Saturday, February 01, 2003

 

Robert Grenier’s Sentences, much discussed previously on this site, most recently January 24, are now up on the net at the Whale Cloth Press web site. There is also a link on the Grenier page at the Electronic Poetry Center that takes you directly to the cards themselves – but I think it makes more sense to head first over to publisher Michael Waltuch’s useful notes & it’s both fun & valuable to take a look at the images of the box itself. The electronic site comes very close to replicating the experience of the box itself. Each time you go through the stack, the cards will appear in a different order. I’ve gone through it at least a dozen times in the past couple of weeks, and I don’t tire of the process at all.

 

In New York City on February 8, Grenier will be reading/slide presentation at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea, 535 W. 22nd Street, at 8 PM, 212-680-9889. In addition to the reading/slides, Grenier is, in the gallery’s words, “debuting 2 new suits of iris prints of his drawn poems, and a series of photographs from the notebooks.” These editions will be on view and for sale at the gallery. The gallery plans to keep the prints on display in its viewing room for the following week.

 

Small Press Distribution, incidentally, lists Sentences Towards Birds, the 1975 L Press selection, as still available at $15. This selection of about 50 cards differs from The Box in part also because of the typeface, a crisp Times Roman rather than the blocky Courier of Sentences. However, as only 100 copies of Sentences Towards Birds were printed & the SPD website characterizes it as a paperback when in fact it is a pack of cards in a specially printed manila envelope, I would call SPD directly before I ordered that item: 800-869-7553 (free phone call within the United States).

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Friday, January 31, 2003

 

It’s an old joke among writers that the two ways work can get into a publication – submission & solicitation – entail terms whose sexual connotations are (a) unmistakable & (b) not necessarily representative of free play & mutuality. The problem with the joke is that it isn’t funny. The power imbalance between publisher & the would-be-published remains absolute & more or less unbridgeable: alternatives over the years have certainly been tried – Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling simply asked contributors to send in a specified number of pages, 8 ½ by 11, which were then merely collated – yet the only one that has ever had any serious impact on literary culture has been self-publication (viz. Whitman), & then only very rarely.

 

These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read a comment by the Australian poet Alison Croggon on the British Poets listserv on Tuesday:

 

Examining the New Penguin Book of English Verse, a compendious tome edited by Paul Keegan, it seems to me that women are rarer than modernists in late 20C English poetry.

 

I might amend Croggon’s plahn ever so slightly to postmodernists (or, more accurately, post-avant), but a glance at the table of contents for the work covering that past 30 years or so does seem mostly to be Eavan Boland & the Boys, save for one appearance by Denise Riley – albeit there are some Gaelic names there whose work (& gender) I do not recognize. So while Bunting pops up more than once in the table of contents, names such as Raworth or Prynne or Oliver or Pickard or Harwood sully not its pages for a period whose theme song I imagine must sound rather Wizard-of-Oddish: Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn, Oh My, Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn. Fiona Templeton? Not hardly. Geraldine Monk? Nope. Veronica Forrest-Thompson? Wendy Mulford? Grace Nichols? Hmmmm….

 

Croggon’s point is on target but hardly limited to anthologies. Her observation got me scrolling back among my emails to a note I’d gotten awhile ago from Annie Finch. She had written to the editors of a certain U.S. post-avant publication to congratulate them on a recent issue, and also to ask them why only twenty percent of their contributors happened to be women. Annie was, in her own words,

 

really surprised to hear them say that submissions from women are low in journals committed to the innovative aesthetic, especially considering the (unusually high) significance of many well-known women poets to innovative poetics.

 

This is not encouraging, coming from a journal three of whose four editors happen to be women. In the words of one of its editors,

 

We've discussed the predicament with a couple other editors of innovative work, and they commiserate with the lack of diversity and low volume of women among submitters.

 

We decided in this issue to stick with our aesthetic vision regardless of the gender of the poets, but put out an extra effort to reach out in the next issue.

 

This is where my impatience with the aesthetic passivity of younger post-avant writers &, in this case, editors just starts to boil over. In 2003, with literally hundreds of interesting & accomplished post-avant poets of all stripes actively publishing & reading, why would any journal – & I do mean any – rely on submissions to shape what it will publish?? It’s one thing to accept interesting work that does show up when & as it does, but quite another to depend on it to create your own editorial statement. A journal that hasn’t gone out & actively solicited a good portion – 75 percent or more – of what appears in its pages can hardly speak of having an “aesthetic vision” beyond opening the mail.

