A Holiday in Reality

John Ashbery
John Ashbery; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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