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A Holiday in Reality

What we have here,” the narrator of the title poem (which is in prose) of Where Shall I Wander declares, “are certain individuals intent on disarraying the public gravitas of things.” For over fifty years now Ashbery has been one of those most adept at revealing how “the public gravitas of things” can be disarrayed, challenged, neutralized, re-angled, turned inside out, or at the very least sifted and leavened. This new volume, his twenty-first, offers the burdened—or thrill-seeking—reader yet another extended and beguiling invitation to embark on what Wallace Stevens once shrewdly called a “holiday in reality.”

Its title is lifted from one of Mother Goose’s most enduring songs:

Goosey goosey gander
Where shall I wander
Upstairs and downstairs
In my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers
So I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

Ashbery has always been drawn to the anonymous traditions of ballads and nursery rhymes; lines and passages get braided into poems such as “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid’” (Houseboat Days, 1977), which is based on a sixteenth-century anonymous ballad, “Forgotten Song” (April Galleons, 1987), which opens, “O Mary, go and call the cattle home,/For I’m sick in my heart and fain would lie down,” and more recently “Sir Gammer Vans” in Chinese Whispers (2002), which revisits the fairy-tale world of a giant who lives in a thumb bottle and has a garden where a fox hatches eagle’s eggs, and an iron apple tree covered entirely in pears and lead.

From such borrowings there emerges an implicit defense of Ashbery’s own penchant for the irrational and unlikely; how different is his particular brand of topsy-turvy illogic from that of the tales and lyrics handed down orally over the centuries? Why should he not be free to address his gander and to wander at will, “commingl[ing],” as he puts it in “Fantasia,”

with the little walking presences, all
Somehow related, to each other and through each other to us,
Characters in the opera
The Flood, by the great anonymous composer.

The peculiar solvent of Ashbery’s humor, and the metamorphic shifts of tone and perspective that are his much-imitated trademark, have served to illustrate any number of disquisitions on the postmodern condition. Like the Stevens of “Academic Discourse at Havana,” he enjoys mimicking the linguistic strategies of his interpreters (“we ‘unpack’ paradigms of/ unstructured mess”), and into the shimmering pageant of landscapes and characters that make up “Where Shall I Wander” he introduces

a cosmic dunce, bent on mischief and good works with equal zest, somebody fully determined to be and not disturb others with his passive-aggressive version of how things are and ever shall be—the distinguished visiting lecturer.

Perhaps if anyone is to be thrown down the stairs of Ashbery’s almost disconcertingly hospitable set of poetic chambers, it is the overzealous exegete who insists on attempting to parse into gravitas his various and beautiful explorations of disarray.

For Ashbery meaning has always been only one element in the experience poetry offers. “I am not ready,” he reflected in his long poem “The Skaters” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966), “To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,/Will not do so for the moment.” Explanation is costly in that it usurps upon the power of poetry to destabilize or render mysterious or even magical the language we learn and use to survive. Ashbery’s wandering involves making words themselves wander from our expectations of them, freeing them from their moorings in sense and utility, investing them with an aura that is necessarily difficult to define, since its potency depends upon evading the efforts of the conscious mind to fix and label it. The mock animus directed at the distinguished visiting lecturer may derive from the threat he or she poses to this state of namelessness, for, as in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in Ashbery’s world the poet’s power to spin straw into gold continues only as long as he believes his identity remains a secret.

Ashbery’s linguistic errancy seems to me his way of recovering the quest for freedom and enchantment that motivated Romantic poets. If he does not himself wander lonely as a cloud or believe poetry can induct the initiate once and forever into the “The Eve of St. Agnes“‘s dreamy “lap of legends old,” he yet develops a medium in which the various idioms that structure our consciousness or sense of reality lose their purposefulness, their “gravitas,” and are infused instead with a weird, addictive buoyancy. In the course of his career Ashbery makes use of a panoply of techniques that serve to create a wry, genial self-consciousness about the kinds of language that surround and inhabit us, from the hoariest cliché or advertising jingle to the most literary attempt to figure the ineffable. While a Modernist such as T.S. Eliot agonized over the way words “Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still,” Ashbery is untroubled by their slipperiness and mobility, and indeed finds in their imprecision a means of establishing a kind of unspoken, sidelong communion with the reader.

