A weblog focused on contemporary poetry and poetics.
Saturday, February 01, 2003
Robert Grenier’s Sentences, much discussed previously on this site, most
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 ElectronicPoetryCenter 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 , 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).
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.
the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read a comment by the Australian
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
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.
Monk? Nope. Veronica Forrest-Thompson? Wendy Mulford? Grace
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Dan Featherston, who edits A•Bacusthese
days, has some thoughts on the question of editing & shape in today’s far
different literary landscape:
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 frlisajarnot'sduncan
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.
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
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 WorldWar 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
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 Vertthat 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
Or gannets in sight. That women are said to speak
of feelings; as though to clarify would mean its
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
Summer resolved of mysteries. Give me nothing.
pebbles used as prop. Tilted and tinted glasses.
of my desires has lines rigged at the waist. One
of sleep at a desk might bring it all down. Words
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
More than a few poets of my
own age cohort have demonstrated a considerable interest in (influence by) the
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.]
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 Dog2. 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
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.
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
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 MaryTallMountain, 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 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 AilinaLaranang 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
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 & KofiNatambu 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.
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
The poem begins with one of
the most extended schemas in Chinese
Whispers, the image atop of a cocoa tin:
happy are the girls on the cocoa tin,
as though there could be nothing in the world but
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
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
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
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
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.
torches are extinguished in marl.
Were there torches in that
initial cocoa tin image? Not impossible, but . . . .
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.
did I do to deserve this? Who controls
this anger management seminar? They’ve had their way
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
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.
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:
should be home soon,
dearest, a dry heath awaits us, and the indulgence of
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,
the New Year brings? Lie down with me once and for
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):
radio is silent, fretful; it bides its time
and the world forgets to consider. There is room to
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’stask precisely to undercut the gesture.
But the poem isn’t over yet.
It has one more one-line stanza, all in italics:
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.
Ron Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, although his parents stayed there just long enough for his mother to learn that one could step on field mice while walking barefoot through the snow to the outhouse, and for his father to walk away from a plane crash while smuggling alcohol into a dry county. Silliman has written and edited 40 books, most recently if wants to be the same as is: Essential Poems of David Bromige, co-edited with Jack Krick & Bob Perelman, from New Star Books, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 16 languages. Silliman was a 2012 Kelly Writers House Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the 2010 recipient of the Levinson Prize,from the Poetry Foundation. His sculpture Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently on display in the transit center of Bury, Lancashire, and he has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, PA. Silliman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.