 

A•Bacus, edited by a male, has managed to have seven of its last 15 issues written by women authors, suggesting that the approach of going out to find the writers proves to be more inclusive than waiting for the writers to find you. It also enables A•Bacus to create a public presence that articulates its aesthetics vision coherently to a readership in a way that is far harder if one is depending erratically on the unpredictable.

 

Yesterday, Dan Featherston commented on his concern about the “balkanization” of post-avant poetics. From my perspective, that could/would occur only if & when different tendencies refuse to seriously consider one another – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they also need to publish one another, although there will always be interesting possibilities to pick up on writers who demonstrate cross-tendency characteristics. I frankly don’t see balkanization as a danger today nearly so much as I do atomization, hundreds of small press rags publishing good, even great writing will become indistinguishable if they don’t set – and fulfill – readers’ expectations through some mode of aesthetic consistency. That’s why, with all its design flaws, the crumpled issue* of House Organ that turns up in my mailbox is so often a breath of fresh air. It has a point of view.

 

 Annie Finch asked me if the circumstances of this little magazine jibed “with my experience” & if I had any thoughts on why this might be. It has, of course, been over two decades since I edited Tottels &, two years before I printed the first issue I was soliciting the work for it, so I ended up using very few submissions – most notably some from David Gitin – but my memory does in fact “jibe” with that report. Few if any women sent work unsolicited for possible publication even though my first single-author issue back in 1971 was devoted to the work of Rae Armantrout. At one level, I suspect that women – perhaps especially at this moment in history – may just be more sensitive to the implications of the power relationships of editing & publication, and may find them more obnoxious, than do men. That has to do with one’s experience of power & the other experiences to which one might relate it. But even more so, the experience I see that “jibes” with what Annie finds is that far too many journals, by ducking the hard aesthetic questions (i.e., who are you & what are you about?), end up creating the very problems of representation that they then bemoan.

 

It doesn’t need to be the case.

 

 

 

 

* There appears to be a lead poem by Clayton Eshleman in the current number, but I can’t tell you anything about it, because a good portion of the body of the text did not survive the adventures of the U.S. Postal Service.

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Thursday, January 30, 2003

 

Dan Featherston, who edits A•Bacus these days, has some thoughts on the question of editing & shape in today’s far different literary landscape:

 

ron —

 

the diversity issue you raise is something i've been thinking about a lot viz editing. i think that despite the great number of people published in a.bacus, there was an aesthetic stance under peter [ganick]'s editorship (1984-2000): primarily (though not exclusively) language writing.

 

i've tried to expand this aesthetic ("language-influenced," "non-language influenced," "translation series," selection fr lisa jarnot's duncan bio, etc.) in order to bring into the fold a greater diversity that reflects, i think, the many trajectories of "innovative" writing over the past, say, 15 years. i've also tried to focus more on younger/lesser known poets. next year, for the 20-year anniversary of a.bacus, i'll be running issues guest-edited by past contributors.

 

of course, all editing involves exclusion as well as inclusion, but as you seem to point out, diversity can be a euphemism for "lack of vision, lack of stance." having studied several years ago under [clayton] eshleman, i take from him (for better and worse) the importance of making a strong aesthetic/political stance, though i think this has become much more complicated and difficult since, say, the period when he was forming an aesthetic/political stance in the 1960's qua caterpillar: aesthetics and politics have, it seems, become more balkanized. also, there is now a blizzard of print and on-line journals devoted to innovative poetry, which wasn't the case 30 years ago.

 

from my historical perspective (34-years-old), i see the aesthetic/ political positions a lot more balkanized today than, say, 30 years ago, so the difficulty gets grafted onto editing. part of me resists the sort of "fence" approach (i.e., no stance) to editing, which can, i think, devolve into a kind of epcot approach to terrain – "it's all here in miniature!" and another, lesser part of me resists being too partisan / narrow in my editing decisions.

