like, over its tri-abdominal wonders; and readers who can handle what he dishes out, but can’t decide if what they sucked up instead of blowing off in poems like “Mordred” or “A Man Clamored” is really mind-blowing or just another mirrorful of blow–that almost never flags, but accumulates miraculously, as in the Master’s own phrase, an “exhaustive repertory.”
Giving further rise to ambivalence in this regard is evidence, mounting steadily since Wakefulness (1988) and Can You Hear, Bird (1995), of ground having been broken for an altogether new wing of that skyscraper-gazebo that Ashbery has been tinkering with since As You Know (1979). He has still to own up to any late absurdist or post-PoMo tendencies, beyond a certain “stop-making-sense” letch for a Gebrauschspoësie the Talking Heads could hardly have dreamt up. But to go the whole hog and embrace “spread sheet poetry” of the sort currently in favor with the crowd at Conjunctions? Not likely–though his name appears in that journal’s table of contents from time to time. Yet one thing is certain: when this new annex finally opens its doors, it will be a stunner, and not just for the leap into respiratory and associational faith it has for some time been prognosticating. Other than that, the immediate outlook would seem to be Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. As ever, the perceptive will applaud this poet’s leaving the conventional poem ever further behind in a reclamation of the true Whitmanian ethos, while the imperceptive (and hostile) will recycle all their old hostilities and insist that nothing has really changed since Ashbery’s flat-out desertion of poetry in Three Poems (1972).
“Chinese whispers,” as the new collection’s dust jacket tells us, “is the British name of a game called Telephone in America. According to a certain ‘Professor Hoffmann’ in his book Drawing Room Amusements (1879), ‘the participants are arranged in a circle, and the first player whispers a story or message to the next player, and so on round the circle. The original story is then compared with the final version, which has often changed beyond recognition.” For old hands at Ashberian pushpin, the implied analogy of this game with what they have come to expect in the writings of this poet will seem as open-ended as certain parallels to convex mirrors did a quarter century ago. Nor is that impression likely to be mitigated by such Salvador Dalian extenuations of Chinese Whispers’s title poem as these:
So balmily chatty is this that it could almost be taken for a parody of the campy light-headedness that goosed the late Frank O’Hara into making those breathless foie gras canapés of his the specialités of his “lunch poem” maisonette. Though ostensibly a loser’s lament, it doesn’t loiter long amid the sort of regret too heartily indulged. Clearly, we have here another of Ashbery’s thrown voices determined to have all believe that what he has lost on the roundabouts he has more than made up on the swings. His spiel unfurls its blow-dried (yet for all that, still quite ballsy) erudition with a confidence not often broached by the elfin spokesman for Personism. The Koch-Schuyler-Perreault axis of the New York school (about the time Ron Padgett’s and David Shapiro’s An Anthology of New York Poets  was writing “30” to the ’60s and with their 600+-page tome declaring the School itself effectively dissolved) perhaps came closest to the sort of poise that would only much later distinguish high wire acts like “Chinese Whispers” from prose excruciations such as are vacuously luxuriated in by so-called “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.” Shorn of all patina of might-have-been, this poem, so retroussé in its candor, can do little with its stark nakedness but settle into the chutzpah of of its own unwashed Dasein, which, given its refusal to cover up, summons up images of boys, prune-like and towelless from too much skinnydipping, intent on staying awake only to make their teeth stop chattering. As often in Ashbery, the talk oscillates distractedly between the bonding spiritualities of a sweat lodge and the come-as-you-are catches–in the musical sense–of a sex change recuperees’ Tupperware party. With a perturbed but still insouciant air (the loopiness with which Ashbery poems backflush their own feedback does this impression no harm), it flirts with the truthfulness the O’Hara of “Ode to Joy” and “For Janice and Kenneth to Voyage” might have withered into, had he survived to join his friends of the New York School on Golden Pond, or whatever passes for such today in the Big Apple. Listen aslant the nonsense “Chinese Whispers” narrowly escapes falling into and you will hear scrapings of gaunt mortality grow louder. It is Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying ever nearer, careening from side to side like Ben Hur’s at the end of his famous race. This arch arcanum of Ashbery’s unveiling–and turn of a threadless screw whose frame-tale is garble and whose mythos is glimpseable but through a dark glassily–seems as unsettling as a stilt-shack a-sway in a Southern swamp. Like many a poet of his generation who made it through Cooverville alive, Ashbery privileges wide-angle lenses over zooms for raking the gravel of years on PoMo Boulevard, where “Peace is a full stop. / And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade, / now only time will consent to have anything to do with us, / for what purposes we do not know.” Witty avertive maneuvers are of little use here where Time’s whoosh stripe proclaims the same doom as was prophesied in blood on Nebuchadnezzar’s walls. “Then we’ll see how extinct / the various races have become,” the poet’s Chinese whisperer declares, “how the years stand up / to their descriptions, no matter how misleading, / and how long the disbanded armies stay around. . . .”
Since Self-Portrait in A Convex Mirror (1975), the implicit project of Ashbery’s verse has been to download those illusions by which the sinkholes of time and flesh prevaricate the maya of resilience and desirability, only to delete them, one by one. While hallowing the truism (smoothed to a nicety by the bo-tox of gossip) that Gothamites, more than any other species of homo Americanus, resort to in order to keep their hard-won urbanity from unraveling, he has chipped away relentlessly at the Koch-like (Mayor Edward, not Kenneth) pomposities New Yorkers are prone to and whose most preoccupationally hazardous side effect is boredom. (“In the end we’re all bores,” the intoner of “In Whatever Mode” confides.) The meteor shower of white elephants we call life discomfits, but only fitfully. Beyond its fitfulness, the showers–or, in our more solicitous milieu, a farewell stint in an I. C. U. for the corps du jour:
Or, failing that, succumb to the less than gravitational pull of boredom’s black holes. What to do when we’re not sharing keepsakes salvaged from the cacoethes that envelops everywhere we are?