Far from seeking to purify the dialect of the tribe, Ashbery relishes the impurities, non sequiturs, mixed metaphors, and interruptions that constantly derail our thought processes and speech habits and the stories with which we try to make sense of our lives. His poems are all “emotional slither,” to borrow a phrase from one of Ezra Pound’s fiercest denunciations of the evils of fin-de-siècle poetry, and cherish the worn and hackneyed because, as he once put it in an interview, “what people say to each other when they are trying very hard to communicate is always sloppy and unsatisfying and full of uncompleted sentences and thought.” “It’s that kind of speech,” he adds, “that I find very poignant and moving.”*

It is perhaps the interplay between the different dictions deployed in any given Ashbery poem that most effectively engenders the sense of floating on high o’er the vales and hills of language, at once curious, disbelieving, semi-intoxicated, and amused:

The year subsides into clouds
more beautiful than any I have seen—
drifting equestrian statues, washing lifted by the wind.
Down here bodies made somber by the cold
meet and diverge at angles. Nothing is given
that may not be retracted. Our fires are glacial,
lighting up the polar backdrop. If you came it
would be in mid-parenthesis now, season of your engaging,
seminar not going anywhere. (I must wall these off;
nothing but a tree would pass here.)

In his early work, in particular The Tennis Court Oath of 1962, Ashbery experimented with collage, splicing together snippets from newspapers, magazines, and pulp fiction (most extensively in the long poem “Europe,” from an English spy novel by William Le Queux called Beryl of the Biplane, 1917), to create radically disjunctive texts that foregrounded their iconoclasm, their assault on the conventions of reading and writing. Though condemned by reviewers at the time and by critics such as Harold Bloom since, the book had a strong influence on the development of avant-garde poetry in America, particularly on such writers as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, who are dedicated to exposing the constructed nature of all language systems. Ashbery himself, however, backed away from his cut-up poems’ wholesale refusal of the resources of the lyric tradition. The style he evolved in the poems collected in Rivers and Mountains, and has been refining and expanding ever since, is perhaps most startling and original in the pressure it puts on syntax to link the properties and multiply the perspectives that unroll and unravel in each sentence. In “Rivers and Mountains” itself, for instance, map and landscape, representation and what is represented, become inextricably confused in the expansive sweep of Ashbery’s wide-angled poetic lens:

On the secret map the assassins
Cloistered, the Moon River was marked
Near the eighteen peaks and the city
Of humiliation and defeat—wan ending
Of the trail among dry, papery leaves
Gray-brown quills like thoughts
In the melodious but vast mass of today’s
Writing through fields and swamps
Marked, on the map, with little bunches of weeds.

The momentum of the lines allows one no time to disentangle the puzzling relationship between quills and thoughts, or today’s writing and the map’s bunches of weeds. To continue reading one must agree to suspend such worries, and learn to live with—or even enjoy—the plenitude of half-glimpsed connections and half-understood speculations, the unfurling of an amalgam of propositions, narratives, characters, and landscapes intermixed in whatever proportions the poem needs to sustain its onward progress.

The obscure fear of impending doom that seems to propel a poem such as “Rivers and Mountains” evokes the minatory Auden of the Thirties, who loved threatening a complacent bourgeoisie with the unwelcome news that it was later than they thought, that “the dragon’s day, the devourer’s” was rapidly approaching, ready to scatter them like so much “torn-up paper/ Rags and utensils in a sudden gust.” Ashbery has rarely, however, assumed such a prophetic stand, and he tends to speak more as the reflective, doubting victim of national paranoia than as the scourge of the times. “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse” menaces the title of this book’s opening poem, in defiance of the fundamental Ashberyan principle of insouciance most fully expounded in “Grand Galop” (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975):

Someone is coming to get you:
The mailman, or a butler enters with a letter on a tray
Whose message is to change everything, but in the meantime
One is to worry about one’s smell or dandruff or lost glasses—
If only the curtain-raiser would end, but it is interminable.
But there is this consolation:
If it turns out to be not worth doing, I haven’t done it;
If the sight appalls me, I have seen nothing:
If the victory is pyrrhic, I haven’t won it.
And so from a day replete with rumors
Of things being done on the other side of the mountains
A nucleus remains, a still-perfect possibility
That can be kept indefinitely.