 

all best,

 

dan



Wednesday, January 29, 2003

 

Another new-poet-to-me in Bird Dog 2 whose work catches my eye is Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, a Tibetan-American poet who grew up in exile communities in Nepal & India before coming to the U.S. According to the contributor’s note, she also was the focus of an issue of A•Bacus, which the Potes & Poets website informs me appeared just three issues prior to the one by Richard Deming I looked at last Thursday. Her first poem, “Just the Tools” is brief enough to quote in full:

 

He writes a language still unknown to him. Looks up each word

in the dictionary when he cannot use his hands to show what he really means.

He can lick the surface of her skin, taste its tingle and wonders what good words

would make of the gesture. That he could want more is impossible. He wants

more. In the end his words are more or less. In my heart, he says, are many rivers.

They all flow in the same direction. He sits at a desk every night in case he is needed.

This is his job. Still waiting to become happy – night after night at the desk watching

TV. He does not wish for the good when so much else is closer. Once after a cup

of chocolate, he pushes his tongue against hers to show he is the greatest. He counts

the seconds. Imagines everybody climbing stairs into their rooms to hide a secret.

 

The lines here are so long that I have to think about whether or not this is a prose poem when I retype it here. Because the first line is noticeably shorter than the others, I decide that it most likely is verse. Long as they are, the lines are still shorter than those I find in the review section at the back of Bird Dog.

 

There is a gentle surrealism here, so quiet that it seems possible to miss it as such altogether. Its most evident in the leaps this small fable takes – from using the dictionary to licking “the surface of her skin,” from sitting at the desk to not wishing for good, from counting the seconds to hiding secrets. All these little leaps are very much in keeping with the ambiguity between prose & verse.

 

What is even more interesting, from my perspective, is that a surrealist impulse should show up here at all. In my own mind, I can never fully dissociate surrealism from its European – and especially French – roots. Even today, 69 year’s after Breton’s “What is Surrealism?” there remain strong Francophile aspects to the surrealism tradition in America, felicitous when they encourage a Ron Padgett to translate work from a Duchamp or Apollinaire, less so in the hands of the Chicago Surrealists, such as Franklin & Penelope Rosemont or Paul Garon who mostly seem determined to bludgeon nuance into submission. Europeanism also appears to have been an important aspect of the attraction of the prose poem as a form to Japanese poets such as Miyoshi Tatsuji & Anzai Fuyue in the period immediately prior to World War 2.*

 

Arriving in the United States as boy at the end of the Vietnam War, Linh Dinh – who in recent years has lived both in his native Vietnam & more recently in Italy – employs a far harsher mode of surrealism, visible in “A Reactionary Tale”:

 

I was a caring husband. I bought socks for my family.

 

My swarthy wife liked to wear these thick woolen socks that came up to her milky thighs.

 

I had a lover also. People could see me walking around each evening carrying a walking stick.

 

My most vivid memory, looking back, is of a pink froth bubbling out of my infant’s mouth.

 

Not everything was going so well: one morning, malnourished soldiers marched down our tiny street, bringing good news.

 

When good news arrives by mail, the cuckoo sang, tear up the envelope. When good news arrives by email, destroy the computer.

 

When an old friend came by to reclaim an old wound, I said to my oldest son: Go dump daddy’s ammo boxes into the fragrant river.

 

To reduce drag, some of my neighbors were diving headfirst into a shallow lake.

 

We were rich and then we were poor. A small dog or maybe a cat now pulls our family wagon.**

 

Here surrealism invokes precisely the colonial tone & history of Indochina. It also negotiates marvelously between the contexts of oral history, folk wisdom & the contemporary post-Stalinist culture that became embedded in a regime shaped by decades of war. But the sardonic wit is as American as apple pie. For a poet who once edited a journal entitled Drunken Boat, Dinh evidences virtually no Euro-nostalgia.

 

Nor does Dhompa.*** Hunting around for more of her work on the web, I came across a piece in Vert that excites me even more than the two pieces in Bird Dog. It’s entitled “City of Tin”:

 

Politeness prohibits saying what I really think.

Viaduct: a code for a feeling. Like mauve,

over the street of tarmac: a grave summer day

offering clean streets and a leg longer by perspiration.

Or gannets in sight. That women are said to speak so much

of feelings; as though to clarify would mean its end.

It never is. Clarification I mean. To indicate trust I tell you

the fish is who I look at most these days. For love, for love.

Endings happen. Words I use because I like who I become.