It’s not difficult to notice that Ashbery’s poems read less as particulars uttered or heard than as liner-noteshalf blurb, half exculpationadumbrating things which might’ve been, could’ve been, even should’ve been said, but somehow weren’t, and now, reborn as arrière pensées (albeit dreadfully out of sync with their occasions), have found their Boswell at last. (Though a Pepys would likely have proved more serviceable under the circumstances). Here we are, they declaim, many decades downwind from this, our sea of dimming voices, and sensing in the gimlet palimpsest Ashbery lays before us a surrealism that dares to speak not only its own name but a whole lot of other names besides, more names in fact than we would like to be bothered with–indeed, lays them out in lithe filets, as though what smacked of romans must be necessarily à clef as well. And all without recourse to such as might mightily intercede for us, like Rilke’s schrecklich angels or Gide’s Conseils des Immortels. Keeping the loosened stays of reality in place in an Ashbery poem is an unflappability that can calculate to a tenth of a microgram the amount of valium needed to get the most terror-ridden white-knuckler through Cauchemar City. To the Yahoo query “What are his poems about?”, the obvious Houhynhym response would be, “They’re not about anything. They’re of conspicuation, decontamination, wopsicality (think Edward Lear’s self-critical hat). Mostly though, they’re of deciduousness (one’s, his, ours) unleaving, unleft: yet making of being bereft, leaves; of recombinatory D.O.A.’s springing magically to life in a bard’s Walpurgisnacht of musings about this-in-despite-of-that, from Tribeca all the way to Annandale-on-Hudson’s Bard College (where Ashbery currently teaches). If they’re about anything, it would be fitting a body of work to the soul of perturbation. Information age perturbation, over being still able to remember what it was like remembering tripping out on the light fantastic without having to worry (nuclear annihilation aside) whether heavy going was the poet’s everloving and riteful squeeze or just a holdover modernist pis aller. In convening yet another session with his spectral and ubiquitous “you,” the speaker in an Ashbery poem exults above all in the lust to commemorate. “On [so demure a subject as] His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments,” he can wrangle a tête à tête between “A shadow purling, / up into the sky” and “Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.” Or between “a free spirit” that “hovers, lonesomely, like a zeppelin, over downcast / vales and trees” and “the scraps / of pleasure assembling into a face” (“Postilion of Autumn”). What could these things possibly have in common beyond the attraction (not apparent in the vice versa) of Faschingschwank for aus Wien, say, or of cabinets for Dr. Caligari. It’s all, this poet insists, in how one likes to be beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea.
And what an ear for the sea picked in whispers this skindiver of full fathom five has. Each millepore of any reasonably lengthy Ashbery poem contains the entire genome of the coralligerous American reef with all its seeming, teeming life in this, the fourteenth year of having traded a cold war for one of mere chills. This poet knows the ways of anthozoans and hydrozoans alike; he has been keeping tabs on their comings and goings with the concentration of a Jacques Cousteau throughout the mini-Me aeon it has taken to arrive at our present coralliferous condition from the merely skeletal past from which we began to emerge after the “take no prisoners” years of the ’60s and ’70s.
But that was idealist Then and this is realist Now–no wait, that can’t be right. Realist Now? With 56% of Americans believing in the likelihood of Christian rapture in coming days, as the tinderbox of the Middle East sings kerosene hymns and North Korea plays nuclear mah jongg with Pakistanian tiles? Is there a place for poetry in all this? Has Ashbery been on the money all along with his Yves Bonnefoy toolkit and “Don DeLillo Does Not Suck Eggs” bumper sticker? Should this poet throw his lot in with the few remaining poets who don’t write like him just to be on the sunny side of history when the balloon finally does go up?
We seem to have reached that point when the genuine article bearing the Ashbery label needs to be distinguished from the indefinitely specious ones crowding the market–the knockoffs, the offshore imitations, the blatant counterfeits–so why not begin with what is probably the most commonly floated boilerplate substitute for the real thing: the “tiger’s milk,” or heavily fortified but unmistakably jerrybuilt variety. This specimen features a prosy undercarriage over whose support struts an angst-ridden rap shuttles predictably. On this crepuscular loom of what the French, had they such a term, would nominate soi-disance, Jane Hirshfield wove a poem which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker (January 6, 2003), “It Was Like This: You Were Happy.” In a flailing mockup of a wind tunnel, His Master’s Voice (or more properly, Her Master’s Voice) is thrown for the sole purpose of providing a wistful or philosophical sound stage for what is little more than a milquetoast’s De Profundis–proving, yet again, that role-reversing ventriloquist and dummy has no advantages to speak of and even denies authorship rights that an Edgar Bergen could once triumphantly claim.
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
You were innocent or guilty.
Actions were taken or not.
At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent–what could you say?
Now it is almost over.
Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.
It does this not in forgiveness–
between you, there is nothing to forgive–
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.
Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.
So much for the sanforized chiaroscuro Existenz so often set to glistering in lesser travesties of the Ashbery assembly line. Coming upon it in the pages of a high circulation magazine is like observing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch’s having its clock cleaned. For deprive Chinese Whispers of its saturnalian non-sequiturs and you reduce its contents to the level of a plain-jane Ashberial no more laden with profundity than a Hirschfeld cartoon. A caveat to stalkers poaching on this poet’s poetic license: there is no free lunch on the Ashbery game preserve. Stalk the king’s deer and you risk being caught frozen in your own headlights.
A second low-cost (but high maintenance) derivative is the “Ashbery poem that writes itself.” Taking off elliptically from a title snagged on a vaguely intriguing hook, it shoots out filaments until a web of sorts sort of materializes:
Marjorie Wellish, whose poem “Within This Book, Called Marguerite” this is, can churn this stuff out so effortlessly the ease with which this piece morphs into others disarmingly like it–“Skin,” “Crossing Disappearing Behind them,” “Veil” (all dating from 1991)–seems itself part of the process in which sense and sensibility don’t so much come out and dance as exchange pawns, with a proprioceptive illogic suggestive of Zen’s, more or less en passant. This self-secreting Ashberian poem is in marked contrast to the force-fed hybrid form espoused by Ralph Angel, A. S. Asekoff, or Ann Lauerbach:
Eerily, sun comes through as time, and I’m
Found in its provenance: trees and such and plish,
Wet polish over old boards where he and she stand
Among arresting branches, their countless
One and one and one. A picture? A map? A match?
They must hear air moving among broken anomalies of air
Its chant revived in the actuality of their needing it:
Hymnal, not critique, nothing to touch, to see, to eat. . . .
(“Gesture and Flight,” 2)
But by far the most elaborate version of the Ashbery poem generated by cold fusion (so that it is its own critical mass, stalled for ever in half-light) is that bearing Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s distinctive signature. In a way it’s unfair to consider her either an Ashbery clone or an Ashbery knockoff artist because what she does is, in a gnarled, sapsucker way, her own. Only she could have given us “Jealousy,” though had its inscription been contingent on our wanting or needing it, it might never have found its way from the small press edition of Empathy (1989) into anthologies like Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (1994). The poem is too long to quote in full, but here is enough of it to make the point about its muse, midwife and parturitional sprawl all calling forth the maternally induced poem Flow Chart as out-of-body experience:
There’s no reason for such nonces of sententiousness to begin, end, or recycle their randomness beyond the faith they are able to generate in their own lulling attentiveness to naught rendered ontological, or in Berssenbrugge’s case, phenomenological. But the same is for all practical purposes true of Ashbery as well. His poetic utterances push utterness about as far as vocal charm, nattering disquisitiveness and dispository strung-outness will permit, and then some.
It’s often been said–indeed, I myself said it in this journal in an earlier essay on Ashbery–the reader who can’t tell if Ashbery is a fakir of pathos or a pathetic fake is likely to be the no-nonsense, doggedly entrepreneurial type who can never quite see that because a poem is a thing undertaken, it can never be a thing understood. Still, in one’s off moments one has to wonder if even the poet’s staunchest defenders aren’t at times plagued by the possibility that, far from the Second Coming of Whitman, the Ashbery phenomenon might just be an overbooked act that has cowed critics like Bloom into pontificating bull in its hoaxy behalf. Convinced of his or her own hard-bitten realism, such a reader just cannot be persuaded that a poem like “Strange Cinema,” in defying the disintegration of contemporary language, of esthetic judgment (we’ve gone from Kant to can’t in two generations), and of almost all poetic individuality, is, in our time, nothing short of miraculous.
