When it was first announced, John Ashbery’s new book had a title—Paradoxes and Oxymorons—that called up Donne’s Paradoxes and Problems (the usual title for a collection of short pieces circulated privately in Donne’s lifetime and posthumously published). Ashbery’s witty variation placed propositional impossibility (paradox) next to figurative impossibility (oxymoron) to tell us that he was about to propose the contradictions of life in the contradictions of rhetoric. An oxymoron (“dazzling darkness”) is a paradox compressed into a single self-contradicting phrase, and is therefore the show-off among figures of speech.
A poetry composed of paradoxes and oxymorons—whatever the content of either—announces, by its use of these two figures, that things cannot to the will be settled (as Keats put it); that life, when thought about, gives rise to the ultimately frustrating conviction that things are and are not, can be and cannot be, must be and will not be—that life famishes where most it satisfies. The great source book in English literature for paradoxes and oxymorons of Ashbery’s sort is Shakespeare’s Sonnets—where life is consumed with that which it was nourished by, where blackness turns fair, and loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
If the reflective and discursive verse of paradox represents one extreme of lyric, the opposite extreme is song. Song and reflection are the two sources of lyric, and poems move along a continuum between them. Song alone is tenuous, and reflection alone is ponderous; song requires some ballast of analysis, and reflection requires some leaven of buoyancy. When song and reflection join, lyric is born. All lyrics tend toward one or the other of the extremes, and must be judged according to their kind: if Ashbery’s new book hovers toward the pole of reflective analysis (however bizarre), Louise Glück’s Descending Figure (her third book) leans to the pole of song. I hasten to add that Ashbery’s rhythms are as seductive as ever, and that Glück’s poems exemplify Lowell’s remark about poets’ mental processes—“We thought in images.” Glück’s weighted images move magnetically toward configurations; they glow toward each other in responsive understanding; they cohere in constellations. Ashbery’s sentences are not centripetal; their orbits are long ellipses, full of the irregularities of planetary distraction. Or, like sociable comets, they trail a dispersal of attention behind them that nonetheless assembles into a coda, something visible.
It is easy to imagine Glück’s poems being set to music as a song-sequence; they have the intensity of a chain of emblematically significant moments, fixed in time. Ashbery’s paradoxes, though, are composed under the aegis of the goddess he calls Forward Animation (who, with her two sister Fates, presides over the soft-sculpture alphabet of life):
The tent stitch is repeated in the blue and red
Letters on the blocks. Love is spelled L-O-V-E
And is echoed farther down by fear. These two are sisters
But the youngest and most beauti- ful sister
Is called Forward Animation.
…Of her it may be said
That what she says, she knows, and it will always come undone
Around her, as you are thinking, and so the choice
Is still and always yours, and yet
You may move on, untouched….
This is a characteristic set of paradoxes: that we are still children spelling out letters in the heart’s hornbook, that L-O-V-E and F-E-A-R echo each other in stalemate, but that in any case—whether love conquers the fear of love, or the fear of love defeats the temptation to love—we will find either choice undone by Nemesis, her irresistible foot advancing on through time.
Nemesis is every truth’s undoing; as she utters any truth, it dissolves in change. We can choose love, or choose fear, or choose to remain untouched; the one certainty is that we move on. Ashbery shifts into another cliché, the river of time; but just as he revivifies Nemesis by calling her Forward Animation, so he re-invents the Heraclitean flux, making it first a cascade and then a deluge, which as fast as we can define ourselves de-defines us. Nemesis watches our plight, as Keats said a superior being might be amused by us just as we are by the beasts. The only solution is for us to adopt toward ourselves the godlike indifference of Nemesis:
You may move on, untouched. The glassy,
Chill surface of the cascade reflected her,
Her opinions and future, de- defining you. To be amused this way
Is to be immortal, as water gushes down the sides of the globe.
The deluge in Ashbery’s last line brilliantly transforms the (limited) cascade into the limitless ocean, the ocean seen from an unnervingly distant perspective in space, the perspective of the Fates who can look on terror from afar. Ashbery’s paradoxes—of choice vitiated by necessity, love undone by fear, love and fear alike “dissolved in the stream of history,” history itself “de-defined” in deluge—make the title of this poem, “Oh, Nothing” perfectly just. “What did you say?” “Oh, nothing”—since by the time it is said it is snuffed out, canceled (“those / Now empty pairs of parentheses”), or evaporated, like a dazzling shower “Sucked back up into the peacock’s-feather eye in the sky / As though through a straw.”
