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.