Well, maybe some critics, but not, as we’ve seen, Harold Bloom. America’s laureate of exceptionality–the honorée du jour being Genius–this untiring foe of what he contemptuously dismisses as “the rabblement” unfailingly finds in Ashbery those airy lacunae which distinguished not the spindrift gauditarian of Harmonium and Parts of A World, but the later, nearly late Stevens, whose “final findings of the ear” become universally audible “as we leave the room.” Which is not to say that these cannot be heard rustling amid Chinese Whispers’ nuts-and-chews. Take “Like Air, Almost,” for instance, which opens salubriously with a grotesquerie–
It comes down to
the gauzy syntax
of one thing and another;
a pleasant dinner
and a frozen train ride in the inexhaustible
resources. . .
—luminously reminiscent of several Stevensian arabesques of the sort seemingly extemporized at readings just prior to quitting the stage.
You speak. You say: Today’s character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.
That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,
The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world? . . .
(“As You Leave the Room”)
This is but the Ashbery iceberg tipped over on its side. Beneath the icy azure of calm lies a winter wonderland that is among the most spectacular Arcadys manqué in American verse. A skewed, uncommonly garrulous (yet no less crystalline for that) Proustian splendor, it overarches the ellipse of this nation’s letters, a monument, in the words of Guy Davenport, of “accident correlating with design.” That being said, to quote Austin Powers, one does have some thoughts. Before getting to them, however, here, as promised and in full, one of the loveliest, most loverly and lovingly dispensed horniness from that too often desolate-seeming cornucopia of late Ashberiana, Your Name Here: the very fine “Strange Cinema.”
In sooth, I come here sadly,
not trembling, not against my will
hoping you will set the record straight.
You can, you know, in a minute
if the wind is right and no felon intervenes.
And we sit and you tell me how crazy I am.
I shall petition the other board members
But am afraid nothing will ever come right.
It has been going on too long for this to happen,
yet it was right to go, to go on as it did,
even if there was strangeness in the rightness
that no one can now see. They see the night
in its undress, plaits unplaited, brushed,
the sound of the surf churning on distant rocks,
can think only about how heavenly it would have been
if it had all happened later or differently.
Now, according to some sources,
new retrofitting trends are a commodity,
along with silence, and sweetness.
Doucement, doucement . . .
And when the sweetness is adjusted,
why, we’ll know more than some do now.
That is all I can offer you,
my lost, my loved one.
In a muted sense, this is “Dover Beach” drained of all the residual alter-egotism that lifts such anti-love poems inverting the Arnoldian palimpsest (like the emetically witty “Dover Bitch,” by Anthony Hecht) above the level of sophomoric parody. Some poems (pace Harold Bloom) are best left unretrofitted–to adapt Ashbery’s verb–by other poets; but the Hecht redaction aside, such is not the case with “Dover Beach,” as Ashbery’s “Strange Cinema” eloquently shows. Far from attempting a rewriting of Arnold’s Victorian lament for hope in arrears, his poem gilds the faux-intimacy laced straight talk of Arnold’s–employing the poet’s familiar strategy of suffusing cocktail piano-like tinklings of depression with inklings of sexual folderol, dandlingly extenuated–with sagesse imported from countries of the soul long surrendered to memory banks. Within the weave of a subjunctive reverie, mood is most delicately kissed by voice and a desire for honesty and candor melds deliciously with that particular sweetness with which the douceurs of love, experienced as the stuff of lays and not lay-aways, are best submitted to: on the fly. That is why the last line may be read as either addressing a lover in the meditative present or memorializing him as a memento nigh to becoming mori–literally, a souvenir–and therefore addressable as “my lost, my loved one.” Rather than sandwich two irretrievable times within one layered dimensional frame, Ashbery treats the one as an already achieved state of the other. The way to cheat–and cheat on–lost time otherwise unrecapturable within a poem’s bounded tonsure is thus neatly encapsulated by a poet on a roll: twin teasings, single curl.
Ashbery poems might look as though they’re easy to parody but they’re not. Superb sendups like Myra Buttle’s of The Waste Land and Henry Reed’s of Burnt Norton (“Chard Whitlow”) confirm the old saw about parody being the tribute mediocrity pays to genius, but are as rare on the ground as gospel singers in a mosque. Musical poets like Eliot and Ashbery, while undoubtedly standout subjects for this sort of nuisance baiting, are seldom the most flattenable objects of this sort of exercise. Desirous as parodists are of having the itch in their trigger fingers scratched, they avoid taking on any poet likely to deflect their best shot. Choosing the reverential nick over slash-and-stab, a parodist’s aim is effigial death by a thousand cuts: it’s not the poet or his reputation that is mocked, only the wraith-like nimbus of his style. Even without its inimitable musicality, Ashbery verse is too undermining of its own seriousness to be open to parody. “Moon, Moon” offers a prime instance of such deflectiveness, rubbed to a wax-like sheen:
The winter voice adjusts: “As I was saying
(before I was so rudely interrupted),
we don’t have to go downstairs and get the plants.
Some of them, at least, are already here.”
More innocent people, gnawed by pests.
Death agreed to lie low for a while.
Nobody was very grateful. “after all,
if it hadn’t been for him the anteaters
might have noticed us. No potstickers take up
the cry: ‘It was great to have you in that glen!'”
Out on the ice children are being sick
as grown men whirl round and round
the devil in coattails. “He had a passion for straw marquetry.
Other than that, little is known
of him or his descendants.”
In the valley of the school all is well anew.
“I told you all would be well
on a certain day.” That rivulets
would course past their snowy banks, singing the song of
a sudden thaw in January.
“Each of us checked out the others,
got down to work.” His disguise worked,
he made it through the breadline with blue
Etruscan flowers in his galvanized wrists:
“It is time for the debit to begin,
the rush of evening.” “No one likes being abandoned
on a rapidly disintegrating floe, and dawn coming.”
He stood just outside.
We were the undeserving ones now, though his warmth
as the road becomes a kiss.
Imagine this lightly dusted with the voice of Noël Coward and offered in that sprechtstimme patter-style of his which, for a time after World War II, audiences in this country couldn’t get enough of. Suave, slick, and soigné, accompanied by a nightclub band or a single music hall piano, Coward, trading on wartime service, a slew of stage and film credits in what was then still called Great Britain, and a private life as steeped in double entendre as his own racy nightclub routines, managed in those years to embody the very gold standard of urbanity laced with acid charm: the not altogether closeted homosexual’s fantasy of a bon vivant. His routines sailed above the depressing ghettos of Camp like the Flying Dutchman over sullen Holland. From New York to Hollywood to Las Vegas (Las Vegas!), he cut a bold and audacious swath across the American chic’s grumpy and pusillanimous face. Because he could also “do American,” Coward at a stroke, and for ever, reset the rheostat of gay subculture. His magic formula was world weariness mixed with froth, with the underlying implication that, though life’s bowl of cherries was at bottom the pits, world weariness was froth flounced to self-pity. But he could also be daring and far out ahead of his own game in making the largely closeted world of the “homintern” (Auden’s term) safe for homosexuality. His way of deploying “homotext” was to perform songs like “Mad About the Boy” in a very public falsetto, and he did this as early as 1932, in the London show Words and Music. Ivor Novello and Cole Porter might have pushed the gay envelope by being risqué and epicene, but Coward could make royalty and the broader establishment complicit in his in-your-face frolics because, like Pope, Mozart and Gainsborough, nothing tasteless was ever laid at his door. Or at least not with anyone from the third estate observing.