Each of the fifty poems in Shadow Train resembles a sonnet, even though Ashbery’s “sonnets” (like Meredith’s in Modern Love) have sixteen lines each, in four stanzas of four lines. The sonnet form seems so inescapable in English that every century since the sixteenth has generated it anew, rhymed and unrhymed, enlarged and diminished. Stevens wrote fifteen-line “sonnets” in “Sunday Morning” and “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” but they often felt more Petrarchan (falling into two parts) than Shakespearean. Ashbery’s four stanzas make his “sonnets” look Shakespearean, and often they are (though his quatrains tend to run over to the next line, in his confiding haste). In these poems, the loquacious poet of “Litany” (Ashbery’s long double-columned poem) is contracted into a stricter narrator of summary fate. Brevity requires that Ashbery’s characteristic sleight-of-hand proceed even more rapidly than usual. Ashbery’s metaphors rarely connect with each other on a horizontal plane; instead, each radiates out from a central notion animating the lines. I take a typical three-line passage as illustration; it reads,
…The endless ladder being carried
Past our affairs, like strings in a hop-field, decants
A piano-tuning we feed on as it dances us to the edge.
The “kernel sentences” here sound surrealistic: “The ladder decants a piano-tuning”; “We feed on the piano-tuning”; and “The piano-tuning dances us to the edge”: and Ashbery is frequently called a surrealist on such evidence. But surrealism cannot be parsed into sense, and Ashbery can—a process one finds laborious at first, but then increasingly natural, as one gets the hang of it (if my own experience is typical).
Yeats’s poetic ladder rose up from the rag-and-bone shop of the heart; Ashbery’s ladder rides modestly sideways. Its rungs (running vertically because the ladder is being carried sideways) are carried past our lives. Instead of seeing us as wheat fields, as Keats had done, Ashbery sees us more Dionysiacally as hop fields; the growing hops are supported by vertical strings, which resemble in their parallel verticality the ladder rungs. The verticality of the stringed plane is rotated to become the horizontal bed of strings of the piano of art, and (by a pun, perhaps on “descant”), the ladder in the hop fields becomes the brimming intoxicant of life, decanting a well-tempered melody to us on which we feed as we follow its pied piping. It dances us to the edge of the field of life—that edge of doom from whose flatness we fall into nothingness.
Each of the metaphors—the ladder, the hop field, the decanting of an intoxicating drink, the tempering of the piano strings, the harvest-nourishment, the dance of life, the edge of doom—is a perfectly well-known, conventional, and allegorically precise image. It is their nonconnection with each other (however much each is connected radially to the parable of life, love, art, and death) that makes Ashbery’s lines sound incomprehensible at first. But the incomprehensibility, in the poems that seem to me most rewarding, does not last; it is soluble; it rides on its own melting (to borrow Frost’s phrase).
There are private poems here, and private titles (“Corky’s Car Keys,” “Penny Parker’s Mistake”). Ashbery’s deep trust in his own associative processes makes for cases of inaccessibility. But many—even most—of the poems here are based on the pure stuff of myth—or rather myths—conflated and treated with such freedom that they seem something vaguely remembered and always known. “Songs Without Words,” for instance, tells the story of everyone’s life. We went willingly down to an obscure shore expecting life and love; we met people there whom we set about trying to know, and understand and on whom we projected our own wishes for love and identity; when dawn came to us we joyfully walked over it, like the gods on their rainbow bridge, from the night of ignorance to the day of experience. And there were ships at the shore, waiting to take us on the journey.
Now, later, we know with the wisdom of hindsight that the country we were taken to was a criminal one, a disaster area, and that we were lured by sirens to destruction, and that the cruel sun melted our frail wings and sent us plunging to our death. But would it have happened otherwise in any other scenario? Here is the poem:
Yes, we had gone down to the shore
That year and were waiting for the expected to happen
According to a preordained system of its own devising.
Its people were there for decora- tion,
Like notes arranged on a staff. What you made of them
Depended on your ability to read music and to hear more
In the night behind them. It gave us
A kind of amplitude. And the watchmen were praying
So long before rosy-fingered dawn began to mess around
With the horizon that you won- dered, yet
It made a convenient bridge to pass over, from starlight
To the daylit kingdom. I don’t think it would have been any different
If the ships hadn’t been there, poised, flexing their muscles,
Ready to take us where they pleased and that country had been
Rehabilitated and the sirens, la la, stopped singing
And canceled our melting protec- tion from the sun.