Summer resolved of mysteries. Give me nothing. Tiny, tiny

pebbles used as prop. Tilted and tinted glasses. City

of my desires has lines rigged at the waist. One minute

of sleep at a desk might bring it all down. Words you find

under my nail. (S)wallow. Some night owl effusion.

 

I love the rapid changes in this piece, the way in the last line wallow emerges from swallow, “s,” “w,” “o,” & “l” all reappearing in “some night owl,” perfectly setting up that final word. The Creeley allusion (For love, for love) leads not to the literary, but to set up the later use of reiteration: Tiny, tiny. One can still see the evidence of a surrealist impulse here (the fish is who I look at most or Words you find / under my nail), but it’s just one layer here among many.

 

More than a few poets of my own age cohort have demonstrated a considerable interest in (influence by) the surrealists: Barrett Watten, Ray Di Palma, Alan Davies, Lynn Dreyer, Alan Bernheimer & – perhaps the master in this regard – the late, great Jerry Estrin, all come readily to mind. While it’s easy enough to see that these poets have stayed free of the Euro-fetishism that entangled earlier generations of Yankee surrealism, it’s harder for me to discern if there is something deeper these writers share in common in their relationship to that heritage. And it both intrigues & delights me to see the surrealist impulse showing up again among younger poets, coming now literally from a completely different direction.

 

 

 

 

 

* Tatsuji’s classicist approach led to a poetry that was at once surreal & yet completely devoid of European allusions. The relationship of Europe to the history of Japan is of course particularly complex. Miyoshi Tatsuji would go on to become one of the six poets involved in the 1942 “Overcoming Modernity” symposium. [NB: that link opens an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.]

 

** This poem comes from the exquisitely designed chapbook a small triumph over lassitude.

 

*** & yet Dhompa has been criticized by in the Kathmandu Post for a desire “to forsake the local for the sake of pleasing the global communities of the world.”



Tuesday, January 28, 2003

 

Nico Vassilakis writes a very clean line:

 

The posture of an event is directly

Related to the posture of its participants

 

For instance, we are slaves to our lawns

Photosynthesis laughs at us

 

If you adjust the rabbit ears just right

You can receive your next door neighbor better

 

Meanness is allowed to fester

And it will ruin the spine

 

The pilgrimage is made

To reassert the definition’s truth

 

Glorious water, but even it

Falls victim to gravity

 

Winding its way down to the feet

The head ponders the fascinations of light

 

The birdsong of ancient typewriters

Chattering in the background

 

Vassilakis’ language is quite direct, needing only two commas in these sixteen lines, taken from “Talk is Parting of a Problem: first aspect,” in Bird Dog 2. The line itself is accentuated by the capital at the left margin, but only lightly so. Look at how gently that first line is enjambed, remarkable in that it occurs right in the middle of a verb phrase interrupted by an adverb. The mid-stanza linebreak occurs on, or even in the middle of, the verb phrase four times & two other times at clear moment of syntactic gear shifts.*

 

Part of the secret here is the relationship of the line itself to the couplet ** – of the eight stanzas here, at least six can be read as complete in themselves, although the syntactic hinge between gravity & Winding is deliberately ambiguous (that first line could as easily be read as attaching to the stanza above as to the line below). But it would be a mistake, I think, to view these lines as halved couplets – too many of them get their effect precisely through the way one sets up the next: the bivalent Winding is only the most pronounced example.

 

A clean line in poetry is a rare thing. Only a few poets seem ever able to master it consistently – Michael Palmer, Alan Davies, Chris McCreary – it’s a short list.*** One hardly ever finds it, for example, in Ginsberg, Creeley or Ashbery. It’s not of great interest to Pound or Williams. H.D. could do it, although I think it tends to be hidden by the very shortness of her lines. Zukofsky & Duncan could both write clean lines, although often enough they choose not to. Ditto, more recently, George Stanley.

 

There are, of course, as many reasons to not want a clean line as there might be to desire one. Like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie. Vassilakis does a superb job in the section quoted above of using just such possibilities against themselves. Sort of an anti-Moxley, Vassilakis’ irony meter has arrived at a throbbing red maximum. “Meanness is allowed to fester / And it will ruin the spine” is an absolutely fabulous moment in this regard. It is difficult to imagine how an individual could ever hope to write much better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* At the end of the dependent clause in the third stanza & right before the conjunction in the fourth.