The outrageous nub of the thesis being led up to here is that if only a relatively small portion of the Ashbery oeuvre can be made to light up when plugged into this outlet, we have a way of making sense of this poet that has eluded critics for decades. All that would keep poems like “Local Legend,” “Ornery Fish,” “Portrait with a Goat,” “The Decals in the Hallway,” or “Prisoner’s Base” from gracing an evening of Noël Coward are extractable punchlines (and the musical hall equivalent of rim-shots to underscore them), and vocal scoops marking the onset of refrains. Very much in evidence, however, would be the prince of entertainers’ “one-sin-fits-all” innuendo; wit whose delayed action slithers like a moccasin; the insouciant raconteur’s flair for making the outlandish (or in English parlance, the “non-U”) seem “quite delightful, really.” The Coward showstoppers nearest to Ashbery’s bull sessions with the void are not “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “[Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage,] Mrs. Worthington,” they’re “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” “Let’s Say Goodbye,” “Shadow Play,” “Imagine the Duchess’ Feelings,” and “Parisian Pierrot.” To distinguish swiftly between the two: “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” is pure slip knot satire: it plays Russian roulette with its own madcap rhymes and embraces stereotype like a long lost lover; the second type, represented by “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” cranks out absurdities until the overall pattern linking them emerges as surrealist, but without surrealism’s agenda of making the dreamlike seem the reality which the fantasy of the actual mocks. In any case, reading those poems as suggested doesn’t in any way diminish their seriousness; to the contrary, it shifts their volubility into a key rather less scatterbrained and in need of unscrambling.
Your Name Here was also the first of Ashbery’s collections in which the prose poem of limited length was touted as the space to watch. Some might think that such flirting with the justified right margin signal a reversion to past prose-a-thon follies. Tempting perhaps to assume, but on its face, demonstrably untrue. As intimated at the onset of this review, Ashbery has for a number of years now been staging his own version of a revolution long discernible in the graphic arts to render the museum obsolete. Individual works have gradually become so cumbersome and unportable that they are no longer exhibitable in an enclosed or otherwise boxed-in space. The equivalent in verse of a Mark Rothko “White on White” is a page or more of verse (with as few paragraphic interruptions as possible) constituting a discrete panel of text that is at best “poem-like.” Such works (Ashbery’s current volume features eight such “poems”–“A Nice Presentation,” Disagreeable Glimpses,” “Theme Park Days,” “From the Diary of A Mole,” “Truth Gleams,” “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,” “If You Ask Me,” “The Business of Falling Asleep (II),” as well as several bordering on, or exceeding, Whitmanesque breathiness–“Sir Gammer Vans,” for instance) bring the publicity apparatus of the publishing world–including that of book reviewing–to a shuddering halt. Why? Because just as Rothko’s gigantesque reality panels dwarf the museum walls smaller paintings decorously adorn, Ashbery’s page panels make quotation, excerption, memorization nearly impossible. Prose was born when writing obliterated poetry’s usefulness in facilitating memorization; abstract expressionists discovered “BIG” about the same time that the museum’s confining spaces were forcing artists out into the fresher air and intersticial spaces of the broader cultural environment.
Ashbery’s experiments in this vein go all the way back to “The Young Son” in Some Trees (1956), but “A Linnet,” “The Bobinski Brothers” and “Cinéma Vérité”–all from the 2000 volume–seem almost too talky (though certainly not too prosaic) to be called “prose poems.” They have a jaunty, even boulevardier-like quality, suggesting Laforguian dandyism revamped as post-contemporary drag. Making us feel trapped in a time-warp, they revitalize a 1919 in which individual talents traditionalized by creating their own predecessors along Borgesian lines. Or at least, that is what a certain T. S. Eliot essay taught poets to do avant la lettre argentin. And indeed (shifting to another literary marvel of South American provenance), Jules Laforgue, inventor of free verse and Eliotic dredging triumph (in the wake of his having read Arthur Symons on the breakthroughs of French Symbolism) does, in the Uruguayan poet’s toedippings in Modernism surf, sound an awful lot like the very young John Ashbery, himself an emigré from Rochester, New York, and insouciant strummer of postmodern malaise in harlequinades embalming a very different fin de siècle from that lamented in Dernier Vers. “Pantoum,” from Some Trees, doesn’t just sound like Laforgue, it is Laforgue, translated to America, rewritten in an English rendered New and ever so Worldly:
Eyes shining without mystery,
Footprints eager for the past
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes,
And what is in store?
Footprints eager for the past,
The usual obtuse blanket.
And what is in store
For those dearest to the king? . . .
In further illustration of this, here is the current Ashbery’s “A Linnet,” an exemplary tale worthy of a postmodern Aesop (or Kafka) that wears its decadence proudly as a sling bracing a war wound:
It crossed the road so as to avoid having to greet me. “Poor thing but mine
own,” I said, “without a song the day would never end.” Warily the thing
approached. I pitied its stupidity so much that huge tears began to well up
in my eyes, falling to the hard ground with a plop. “I don’t need a welcome
like that,” it said. “I was ready for you. All the ladybugs and the buzzing
flies and alligators know about you and your tricks. Poor, cheap thing.
Go away, and take your song with you.”
Night had fallen without my realizing it. Several hours must have
passed while I stood there, mulling the grass and possible replies to the
hapless creature. A mason still stood at the top of a ladder repairing the
tiles in a roof, by the light of the moon. But there was no moon. Yet I could
see his armpits, hair gushing from them, and the tricks of the trade with
which he was so bent on fixing that wall.