Surely this poem will be anthologized. It makes happen what it describes, and exemplifies Ashbery’s tragicomic mode, composed of one part suffering and one part sophistication. Ashbery builds his porch “on pilings, far out over the sand,” not on rock; he chooses some patterns (“So many patterns to choose from”) and allows them, like excited gases, to collide:
…they the colliding of all dispir- ited
Illustration on our lives, that will rise in its time like
Temperature, and mean us, and then faint away.
He is a tightrope-walker in altitudes “seeing only the ooze of foliage and blue sunlight / Above”; he admits to “signs of fatigue and mended places”; he asks,
…It hurts now,
Cradled in the bend of your arm, the pure tear, doesn’t it?
In Ashbery’s “school of velocity,” the fatal “shuttle never falters.” It is almost by revenge that art gets made; enraged at the slipperiness and unsatisfactoriness of life, the artist determines to put some portion of it down on canvas, where it can be held and possessed. Yet even this act attests to our wild desire to have, not canvas, but the real, the flesh, the heart:
…it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, un- satisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame
And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these ob- jects are real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.
Ashbery’s book is here to be picked up and reread until it yields its full feelings, a process which will take some time. How very transparent his poems can become over time will be clear to anyone who now returns to Rivers and Mountains or the close of Three Poems, his most limpid piece of narration. It was probably inevitable that Freudian “free association” (with its iron, paradoxical, and oxymoronic linkages) should eventually find its poet.
Louise Glück’s sense of myth, while as firm as Ashbery’s, is less fluid; his retellings of myth tend to be lightly touched and Greek; hers are more likely to be Biblical, ritualized, and haunted. “The Garden” and “Lamentations”—two mythical sequences in Descending Figure—concern the waking into erotic life, and reflect the myths of Eden, Adam and Eve, and the immortality of the soul. In “The Garden” a soul who had earlier refused the dirt, terror, and cruelty of life finally agrees to enter “a field without immunity,” and to endure the unions and losses of engagement. The soul waits with its body in the garden, among the green willows and the impervious animal statuary, and agrees to the inception of love:
The garden admires you.
For your sake it smears itself with green pigment,
the ecstatic reds of the roses,
so that you will come to it with your lovers.
And the willows—
see how it has shaped these green
tents of silence. Yet
there is still something you need,
your body so soft, so alive, among the stone animals.
Admit that it is terrible to be like them,
From this poem we can construe a paradigm of Glück’s manner and matter both. The manner is always one of fated recognition, almost of déjà vu. The soul does not wonder what the garden intends; she knows. She does not question, she accepts; almost, we want to say, she undergoes. The alternative to choosing life is perfectly clear; it is to be made of stone and to be beyond harm—but also beyond love.
Ashbery’s triad of fear, love, and Forward Animation appear here too, except that Forward Animation has become reluctant, hesitant, slowing nearly to standstill. This Psyche waits for Eros with some disgust; like Stevens’s mansion “smeared with the gold of the opulent sun,” this garden is self-smeared with green, a primitive paradise. Its willows are to harbor love, like Stevens’s willows that shiver in the sun for new lovers. But the rigidity of the lines bodes ill for love. In Glück a transfixed idealism is at war with a wish for the natural; and the perfection of the lines, in their measured and conclusive force, imposes a logic inimical to the asserted choice of softness and sexual ecstasy.
Glück has some of Sylvia Plath’s willed immobility; but her rhythms are not spiky and hysterical like Plath’s. Instead they are mesmeric, trancelike, almost posthumously gentle: about the dead body, buried in the grave, Glück says,
Think of the body’s loneliness….
Such a long journey….
How far away they seem,
the wooden doors, the bread and milk
laid like weights on the table.
The bread and milk lie like weights on the dead, too; the domestic wooden doors and the weighted table are the coffin displaced upward.
It is with no sense of the unexpected, then, that we come on Glück’s sequence about anorexia:
It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger….
what I feel now, aligning these words—
it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.
Glück is not at her best in expository verse, where her hieratic rhythms can begin to sound portentous. But the poem reveals the aesthetic of Glück’s verse—or of part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self. Denying itself the possession of the sacred object, the soul finds identity. Acquiring an object means absorbing it into the soul and losing it from view; renouncing it, the soul keeps it in view forever, and is able to see it clearly, free of projection. The sacred object is exposed, its underlying body visible, its form known in the X-ray vision of desire, which by renunciation is enabled into perception. It is an aesthetic Emily Dickinson would have recognized.