Preserving that sense of possibility, in however attenuated a form, lies at the heart of Ashbery’s poetics: in “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse” he calls it the “pact we made with heaven,” a pact which, though often obscured, violated, or seemingly abandoned, struggles on under a kind of indefinite reprieve. Ashbery’s poems often proceed by establishing, or at least setting up, a nonsense–verse–style equation between positives and negatives, as assumptions beget counter-assertions, qualifications, and refutations, and the poem finds itself im-provising a course toward, if not stability, a temporary conclusion that at least enables an increased awareness of the various forces in play. At times this can make him seem like a distant descendant of Lewis Carroll’s mad gardener, whose first impressions are corrected in each verse in the most dramatic of ways:

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was The Middle of Next Week.
“The one thing I regret,” he said, “Is that it cannot speak!”
He thought he saw a Garden-DoorThat opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it wasA double Rule of Three:
“And all its mystery,” he said,”Is clear as day to me!”

If Ashbery sets about making mysteries as clear as day, it is not because he claims he can solve them, but because he so thoroughly domesticates them that they come to seem an accepted part of banal, quotidian existence. Ashbery was one of the first poets to move decisively beyond the Symbolist ideal of the poem as a hermeneutic labyrinth to be negotiated by the questing reader. His early work is full of jokes about the absurdity of approaching art as a set of clues that will lead the eager adept to the prize of some final truth. “They Dream Only of America,” written in 1957, spoofs the notion of the poet or reader as literary detective, armed only with a copy of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life:

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.
“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.
And I am lost without you.”

Still earlier, in his play of 1950, The Heroes, which transplants the cast of the Trojan Wars along with assorted other legendary ancient Greek characters to a gossipy Long Island house party, we learn from Theseus what his confrontation with the minotaur really involved:

Well, as I think I said, the minotaur itself was the least important part of the whole scheme. I’d always supposed the world was full of fakes, but I was foolish enough to believe that it was made interesting by the varying degrees of skill with which they covered up their lack of integrity. It never occurred to me that the greatest fake of all would make not the slightest effort to convince me of its reality…not a pretense! But there it was—a stupid, unambitious piece of stage machinery…. There was nothing to do but give the thing a well-aimed kick and go home.

In Ashbery, then, dilemmas are insistently flattened, plowed into the contours and textures of everyday life, absorbed into the business of what he calls in “Soonest Mended” (The Double Dream of Spring, 1970) being “good citizens,”

Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.

Ashbery’s poetry offers an education in not being sure, in the almost oxymoronic process of “careless/Preparing,” which allows the law, if not to be ignored, at least to be fashioned partly into one’s own citizen’s code of conduct: “We were warned,” “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse” begins,

about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places—
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?

A casual, pervasive twisting of idiom is Ashbery’s poetry’s most instinctive reflex, the alternative his work offers to the Sturm und Drang of expressionist or confessional drama. As at the end of “Soonest Mended,” the poem’s “we” are neither exactly embattled nor quite at home in the “yards the municipality had created,” their attempts at assimilation at once subtly askew and gently thwarted. Although we never learn why it is that all of the neighbors they peculiarly have to drive downtown to see are out, the frustration of their sociable impulses seems to generate their partial withdrawal—but one that takes place within the parameters of “good citizenship.” For all his dislike of “gravitas,” Ashbery has never been tempted into pledging allegiance to any of the varieties of counterculture or tribal grouping that have washed over America since the Sixties, and rather stubbornly he still cherishes the old Whitmanian ideal of aiming the poem at as wide a constituency as possible, however marginal the poet’s current status within society itself. Occasionally he seems to send up this concept (“Attention, shoppers,” begins “Wolf Ridge,” in this volume) and at other times to lament it, as in “Annuals and Perennials,” which concludes somewhat ruefully: “We have shapes but no power.”