If not for the campiness of this tale’s flip homiletics (eerily reconstitutive of the old Lenny Bruce routine about the nightclub chanteuse with a bright idea for jumpstarting a fading career: offhand flashings, lasting only a millisecond, of hairy armpits during performances, leaving her audiences awash in disbelief and herself awash in marketable mystique), it could almost be considered a child’s cautionary tale. That is, if there anything discernibly cautious about it, or if it were written with a child’s preciosity in mind, and if fabulous things were always fabular in the sense less traveled by. On the surface–and what else does it manifest, trade upon, wreak glissandi on–it reminds us that the best cover stories are most effective in flaunting the very thing they’re intent on concealing. Laforgue, we might recall, also wrote for children–grown-up children, that is–who (like the baby-faced naïf Rimbaud, his near contemporary, forswore vision and revision not to be) mature too feverishly and so have no recourse but to avoid having to grow up at all. Constrained to live as a card-carrying rather than free-lance “Bohemian” (thus anticipating the lifestyle bazaar of 1960’s Berkeley, where street people, caught in downdrafts of the “Peter Pan syndrome,” tried to pipedream through a narcotic haze an entire Age of Conformity’s verse being Beaten into ploughshares), Laforgue could primp, prance, and peregrinate within interstices once scandalized by Villon and later enshrined in revivals of the sort René Char, Pierre Reverdy, and yes, Yves Bonnefoy impresarioed after World War II and so stage his own version of the “Poe Follies.” It would hard to imagine any reader, even one only casually versed in the last century’s prosody, obtuse enough not to hear changes laid down so long ago by Laforgue–
J’entasse sur mon lit, les journeaux, linge sale,
Dessins de mode, photographies quelconques,
Toute la capitale,
–re-emerging transformed in marauding riffs such as these from “This Deuced Cleverness”:
. . .
On wings of windows, parties, songs,
comedy and mystery, the world drenches us.
It’s the same world as before. Only time has exploded. . .
Likewise, those deciduously sage conifers, whose unmistakable smell of pining, as given off in “The American”–
It’s dull, no realism. A no-color. To what
formlessness have we committed? How fond I am
of it blew off the pensive boarder
hunkered amid lilacs, a however, as meat loves salt.
Such scenes are not uncommon in this
world of decent gin, this midden whose ungodly
stench plunders all inserts of a keepable diary. . .
–waft their redolence no less identifiably in the stands (comparably demajesticized) of Laforguian timber as overflown in the translation by William Jay Smith:
Years will go by,
And each on his own will grow hardened somehow;
And often–I can already hear myself now–
Say to the other, “Had I but known . . .”
But married, too, would each not on his own
Have also said, “Had I but known! . . .”
Ah, cursed from the start,
Dead end for the heart–
What an ass was I! . . .
Those whose past contains survey courses in which Prufrockian deliquescences were, via a parody of Eliotic juxtaposition and analysis, stuffed back into Laforguian efflorescences whose time arrows they reversed, should find it easy to reinvert the process yet again, this time stuffing them forward, or proleptically, into throw cushions of the sort that everywhere obtrude from Chinese Whispers’s Morris chairs and chesterfields. Though as good as “Heavenly Days” and the Stevensian romp of “As Umbrellas Follow Rain” (Ashbery’s “Like Decorations in A Gay (rather than Nigger) Cemetery”), their radiance never entirely swamps the lighter rockets and sparklers of this poet’s pyrotechnical display. Not that anyone can deny the salutary glow of the book’s shorter pieces–“Disclaimer,” “This Deuced Cleverness,” “Syllabus,” and “Like Air, Almost,” to name just four. The Ashbery product line has been stable for decades now, its models’ flouncings on the runway themselves flounces of smartness and élan, predictably shirred. If its “echolalia rag” seems overassured of flashbulbs popping en banc, it is because industry hoopla has accompanied the debuts of its collections for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when a new Ashbery book was not a major event. Indeed, so established a solo act and indispensable part of Manhattan’s cultural afflatus has he become that the fact is easily lost sight of that as an immutable order of things, this King of the Prom status extends no further back than As We Know (1979), if that far.
Déjà vu cuts two ways, however, and Ashbery verse with increasing regularity seems to be signaling “been there, done that.” For some time now we’ve been seeing a diffidence on the part of this poet toward the recycling of his own material that rivals the endless replay of cutups in works like The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded of William Burroughs. Fantails of chattiness, each opening out in an interfacing of stylized urban confessio and recognitive shock resulting from actually saying the unsayable, proliferate like accounts of cloning, and, as with Dolly the sheep, displaying no more rootedness in anything than a tale of recombinant loops looping recombinantly, ad infinitum. Thanks to homeboy studies like John Shoptaw’s From the Outside Looking Out (1994), it’s now almost a truism that when Ashbery writes impersonally, as in, say, “As Umbrellas Follow Rain”–
Too bad he never tried it–
he might have liked it.
She saw us make eye contact.
And that was that for that day.
Too bad he too, when I
meaning if I came along it’d
already be too late.
Some of the swans are swarming.
The spring has gone under–it wasn’t
Supposed to be like this . . .
–he’s speaking in code the eroticism of which is so thoroughly metabolized into enzymes of aesthetics and esters of blague it hardly registers as sexual at all. “Homotextual encryption” seems today as old hat as the hip hop ho’-down of yestermonth seemed a short while back before Eminem shifted media hype from black humor to white noise.
Hence the claim that Ashberian utterances typically have stingers in their tails and encoded allusions to tail in their stingers is no hyperbole. Processed as they often are, using Ashbery’s version of the Burroughs cut-up method, the ellipses tell, but without, and even in despite of, whatever deducible contents his assertions might let float to the surface. Up until the emergence of the page-panel poems that began appearing in Your Name Here. These make a point of eschewing all such marginal effects and conspicuated affects. Their assault on the poeticizing impulse in post-contemporary verse still discernible in the works of C. K. Williams, Maxine Kumin, Charles Wright, and others is both totalizing and homogeneous. Note, for instance, the flattening of disaffect in the opening of “From the Diary of A Mole”:
Shoehorning in one’s own tribute to crustiness in another life-form for him.
Something then went out of us. In the pagan dawn three polar bears stand
in the volumetric sky’s grapeade revelation.
“Time to go to the thoughtful house.”
They may not get you here, they may not get you there, they may not get
you everywhere, but they will get you somewhere. Yet the proposition
never came to a vote, was not voted on. You see the realism in it? No, of
course you don’t, for something is still there, something to replace all
of it in one block. Anent the spillway: His crimes are gorgeous but don’t
matter just now. Later
we will call on them. When it subsides. That is, everything. . .
The millimeter separating this from automatic writing may not be a silly one, but there is no question that it is little. Stream of consciousness such flowage all too plainly is not, since, despite inner calibrations done to tolerance of the Gettysburg Address and certain volupine susurrations evocative of the Baronness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, no clear indication shines through that the matrix of denotation imbedded in “From the Diary of A Mole” exceeds in interpretive volume the ad hoc solubility of its suppositional parts. The “something” said still to be “there” is synonymous with the thing that can “replace all of it in one block,” the “it” being presumably the “that without which” the ubiquitous (but never quite ominous) “they” cannot reduce the panel of desideration–the “one block” of impaneled serendipity–to less than en bloc sum of its disiderata. Ah, encryption, encryption . . . all the rest is pulp fiction–that and gossip, and domesticity, and circular as only a road frequented by a soul brother of the Grimms can be:
Just a teardrop of milk, thanks. Don’t believe that rag. It inferred we were
adolescents, once, that sex roared over us like a mudslide, leaving us. We
were lost. So lost, in fact, that his mother didn’t know me till I came out
toward her, and she knew me and was not afraid, and was glad in fact, for the
rainbow late in the day in its foam of cloud, poised above the basin. Then
I had a preshrunk sweater sent to him and asked if there was anything
else. “Nothing, a fresh breeze.” Still, leaves are asleep. The bears act as if
no one’s there. She curls up in the curlew’s nest, weeping on its golden
eggs. It took the savagery of centuries of animal conflict to bring us just
short of this, and you, what have you done? Oh, I
don’t much matter, I guess. If that’s all I’ll be on my way. To the box in
which savage handwriting is hidden, too dense for you to decipher, too
lorn for a world to unravel just now, but Iike they say I’ll be suing you. So
really it’s fine until Christmas I can stand it, a runt, I’ll just go on
blooming in my box, unaware of things sleeping pagans say about us, glad
to crash, collapse the silk hat, garden’s done and I’m all in and breathless
for a breather. Come right in. What world is this.