 

** Only the opening line in this poem – or at least in this “aspect” of the poem (the title suggesting that there might well be more) – is not part of a couplet.

 

*** Another poet who has done so at times appears in this issue of Bird Dog – Spencer Selby – although his work here is not particularly an example of that side of his writing



Monday, January 27, 2003

 

Two, no, three things this morning have me thinking about the value of the local. The first was a dream I was still in the middle of when I woke up – I was visiting some old friends whom I had not seen in several years, San Francisco poets, and I was irritated that my visit had been disrupted by waking. I wanted to return to sleep to see them again, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. One was Mary Tall Mountain, who has been dead for several years. As I got going, brushing my teeth & whatnot, I realized that she was the one person from the dream whom I could actually recall well enough to name. It bothered (bothers) me that I can’t recall now who else was there.

 

The second was reading some poetry in the second issue of Bird Dog, a self-described “lo-fi” magazine edited by Sarah Mangold out of Seattle. There is a poet in the issue, Nico Vassilakis, whose work I liked &, when I read his contributor’s note, I had to laugh:

 

Nico Vassilakis is living in Seattle. This statement continues to linger as you read it with your inner voice, in that i am continue to live in Seattle as you read this. it would amuse me to no end to think that you might be read this bio page aloud. perhaps on the bus or standing by the magazine section of a bookstore. or maybe you might scare your pet/s reading the bio section out loud. if you are reading it aloud, i am your new friend.

 

My son Colin didn’t seem at all scared when I read it to him, merely furrowing his brow in the way 11-year-olds do when Dad is being weird, saying, “What?”

 

Two of the new poets whose work I’ve similarly liked in little magazines of late, Thom Donovan & Richard Deming, have both turned out later to be students at Buffalo, so I noted that, whatever else he might be, Vassilakis is not that. & then I thought of how it might be for people like Vassilakis, Mangold or Laynie Browne out there in Seattle, and of all the people around the United States – I simply don’t have the information needed to make any assessments of what it might be like in, say, Canada, Australia or Ireland – who make poetry far from the major urban centers associated with the craft, principally New York & San Francisco in the U.S.

 

The third thing that made me think of this was a web site, a blog actually, Paper Bent, by a young writer who is using the internet to create her own scene as far in the United States as one could imagine from either the Bowery Poetry Club in New York or Small Press Traffic in San Francisco. Lola Ailina Laranang is a 28-year-old mother of five, a native of Hawaii living now in Louisiana, whose partner is a logistics engineer on oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. As rough as the pieces on the site seem –you have to hunt a bit to find them too – the energy & optimism of this woman are stunning.

 

Virtually everywhere I’ve traveled as a poet, I’ve found other writers doing good work, supporting other writers in their community, helping to create whatever local scene might be possible in a circumstance of scare resources. Over the years I’ve come across people such as D.F. Brown in Houston or the team of Chris & George Tysh, Glenn Mannisto & Kofi Natambu in the Detroit of the 1980s, Charles Alexander in Tucson, or Alicia Askenase in Camden, New Jersey, all of whom inspire me for the work they’ve done & do for poetry. Some of these writers – Alexander & Askenase would be examples – also publish more widely & have what I imagine to some degree must be dual lives as writers – one local, the other national or even international in scope. 

 

A poet such as Gil Ott is appreciated widely for both his poetry & fiction. In addition to his own writing, his publication of such poets as Harryette Mullen & Linh Dinh has significantly expanded the range of what is possible for the post-avant landscape. But I think that it’s only in Philadelphia that a person can get a sense of the full range & power of Ott’s influence on his peers. He is easily the most significant poetry institution in the community & has been for a very long time. In nearly eight years here, I never have met a poet who didn’t acknowledge Ott’s impact on their work. Me included.

 

Like the poet-teachers who find themselves as beacons of light in out-of-the-way small colleges, these people are the very heart of writing. Poetry literally could not survive without them. The genre would very quickly dissolve into a phenomenon of a handful of cities & from there would shrink into some kind of bizarre antiquarian behavior, the very thing that it is sometimes caricatured as by non-poets. The reality is that every last one of us is a local poet first & whatever else we might be as writers only after. Some of these people are responsible for local institutions, a reading series or small press, but in many instances they simply function as an example & by way of the verbal encouragement they offer to others.