But Ashbery’s particular gift has been to find ways of inhabiting, rather like the cuckoo that takes over other birds’ nests, the manifold registers of public discourse and literary genre that appear in his work, “nestling” there, offering neither clear-cut protest nor unskeptical endorsement. The perspectives his deformations make available never quite coalesce into irony—of the kind one finds, say, in The Waste Land—because Ashbery is reluctant to commit to the other side of Eliotic irony, belief in a pure or sacramental language in opposition to the demotic and everyday. Moments of vision or conviction—“the charity of the hard moments”—are figured by Ashbery as “doled out” along with life’s other surprises, on an unpredictable, random basis. His poetry is much more about discovering means of belonging in, to borrow some lines from Wordsworth’s The Prelude,

the very world which is the world
Of all of us, the place in which, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.

Nevertheless, the elegiac tone that surfaces periodically throughout this book derives from Ashbery’s delicate layerings of past and present, of here and elsewhere, of landscapes and dreamscapes. Casting a backward glance o’er traveled roads releases in him, however, no Whitmanian collective optimism or Wordsworthian celebration of his own election, but rather a neutral assessment of his ars poetica of neutrality, or what he called in “Soonest Mended” “a kind of fence-sitting/Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse” continues:

In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

If the “he” who interrupts the pastoral drowsiness is a muse figure, his eruption into the poet’s life seems to make only an oblique difference; and if the imagery of turning around and losing glancingly refers to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as so often in Ashbery a mythical narrative finds itself subsumed into the business of refracting a condition one might call chronic, beyond narratives of final loss or recovery. “Nothing could save us,” as he puts it in one of this volume’s many prose poems, “And Counting,” “except the inevitable breaking of the text at the end of the chapter, a micro-redemption, like a green ray.”

In the third and final paragraph of “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse,” the “he” metamorphoses into an image of the ideal, an “original rock crystal” who seems a version of Wallace Stevens’s concept of major man or the ideal poet, “the man of glass,/Who in a million diamonds sums us up.” This “glass man,” Stevens writes in “Asides on the Oboe,”

cold and numbered, dewily cries
“Thou art not August unless I make thee so.”
Clandestine steps upon imagined stairs
Climb through the night, because his cuckoos call.

Ashbery too finds space and solace in contrasting his own habits of “disarray” with a slightly more solicitous figure of monumental power:

In skid-row, slapdash style
we walked back to the original rock crystal he had become,
all concern, all fears for us.
We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring.
Only beware the bears and wolves that frequent it
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.

Stevens’s “Asides on the Oboe” concludes with the claim that death and war (the poem was written in 1942) only increase the man of glass’s relevance and power:

It was as we came
To see him, that we were wholly one, as we heard
Him chanting for those buried in their blood,
In the jasmine haunted forests, that we knew
The glass man, without external reference.

The extreme bifurcation dramatized in “Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse” between the slapdash poet and the rock crystal embodies a less comprehensive and assertive vision of what poetry may accomplish. The moment of self-possession in the chilly spring is menaced by both time and roving predators indifferent to the poet’s concerns. While Stevens’s hero manages to subdue the jasmine-haunted forests, the law of which ignorance is no excuse in Ashbery’s poem seems closer to the law of the jungle.

Ask not,” we are instructed in “Sonnet: More of Same,” “why we do these things. Ask why we find them meaningful.” Ashbery’s meanings are always presented in such a way as to make us aware of the processes of meaning-making itself, processes his poetry nearly invariably privileges over the urge to define or conclude. The shadow that falls when you were expecting dawn signals the end of the party, the dressing up, the screwball stories, the scrambling of taglines (“No beating about the bed of roses here!”), the interludes of lyricism, the sudden aporia (“The delusion comes undone with a roar”), the jokes and allusions and puns that glitter like mica in Ashbery’s “experiment perilous.” We are bid farewell from Where Shall I Wander by a madly outfitted couple seemingly at ease with their own eccentricities, which makes one wonder if it isn’t their shared delight in the eccentric that unites them:

You wore your cummerbund with the stars and stripes. I, kilted in lime, held a stethoscope to the head of the parting guest. Together we were a couple forever.

  1. *

    Interview with John Murphy,” in Poetry Review (London), Vol. 75, No. 2 (August 1985), p. 20.

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