Some diary, some mole. Were one to ask “What world is this?” he or she should be prepared to have the answer lie fallow upon days of blank irresponsiveness. And to accept ourselves as no less thoughtless than leaves, as absent-minded as bears. Inside the earth repose safety and attendant quietude; beyond be dragons. Which is another way of saying, Out of Kafka’s barrow (duplicitously, a large sepulchral mound or tumulus and a castrated male hog) endlessly rocking, come years of Proustian plenty succeeded by years of Proustian famine, or involuntary loss of desire trapped by the tail. Of how many Ashbery poems scrabbling to reach the light from depths of vertiginous darkness can it be said (in words akin to Hamlet’s, acknowledging sounds emanating from the paternal ghost loitering beneath the stage): “Well said, old mole! can’st work i’ the earth so fast”? More than might at first glance suggest themselves. That holdovers from the poet’s earliest and most anthologized set pieces survive in recent experimental efforts like “From A Diary of A Mole” is almost a recurrent motif offering its own subliminal commentary on the proceedings. “Anent the spillway” is typical in calling forth fabular memorabilia from past volumes as “Aroint thee, witch,” from the self-recalling elegy “the Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers” out of Some Trees (1956), in glinting shards. These maintain diplomatic relations with the acerbic Ashbery of previous decades, but the strain shows. The belaureled literalist of the imagination now embarked on the shedding of his poetic skin is no longer the wily old serpent slithering about a garden more easily mistaken for the Russian Tea Room than the aboriginal ground zero of the First Nuclear Family. We started becoming decidedly wilier even before 9/11, and irony no longer floats weightlessly for us, as it did in Donald Barthelme’s and David Letterman’s heyday. The schtick honed to razor-thin tolerance in Self-Portrait in A Convex Mirror (1975), Houseboat Days (1977), and Shadow Train (1981) now seems sandblasted rather than polished. Would even the most avid fan of middle-period Ashbery wish to relive days associated with this houseboat?
I saw a cottage in the sky.
I saw a balloon made of lead.
I cannot restrain my tears, and they fall
On my left hand and on my silken tie,
But I cannot and do not want to call them back. . . .
Or this penumbral conveyance, born of preternatural, pre-Reagan-era shakes?
Warren G. Harding invented the word “normalcy,”
And the lesser known “bloviate,” meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The “Ohio Gang” made him. He died in the Palace
Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg,
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio. . . .
There’s nothing especially wrong with verse like this, and academically positioned commentators on Ashbery have found little to censure in it. But then, law firms like Bloom, McClatchy & Shoptaw have labored long and hard to conjure 1) a Stevens from out of the hat Whitman talked through when doing his Elephant Man “I am not an Emersonian” routine; 2) a Stonewall Whitman out of an Ashbery able to exorcise the specter of Camp; and–most jaw dropping of all–3) an Ashbery out of nothing but heavy going and thin air. No, there is nothing particularly egregious about it; there’s just very little about it that isn’t rite (or rote), whether viewed as neo-modernist claque flack or as a clip from Dos Passos’s U.S.A., fast-forwarded and for two cents plain, caught hopelessly between “dippy angstlessness” of a Kenward Elmslie and a Stephen Rodefer’s “deliberate decompositions.” It’s not that Ashbery was writing differently a decade or so after Houseboat Days. It’s that in the years following that book his writing just got better–which is to say, more confident, more accomplished, more flamboyant in the good sense. Better than in a “good sense,” he was writing with a much enhanced musical lambency, with a flair for pure color in technique that might best be termed Heifetz-esque. The bloviating one-upmanship of the ’70s and ’80s had blossomed into what I called a short while ago in this journal, “Yada yada yada for the ages” and a “new American sublime.” The once insistent, seemingly endemic aimlessness of nothing to speak of put superbly–in effect, the “stop making sense” kind of poetry so many critical talking heads identify Ashbery with–had slipped the moorings of “easy listening” and rendezvoused with the two Györgys, Kurtag and Ligeti, fresh from a John Cage festival in Spoleto. The rhetorically elaborate curlicues embellishing Three Poems’s “transumptional” prose did not, as might have been predicted, dissolve into anything as parsable as strings of Arial or Times Roman. They morphed–often with amazing variety and skill–into the mixer of dingbats and antic haymakers that first started making merger and acquisition noises in the sound picture of the Ashbery poem in the Wakefulness (1988), Flow Chart (1991), and Hotel Lautréamont (1992). The page-panel poems go about their dance in less gaffer-like rhythms than the less fetching Ashbery piece of old (yes, Harold, there is such a thing), their organization being substantially freer, their patterning not so much a structuring of sound as a juggling of sound shapes or “talk segments” given to coalescing loosely about a thematic and fronting as their pretext for speech glebe-and-pilings smacking more of a mah-jongg playbook than a scrutable rationale. In Chinese Whispers stanzaic poems continue to rule the roost, though that rule seems to be effecting a diminuendo into little more than a selectively enforced ordinance, as Ashbery’s line bulges ever more provocatively toward the right margin and its phrasal makeup drifts further and further away from that of conventional verse to broach what I should like here to go on record as the first to have identified and named: “superprose.”
Ashbery’s “panel poems” are clearly not to all tastes, many readers likely finding them either poetical fish unable to swim on their own or prosaical fowl as certain of posterity as the dodo. We are left wondering just what topography its sea-legs were meant to negotiate. “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” would raise hackles on almost any definitional body charged with nailing things down:
It was an hour ago. I walked upstairs to dreamland. Took a cab and got out
and somebody else backed in. Now we weren’t actually on the Dreamland
floor. That would be for later. Look, these aren’t the proper plans, plants.
They used to have a Chautauqua here, far out into the lake. Now it’s
peeled. No one actually comes here. Yet there are people. You just hardly
ever see them. No I wasn’t being modest. Some get out on the floor, several
a year, whose purple glass sheds an eldritch glow on the trottoirs, as
Whitman called them. Or spittoons. Look, we are almost half a mile
Later, it must link up. The Tennessee drifter smiled sharkly. Then it was on
to native board games.
Je bois trop.
