Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
_Breezeway_: John Ashbery and All the News That's Fit
Yesterday I was at the pool with my daughter. As I sat close to the shower, a mother and daughter accidentally sprayed me. I looked down at Breezeway, John Ashbery's newest, and glanced at the opening of "Bunch of Stuff":
To all events I squirted you
knowing this not to be this came to pass
when we were out and it looked good. (34)
If, as Dan Chiasson writes in his New Yorker review of the book, Ashbery "has gone farther from literature within literature than any poet alive," it seems to me that that farther place is often my life as I read his work. Donald Revell has written in "Purists Will Object: Some Meditations about Influence," about the way his memories of reading Ashbery involve the place he sat reading more than the poems themselves. This quality of being inside and outside the literary game at the same time can prove seductive as a reading strategy. For, if Ashbery's work seems random in ways that precede the current use of that word, part of its chance quality involves the reader as a kind of textual palm reader. (As I live within sight of palms, I like this metaphor even more than I might otherwise.)
It's always been hard to write about Ashbery. The richness of his language meets the flatness of surfaces more quickly than for most poets. Just when you think you're reaching altitude, you've crash-landed back where you started (if you factor in the instructions to the jury not to remember your ascent). One of the fall-back positions of the critic is to talk about Ashbery's use of language, his American vocabulary, his uses of colloquial, nay cliched, phrases. As Chiasson notes, "As with most of Ashbery’s work, its medium is composed partly of
language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes
unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a
gift, cheerfully wrapped."
Not sure if he intended to call American speech "garbage," but there you have it, "cheerfully wrapped" we presume, before it begins to smell. Yes, Ashbery is like a baleine through which American words flow and become grist for his mill (he also likes mixed metaphors). One of my favorite lines in this book, under the very American title, "Heading Out," reads: "Your napkin ring is bitch-slapping America." I have no idea why I like that, or why it makes me laugh, but like many lines in this book, it does.
And there are the "crypt words" that John Shoptaw writes about and that Chiasson invokes in his review: "the verb 'to bark down' is almost 'to back down' or 'to break down,'
which I suppose you might do when hit with a storm’s debris; the
meaningless adverb 'jugularly' might be 'jocularly' or 'muscularly,'
misheard through the storm’s strong winds. You’d rather have a 'winch'
than a 'wench' in a storm: the context implies the former, the tone the
latter. These poems conjure a massive mental errata slip made up of what
they almost say and nearly mean." OK, so that last sentence offers up the positive spin on the Ashbery-haters' "it doesn't make any sense so why should I bother." But where is Ashbery's American English located? What is the landscape of his lexicon? If we were to look into what kinds of words he hears, might that lead us somewhere?
So what do the following titles have in common? "Listening Tour"? "Andante and Filibuster"? "Botched Rollout"? "Separate Hearings"? Recent American politics is what. "Listening Tour" begins with an argument between the poet and someone else about the relative value of NBC and CBS and ends with a bizarre take on revolutions put down by farmers, peasants, and "the enlightened classes." Hillary Clinton's run for Senate in New York, an office she won in 2000, featured a "listening tour." I just found an article on that listening tour in a journal called International Journal of Listening (2005). While listening involves the sense of hearing, the journal still has a "vision statement":"The Vision of the Association is to be the international leader of listening practices, teaching, and research." Your purpose in joining the organization would involve your desire to "Access cutting-edge research you can use
professionally and personally to give you a better understanding of how
listening affects all areas in your life."And, as I write this, Hillary Clinton has started another listening tour, this one toward nomination and election as President. If running for office involves listening, especially I suspect if the candidate is female, then the post-election process involves "filibustering." "To filibuster" is the opposite of "to listen"; to filibuster is to speak without expectation that anyone will listen. To filibuster is to fill time with your voice; sound is more important than sense. The word "filibuster," according to the US Senate site, derives from the Dutch word for "pirate." To filibuster is to force a temporal delay. The first stanza of Ashbery's poem mentions "the vote," but the rest of the poem is about a house in decay, a house that needs repair. ""We got a small grant to have the house inspected and / as a result of that discovered a small crack / leading from the front door to the basement." A house divided against itself cannot stand, said Abraham Lincoln. A house in decay needs to be "hosed down," as Ashbery puts it. The poem comes to an inconclusive but sharp conclusion:
No bricks. Just mortar. Ready. Ready for a takeover. The catalpas of reconciliation wilt, proving, if little else, why a good presentation matters.