 

When I was in Russia in 1989, the painter Ostap Dragomoschenko gave me a parting gift of an old Soviet medal that read, in Russian, Hero Worker. I was to keep it for a month, Ostap told me, then to pass it on to somebody whose efforts in some field inspired me, with these same instructions to pass it forward another month hence. I gave the medal to Michael Rosenthal, the senior member of the Modern Times Bookstore collective in San Francisco, who has managed to keep the vision of a politically progressive bookstore alive in a city that is surprisingly inhospitable to good bookshops*, who in turn passed it on to someone else (I forget who) with the same instructions. I’d like to imagine that, 14 years later, that medal is still circulating. I would love to award each of these poets just such medals for their efforts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Yes, I’m sure it’s worse in your town than in SF, but that doesn’t make San Francisco good.



Sunday, January 26, 2003

 

The poetry of John Ashbery is all about surfaces: the text glides, line by line, from image to image, subject to subject, seldom permitting readers to go deeper into any envisioned landscape. Other poets who have written texts with a high surface textuality – think of Coolidge’s Quartz Hearts or The Maintains, Barrett Watten’s Progress, or Peter Ganick’s Agoraphobia – have tended to focus on a high overall finish, a surface that maintains its texture, its aesthetic consistency, regardless of what might transpire at other levels. It’s almost the verbal equivalent of a highly polished metal.

 

Not so Ashbery. Reading his poetry is like finding cotton balls, children’s toys & shards of glass in your oatmeal. One proceeds with caution, an anticipatory anxiety all the more curious given just how affable almost everyone you’ll meet along the way will turn out to be. A really good case in point is “A Sweet Place,” which might just be the finest single poem in Chinese Whispers.

 

The poem begins with one of the most extended schemas in Chinese Whispers, the image atop of a cocoa tin:

 

How happy are the girls on the cocoa tin,

as though there could be nothing in the world but chocolate!

As though, to confirm this, a wall stood nearby,

displaying gold medals from various expositions –

Groningen 1893, Anvers 1887 – whose judges had had the good sense

to reward the noble chocolatiers. All love’s bright-bad sweetness

gleams in those glorious pastilles.

 

Ashbery here employs a cinematic trope, starting with the static image, then entering into it. All is literal sweetness & light, although the careful reader will already have picked up on the set up the parallels “as though…/ As though,” sending, as these phrases do, shivers of foreboding through the text, reaching all the way to that curious last word, pastilles, literally flavored or medicated tablets. Whether the reader attaches that term to the gold medals or to the chocolates hidden within the tin itself, the word itself is far enough askew from any possibility to torque the entire tableaux. Which I suspect is exactly the point. The word all but rings a bell to announce the shift that arrives in the next to sentences, accented by having the text continue to the right of pastilles, but one line down.

 

But the empathy’s valve’s

shut by someone – a fibrous mist

invades their stubborn cheeks and flaxen hair.

Time for the next audition.

 

At one level, the cinematic trope is carried further & trumped as the reader recognizes that “the girls on the cocoa tin” are little more than models or aspiring actresses, shuttling about from shoot to shoot. At a second level, the language in that first sentence is positively bizarre – empathy itself is alienated by having it capped with the article the; an impossible image is offered, fibrous mist, followed by a curiously awkward one, stubborn cheeks. This sentence demonstrates exactly what I mean about Ashbery’s surfaces – if he wanted to carry the trope through with flair, all the deliberate awkwardnesses here, as though the writer himself has suddenly discovered English to be a second language, work against the intention. But that in fact is this sentence’s very purpose, sabotaging the very schema within which it finds itself.

 

The next stanza, a mere couplet, changes the frame, perhaps:

 

Who to watch? What new celeb’s dithering

is this, commemorated in blazing script?

 

Does Ashbery intend for us to continue the cinematic trope beyond the stanza break, to see the portrait on the chocolate box as a mere incident in a celebrity bio, the latest E! True Hollywood Story? Or does he intend us to hear that level merely as an echo, distanced precisely by the cocoa tin’s retro nature contrasted against the abbreviated celeb’s ultra-courant flair? My own interpretation is the latter, although I suspect a frenzied grad student, desperate for coherence, might prefer an alternate verdict.

 

If this couplet has been the shard of glass in the oatmeal, the next stanza offers the whole toy store. Notice how, in these opening lines, Ashbery offers the reader possible connectors to the rapidly receding schemas that have come before.