As with any appreciable stretch of Whitman-speak, the mannered glintings amid the stars define, if only fitfully, constellations of artificiality and even pretentiousness–Chautauqua, eldritch, trottoirs, spittoons, Tennessee, sharkly, Je bois trop–which bring notice cascading down on them like a ton of bricks. Whether as readers we greet those last French words, “no kidding,” or a friendlier one given to offering encouraging nudges like Mais tu biberonnes pas mal, mon vieux, we’re bound to realize that the discontinuities knitted into this fabric have not been idly strewn about. The next textual block, if not adequately connecting up the dots left by the preceding one’s trail mix, at least pencils in some of the lacunae the speaker’s personal life has opened up:
In one of these, called “Skunk,” you are a weasel chasing a leveret back
to its hole when Bop! The mother weasel, about ten stories tall, traps you
with her apron string, patterned with poppies and rotted docks. You see,
you thought every noun had to have an adjective, even “sperm,” and that’s
where you made your first big mistake. Later it’s raining and we have to
take a car. But the game isn’t over–there are sixteen thousand marble
steps coming up, down which you glide as effortlessly as you please, as
though on a bicycle, weasel in tow. It’s an exercise bike. What a time to
tell me, the solar wind has sandpapered everything as smooth as quartz.
Now it’s back to the finish line with you.
Again, the bored seek out games buried within board games: find the unacceptable adjective for “sperm”; pinpoint the precise snakes-and-ladders consequence of having run afoul of the solar wind; ponder the sort of game being played that penalizes a player by whisking him off to the finish line. What are the grander (or grosser) implications of these Freudian prat-follies in which maternal apron strings, weasels and sperm figure prominently? Can we endure waiting to see how this all turns out? No? Well, hold on tight, things get winsomely magical in the final set-to of this Malevich-esque triptych.
You’re not quite out of the woods yet. Dreamland has other pastures, other
melodies to chew on. Hummingbirds mate with dragonflies beneath the
broken dome of the air, and it’s three o’clock, the sun is raining mineral-
colored candy. I’d like one of these. It’s yours. Now I’m glad we came. I
hate drafts though and the sun is slowly moving away. I’m standing on the
poop deck wiggling colored pennants at the coal-colored iceberg that
seems to be curious about us, is sliding this way and that, then turns
abruptly back into the moors with their correct hills in the distance. If it
was me I’d take a trip like this every day of my life.
Not until the very last line do we realize that the cynosure here is not the poet, the ego in propria persona and vocalizing “I” of this Virgilian dreamscape, who is the focus of this Nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita life-quest. For it is not the Dante surrogate who speaks in “Meet me Tonight in Dreamland,” but instead the Virgilian guide empowered to accompany him on his dream-laden journey. He can gloss for him his quest’s rules of engagement, but he cannot stand in for him during the trials he must undertake. And these are possessed of a psychedelic component (“I’d take a trip like this every day of my life”) that is disturbing in the way Alice in Wonderland’s paranoid projections are disturbing: what is threatening about them is precisely what, under different childhood auspices, would render them cuddly, harmless, even denaturedly Disneyesque. The dreamland game is to be played seriously, but it can prove enlightening and even, if we can believe some of the sum of what we are told, life-enhancing. Since it’s dreamland being “gamed,” it’s okay if its contours seem elastically surreal and Copernically helical to a sun amenable to “rain[ing] mineral-colored candy” down on all and sundry. It’s capability of not just abutting reality but transcending it is assured by its ability to adduce “other pastures, other melodies to chew on.” The questor, unlike his pilot, experiences unhinging with equivocal delight (or is it terror?). I would take a trip like this every day of my life–yes: if it was me, but it isn’t; it’s you; and even if “you” is read in a way which in more than one interview Ashbery has sanctioned, as the addressing of a Prufrockian alter-ego, the septum walling off subjective from objective/accusative case would appear deviated in more than just the grammatical sense.
The remainder of Chinese Whispers is no less replete with different pastures and other melodies to chew on, though the verdure of the former is now and then obscured by the aggregate of bull lazing about. “Reminiscences of Norma” gives us an aerial view of Ashberyville that is as letter-predictable as the generic tour of any one of a hundred unnatural monuments, like Universal Studios.
Knowledgeably, she is knowledgeable about many things–
the stars in their errant orbits, a bud
sliding over a hibiscus, a cloud like a frown
on the face of a teddy bear. And then, more stuff.
The inquisitors were endlessly patient, amused–
you had to be in that business.
And if they liked your answer, you were free.
It didn’t have to be true. Streamers, party favors,
confetti–all were yours.
I know now why some have seen the sun sink
and it fed their hunger, they came on unabated.
Is it my lord’s pleasure to mate?
In that case we have pogo sticks of different sizes and colors.
But he may just go away
thinking it enough for that day.
Bicycle came barreling through the sleet–
A bicycle barreling through sleet is probably as disruptive of this sort of tedium as a poem on R & R by this poet is ever likely to get; and even then, business as usual, facing off against the usual at the business of going about its business, ekes a triumph out of its own flatlining. The slight whirr audible between background and foreground is the sound the over-deliberate Ashbery poem gives off when weaving cotton candy out of spun aspertame and that airy nothingness which many hold to be this poet’s stock in trade. Its diligence–and signature style–may be estimable, but its exertiveness is akin to the late jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s, hammering out the same fistful (or elbowful) of themes in an attempt to convert the base mettle of splendid but limited technique into a sound room filled with platinum records. Roughly a quarter to a half of the poems comprising the last five or six Ashbery volumes end up non-starters of the “Reminiscences of Norma” type, and half as many again have only the slightest chance of aceing it in some Futurity Stakes. True, their qualifications as superb excelsior are beyond question, in the way that the supporting army of hundreds of millions of sperm are libelled as chopped liver in the fertilization process, or the seventy or eighty suits owned by Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes were bought simply to keep moths in expensive snack food. (Without that many suits spilling out of his walk-in closet, he once observed in a TV commentary, he would have found it difficult to accept the only two or three he ever actually wore, since being happy with them hung on the illusion of affluent choice having that many suits made possible.)
But keeping poetry secure from adulteration is a far cry from getting it on or suiting up for work. And providing company for the first-rate poems in a volume of poetry is not at all like packing in filler to protect a container’s contents from damage through breakage incurred by their being allowed to rattle around. A book of verse by Ashbery is rather like a honeycomb wrung from full apiary production: the most accomplished poem (in Chinese Whispers the title poem) is its queen bee; a handful of good but not earth-shattering poems comprise the worker contingent; and the filler pieces, there merely to round out the hive, represent the drones. “Reminiscences of Norma” belongs in the drone column, though, like virtually every Asbery poem published since the late ’80s, its workmanship as a sound organ is nearly flawless. Thus,
The inquisitors were endlessly patient, amused–
you had to be, in that business.
And if they liked your answer, you were free.