Walt Whitman spent time at a Union hospital in Virginia. In his "Memoranda during the War," he writes: "Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the
house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a
full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each
cover’d with its brown woolen blanket…." That was a catalpa tree. So, after the failures of reconciliation, from the Civil War to the current House and Senate, have wilted, all that's left is "a good presentation." To filibuster is a mode of public relations, as Rand Paul and Wendy Davis have shown in recent years. It's a making something happen so as to avoid anything happening. Is there a better description of our current political climate? The next poem in Breezeway--note that a breezeway is not a bridge, but serves much the same purpose, linking buildings via a covered walkway--returns us to the language of legislation. "The Ritz Brothers on Moonlight Bay" begins with a vague if grand-ish statement: "We talked about the great error / that you can live with / and really can't afford to get." But it moves quickly back into Congress: "The stalled investigation proved otherwise. / And give back the taxpayers' money. / The space program cost too much anyway." The rest of the poem plays with the notion of "universe" and universal questions: "Oblivion swiftly followed, the universe / playing catch-up"; "A fistful of s'mores / put death itself on the agenda / for future discussion." If the Obama years have been dominated by Republican obstructionism, exemplified by constant filibustering of legislation and nominees for office, then Obama's prime accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was presented to the country in a "Botched Rollout," the title of another poem in the book. In 2013, Obama was attacked for the snarl that ensued when Obamacare went live on the internet: headlines like "Botched ACA Rollout Hammers Obama: Job Disapproval Reaches a Career High" flashed on televisions and computer screens. As Lucia Graves pointed out in one article, the botched rollout was compared to disasters far worse than it could ever be: the sinking of the Titanic, Iraq, the explosion of the Challenger, Waterloo. The poem-vessel fills with words associated with insurance: "claims" (albeit as verb), "estate"; "estimate / / bill"; "repositioning downward." "Why stop to tell the president?" the speaker asks, then wanders into a dark wood: "If one is halfway lost in a demented woodland, / what about the new book?" The new book is what? Is it what's being rolled out? I'm not sure; nor am I sure who "Mr. Wrigley" might be, who "appreciates that," as the poem ends. Though if Mr. Wrigley is heir to a chewing gum fortune, surely he knows something about appreciating values. I've written elsewhere about the poem "Breezeway," which was published in the New Yorker in the middle of a long essay about dementia care. Now that I have Ashbery's book in front of me, I see that it ends with a poem about dementia, "A Sweet Disorder." This is an old age poem such as none I've ever encountered; neither Yeats's rage, nor Bishop's melancholy (& etc.) allude to the disease of our time, Alzheimer's. This poem is paradoxically the most clear in the volume; I'll quote it in its entirety: Pardon my sarong, I'll have a Shirley Temple. Certainly, sir. Do you want a cherry with that? I guess so. It's part of it, isn't it? Strictly speaking, yes. Some of them likes it, others not so much. Well, I'll have a cherry. I can be forgiven for not knowing it's de rigueur. In my commuter mug, please. Certainly. He doesn't even remember me. It was a nice, beautiful day. One of your favorite foxtrots was on, neckties they used to wear. You could rely on that. My gosh, it's already 7:30. Are these our containers? Pardon my past, because, you know, it was like all one piece. It can't have escaped your escaped your attention that I would argue. How was it supposed to look? Do I wake or sleep? The Shirley Temple, a child's drink, ushers in notions of old age as a second childhood. The bartender's question, "It's a part of it, isn't it?" means one thing in the first stanza, quite another in the second, where the question of forgetting enters. The speaker remembers the past his friend forgets, full of foxtrots and neckties. The third stanza may or may not be in the voice of a demented speaker. But his surprise over time, his asking pardon for his past, and especially his repeated words in the line, "It can't have escaped your escaped your attention," point to dementia, as does the confession of irritability ("that I would argue.") This recasts the final line as much more literal than Keats's (repeated here) last line: "Do I wake or sleep?" "Ode to a Nightingale" is also a poem about forgetting; its speaker feels himself pulled "Lethe-ward." He contrasts his own keen awareness of mortality to that of the nightingale, who sings across the generations without ceasing. Ashbery is a Keatsian poet, but the nightingale is his demented friend, singing the refrain of "escaped your escaped your attention." That dementia is a kind of immortality will seem a perversion of Romanticism, but it's the Romanticism of our time, as more and more people get Alzheimer's and fade into waking sleep. And as our politics depends on a metaphorical version of dementia, lurching from one election cycle to the next without the continuity that memory offers. We are listeners trapped in a filibuster of life itself.
Ashbery pulls us away from the poetry of a correspondent breeze into one that fails to correspond, that is more breezeway than breeze. The breezeway protects us against the elements but also takes us away from them. That "nice, beautiful day" of the past cedes to "our containers." We have left our house and moved into a home. John Ashbery, Breezeway. New York: Ecco, 2015.