 

The torches are extinguished in marl.

 

Were there torches in that initial cocoa tin image? Not impossible, but . . . .

 

I live in a house in the middle of the road,

it says here. No shit!

 

It says here could in fact take us back to the celeb’s dithering in blazing script. But it’s a link that goes nowhere, precisely as intended. With the expletive, the focus now shifts onto the speaker, where it continues.

 

What did I do to deserve this? Who controls

this anger management seminar? They’ve had their way with me;

I am as I was before. Thank heaven! If I could but remember

how that was.

 

This is classic Ashberyan technique: sentence after sentence undercuts what has just gone before. All that coheres is the presence of a speaker, however comically crazed he might appear.

 

This passage is followed immediately by a long sentence in italics.

 

Always, it’s nightfall

in a wood, some paths are descended,

and looking out over the ropy landscape, one sees

a necessity that was at the beginning.

 

This sentence also has an antecedent, although only rhetorically. It’s the passage about the empathy’s valve toward the end of the first stanza. As before, awkwardness is its own virtue, the use of commas where others might have employed periods, the “ropy landscape,” the vast generalization of the last line. All of it in an italicization that will depart as abruptly as it arrived.

 

When the stanza continues, reverting to roman –

 

Further up there is fog.

 

we have no means of locating this positional statement. Are we figuratively in the wood, in the middle of the road, back on the cocoa tin? There is no way to tell. We have arrived, as we almost invariably do in Ashbery’s poems, in a landscape that is filled with character, yet indescribably abstract.  Ashbery now reinvokes the presence of a speaker, acknowledging the listener for the first time:

 

But it’s nice being standing:

We should be home soon,

dearest, a dry heath awaits us, and the indulgence of sleep.

What if I really was a drifter,

would you still like me? Would you vote

for me in the straw polls of November, wait for me

in the anteroom of December, embrace the turbulent, glittering skies

the New Year brings? Lie down with me once and for all?

 

As with pastilles above, the instant at which Ashbery starts to undermine the intimacy of this discourse is marked as sharply as if a bell were being rung, in this instance with the terminal word of the fifth line, vote. The rhetorical questions continue, only blown up to comic proportions. Even before vote, the use of dearest suggests a degree of privacy in this communication that Ashbery has already long given away.

 

We pass now over the gulf of the book’s binding to the next page, to what may in fact be a new stanza (both tone & shorter line lengths suggest as much):

 

The radio is silent, fretful; it bides its time

and the world forgets to consider. There is room to tabulate

the wonders of its sesquicentennials,

but the aftermath’s unremarkable, picked

clean by a snarky wind.

 

Again, this passage is entirely about surface tone – the poem is coming to its conclusion, even as it has become impossible to discern what that conclusion might be. Instead of action, we get aftermath, forgetfulness, silence. Everything but that irritable snarky suggests closure – and it is snarky’s task precisely to undercut the gesture.

 

But the poem isn’t over yet. It has one more one-line stanza, all in italics:

 

Then I became as one who followed.

 

Because we have had the figured speaker before, the return of “I” is plausible. The line itself suggests an event that has thus prefigured a change, but events are precisely what we have not found in this poem, only tone & attitude. The most important word in this last line turns out to be as, which both qualifies the assertion – he’s not saying that he’s one who follows, only “as one” – and harks back for the first time since the opening stanza to the parallel uses of as in its second and third lines. As turns out to be what finally “holds the poem together,” to the degree that anything here might.

 

Ashbery’s poem is thus significant moment to moment & formally very cagey, yet overall it’s a self-canceling (not to say self-devouring) artifact, all superstructure & no base as old retro Stalinoids might put it.

 

It’s intriguing, perhaps even shocking, that Ashbery should turn out to be the great cross-over hit of U.S. poetry, the one New American beloved by the schools of quietude. His work consistently parodies such modes, sometimes (as in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) with a viciousness that makes you question just why Ashbery puts so much energy into mocking a poetics he so evidently despises, as if somehow he believes (fears) that the realm of the Howards & Hollanders, of the Blooms & Vendlers, were all that was the case. It’s the ultimate Ashberyesque nightmare: doomed forever to entertain monsters, he’s chosen to serve them this tray of perfect vomit-filled crepes.



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