But there is another aesthetic at work in Glück besides this renunciatory one. It appears, this other one, almost unwittingly, in the concession, for instance, that “everything fixed is marred.” And yet the unfixed is repellent in its fickleness: “The sea triumphs, / like all that is false, / all that is fluent and womanly.” Glück’s struggle to find a fluent that is not false is the shadow-twin of her claim that there is a fixed that is not marred. Her wonderfully suggestive poems about art (whether about its governing dreams or its formal expression in a medium) bring her embattled oppositions into their finest confrontation. It is often by means of a luminously enwound syntax that she combines the opposing forces.
Here, for example, is a child in his crib, afraid of nightmares, who stands up and spreads out his arms in the light of the night light to ward off the threat of beasts in the dark—and yet his own shadow thrown on the wall is the type and forerunner of those beasts. In making the defensive shadow-gestures of art, the mind creates anew those terrors which are only projections of its own self. Or so a paraphrase of this poem might read. But the poem itself does not read like that; instead, it winds itself immediately and sinuously into the child’s experience, into his imperfect understanding, his futilely brave pretenses, his helplessness, his corporeality. Three simple sentences form the skeleton of the poem:
He knows he will be hurt.
He spreads his arms.
He cannot sleep apart from them.
But what unspeakable insinuations envenom the spaces between the simplicities:
He knows he will be hurt.
The warnings come to him in bed
because repose threatens him: in the camouflaging
light of the nightlight, he pretends to guard
the flesh in which his life is sum- marized.
He spreads his arms. On the wall, a corresponding figure
links him to the darkness he cannot control.
In its forms, the beasts originate
who are his enemies. He cannot sleep
apart from them.
Glück’s poems about her son (of which this seems to be one) are eerily successful in catching the incomprehensions and discontinuities of a childish understanding as yet unformed. Glück has a gift for the skewed perspective, best seen, I think, in another of her reflections on art as death, one linked to the memory of her sister, who died in childhood. The poem takes its title (“The Sick Child”) from a painting in the Rijksmuseum; but it is not Glück, looking at the painting, who is the spectator, but rather the mother in the painting holding her sick child at night, willing her not to die. As the mother looks out “into the bright museum” from the painting, Glück begs her to let the child die, so that her other children can live, and can wake to find themselves living children, not objects (as the dying child will be) on a painted canvas. The livingness of the painted mother exists in desperate conflict with the wish to live of her other children, menaced by the deathliness of art. (Art here stands too for the inability to forget; if the mother remains fixed in grieving for the dead child, her other children will feel, themselves, somehow obliged to die too.)
The Sick Child
A small child
is ill, has wakened.
It is winter, past midnight
in Antwerp. Above a wooden chest,
the stars shine.
And the child
relaxes in her mother’s arms.
The mother does not sleep;
fixedly into the bright museum.
By spring the child will die.
Then it is wrong, wrong
to hold her—
Let her be alone,
without memory, as the others wake
terrified, scraping the dark
paint from their faces.
The painted Pietà of mother and dead child (matched in another poem, “Pietà,” by a pregnant mother’s unwillingness to send her unborn child into the disorder and pain of life) exists, in Glück, to be gainsaid—the living children wake (even if terrified), and the baby is born (even if to the “dark context” in which a single star shines).
A misguided critic has recently said of this book that it “provides relatively little to engage the intellect,” that the poems do not “engage our feelings,” that Glück offers “no overall, coherent statement,” and that “a poetry this pure makes inordinate demands upon our interest in style and style alone, unsullied by the complications of too great an engagement with reality.” This tone is reminiscent of Allen Tate’s in his notorious remark about the ode “To Autumn”—“a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say.” Such remarks issue from a critical peremptoriness that likes only discursive poetry, the poetry nearest to prose and the furthest from song, icon, or dream. But song, icon, and dream engage reality too—in Glück, the realities (among others) of death, marriage, motherhood, mourning, and the invention of religion. The style in which Glück engages these realities is the style of the rock, rather than the stream, of consciousness. Ashbery’s fluidity puts us in the res cogitans as it carries on its marvelous observations and retoolings; Glück’s sternness reminds us that we have also a precipitate, a residue, from life’s fluidity—that which we recite by heart, the immutable, the unadorned, the skeletal, the known.
July 16, 1981