The figures traced in John Ashbery’s rich new book have to do with death: in fact, A Wave has qualities of a last testament. The Angel of Death opens the book, appearing in a poem at once so ordinary and so literary that we read it with a pure transparency of understanding:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
(“At North Farm”)
We register at first the clichés, as we read “incredible speed,” “desert heat,” “narrow passes,” “granaries…bursting,” and “mixed feelings.” These trip so easily on the tongue that we understand this drama to be something “everyone knows”: and yet at the same time the paradoxes of drought and abundance, sweetness and menace, dread and longing, warn us that this is an almost unimaginable state of affairs. Someone travels furiously toward you (with all the determination of the Post Office)—but will he—and here the poem takes its cue from the catchiness of popular lyric, “know where to find you…when to see you…give you the thing he has for you?”
No pleasure is sweeter in the ear than something new done to the old. Ashbery’s deep literary dependencies escape cliché by the pure Americanness of his diction. A middle-aged American reads “Hardly anything grows here” with immediate recognition, a shock not possible any longer from the mention in a contemporary poem of “stubble plains” or “the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more”—words used so memorably that they cannot be reused. Ashbery’s gift for American plainness is his strongest weapon: “Hardly anything grows here” disarms us in its naked truth.
At the same time, in barren middle age one has seen too much; there is more experience than one can ever consume in recollection or perpetuate in art—the granaries are bursting with meal. That too, while Keatsian, is American in its “bursting with meal” (in Keats, what bursts are clouds, in tears). Ashbery’s propitiatory dish of milk for the goblin (to keep him outside the house) is just unexpected enough, as folk naiveté, to throw us off balance (in this Keatsian, Stevensian context); it gives us death through the lens of the literary grotesque instead of through the lens of tragicomic fate (traveling furiously) or the lens of seasonal turn…
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