It didn’t have to be true. Streamers, party favors,
confetti–all were yours. [. . .]
may not have all the stops needed to convey Shakespearean grandeur, but its syntax, as insidiously resourceful as it is playful, manages at least the orotund cockiness Una Ellis-Fermor found in Middleton, Tourneur, and their contemporaries. The problem is, even music as ear-catching as this needs a hook for the reader’s emotions to fasten on, and this poem, for all its dreamy elisions, lacks one. Even the Creeleyesque accidental rhyme–“But he may just go away/ thinking it enough for that day”–registers as only casually mnemonic, while the speaker’s badmouthing of the lady in question no more distances us from her than it brings us closer to him. In other words, that cameo of fleurs du mal-feasance so artlessly etched in “Knowledgeably, she is knowledgeable about many things” might seem to compact the condescensional force present in Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” into a single line, but an entire poem’s distentions are not converted to weapons grade by so crude a granulation process. All of which will suit the Marjorie Perloff people down to their socks, given their unwillingness to see modernism finally laid in its crypt. It just isn’t in them to split differences, especially the altogether copacetic one between an ounce of Ashbery and a cure of Pound.
What is certain to knock those socks off is Chinese Whispers’s utterly irresistible pièce de resistance, “Heavenly Days,” which ends on the same note almost all Ashbery poems sustain in muddling through their garrulous beginnings and even more voluble middles. It is a note that is sounded in virtually all Ashbery poems, no matter the chord or progression being played. It’s instantly recognizable, like a buzz saw in an arboretum:
. . . You shouldn’t make such noises
and not mean them. There’ll come a day when we’ll live off noise,
but for now the square forecourt is overgrown. I’ve loved some things in
cast others aside, let others fall by the wayside. The feast such
as we now reap it is heavy, indistinct. Their voices blur. They would croon.
Each to the other thinks: It’s gone. But rotten. Days will
go on turning themselves inside out for us, and trees warble for us,
but not often and not very well.
But not often and not very well. Life is more than a little like that. The moorings of starting out seem often ill-defined, hazy, even downright unreliable. For one thing, there’s the problem of knowing what depends from what, what stool pigeon to take singing lessons from. It’s hard enough keeping track of where time has gone and with whom:
And what day of the week might this be?
I’ll make a wild guess–it’s Thursday. You’re wrong,
though it seems like a Thursday. They sent me the Times
upstream all the way, it arrived and began to smile, I
was startled, I always am when it’s like that. But this
time it was different, more was at stake, though I don’t know
what, exactly. . . .
Yet it’s amazing how Ashbery can repeatedly abash us with not feeling abraded by all this slandering of high seriousness, this traduction of it to a thing of no importance in its own parlor. As he tells it, everything sooner or later washes up on foreign shores, insured and overseen by facilitators of the not to worry, comradely and reassuring agents of the high-five. Life is a little bit like that: cozy when you need it to be, replete with fast foods magically able to hit the spot, gourmet pleasures uninscribed in anyone’s Michelin’s Guide. Ashbery’s univoice intones what is best heard with a measure of credulity: “Someday I’ll get you there, I know this, the flaming artery obstructs / but not that much, chestnuts still bask in the fire.”
Though that’s a good deal better than what the competition comes up with, even when matching this poet’s publishing rate. Chinese Whispers earns, then, the usual seal of approval accorded new Ashbery collections, though there is no ignoring the flag having been dropped on the field. Not to mark a penalty call, but to interject a note of caution and concern. This new book is, in its own typically characteristic way, a diverting, entertaining, even sparklingly rejuvenating bag of tricks from the most adept prankster American poetry can at present lay claim to. As expected, all the right moves and only a few of the sour notes familiar to readers of the ill-tempered clavier that was April Galleons remain audible. If Chinese Whispers is also something of a mixed bag of tricks, it must be chalked up, in part at least, to the times. Almost nothing is left unadulterated or undenatured in this time when most of the sounds heard are those of other shoes falling. One longs for a period when flights of fancy weren’t hijacked into towers of babble and excursions in coach to someplace other than Gung-ho or Ballyhoo persisted in rumor, if not in fact. Currently, one hears only rumors of fact and facts about rumor, even from sources one would like to imagine as unimpeachable.
But enough about lesser poets and their poetry. It would be surprising in the extreme if at the very least “Chinese Whispers,” “As Umbrellas Follow Rain” and “Heavenly Days” don’t make it into future anthologies, alongside such already slotted classics as And the Stars Were Shining’s title poem, Hotel Lautréamont’s “Seasonal,” Wakefulness’s “The Last Romantic,” and Can You Hear, Bird’s “Strange Cinema.” That the majority of the best Ashbery poems are to be found among his lengthiest (though not, if truth be told, his longest) is no accident. He has long been a cultivator of the long pass–a lazy bullet sent so far downfield ahead of its nearest possible receivers that its being caught is carried more on the wing of a prayer than of a hope. Its longest odds against completion are not so much a matter of distance, or spin put on the ball, or even of unlikelihood that from so far behind a miracle could be pulled off. No, it’s a question of the skill of such a pass working against itself, against the elements of body english torqued into the throw. True, poetry isn’t football, but these days a whole lot of what passes for poetry isn’t poetry either. Furthermore, the chances of a long poem of the sort Wallace Stevens used to write (and Randall Jarrell used to excoriate) being taken seriously as a structure apprehensible to the mind only after numerous intensive readings by anyone other than Bloom and a handful of likeminded critics are, as the metaphor invoked above suggests, well, remote. Not that this has ever stopped our poet, or even slowed him down appreciably. Secure in his own (frequently cited) unquotability John Ashbery, poet, continues to dream colorfully, like the old sailor asleep in his boots of Stevens’s “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock,” of things that make a mockery of curtains, a japery of white nightgowns. That he will likely go on sharing these colorful dreams, even when terrorists threaten war and warriors beat back the threat of terrorism, goes without saying–as do all things securing their importance by being said none the less.
For such condign tootlings of the soul the speaker of an Ashbery poem is, superbly suited, and suited up. With his lower frequencies held decorously in check, the upper harmonics of his sound box provide a subtle grid for that endlessly repeated agon in which Proust rather than Milton reanimates the paradise someone–we won’t say who–took first ten, then twelve books to lose to play upon. The lays of lost paradise (for lost “innocence,” read “youth”) are reprised by an urbane minstrelsy; and dry analogue passion, long dead in fact, is digitally stroked in “Heavenly Days” and other such poems to redemptive spurts of temps retrouvé. Thus, paradise regained proves, like the poetic gifts from which its blessings flow, perennially self-renewing–as self-renewing indeed as what used to be called, in palmier days of our first world, “high fidelity.” However, that realm seems now, in light of war and the death of relaxation, vaguely posthumous, which means that we have little more than words with which to fare forward. And faring is hard–especially forward. Though not all might seem lost, the best cuts certainly do. About us and it is all about us, isn’t it? the lessons of cross-talk are imploding like busted meringues. A sea of enervation, its wrack a fossil-bed of nasty flashbacks, is lapping at our resolve and all the while we are partying with ever less pleasurable affiliation. What better soup for the soul than to believe words alone are certain good? Where the lyric voice holds sway, midrange talks, woofers walk, cheap tweeters hardly need apply. With so many firmnesses gone A.W.O.L. and almost all the chock-a-blocks down for parts, we need a song from heaven’s gate, and that’s no lark.
Can you hear, bird?[/private]