Drifting with Ashbery, Part II
By David Bowen
Indeed, Ashbery breaks with the culmination the unsuspecting reader might expect, in order to address “you,” his elusive self-muse:
A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Or, is this in fact Ashbery’s culmination, for the moment, the page’s mid-section? Although there has been no epic or orchestral breakthrough upon the beleaguering audience of the world without, that is not what Ashbery is aiming for, nor should the modern reader be disappointed by what late modernity has necessitated. That “great formal affair … orchestrated” is not what Ashbery has primarily sought as a poet, though such an expectation would be a by-product of his stellar career. Instead, Ashbery has momentarily arrested his muse. He relates this to us, the other unknowns at a little more distance from this internal drama, an intimate passage before the looking-glass.
The reader might be reminded of Song of Myself at the moment when Whitman admonish’s himself that he must not abase himself toward his soul, but neither should the soul abase itself in relation to him, the rough, Walt. The relation between the two is what constitutes and moves Whitman’s poetry from line to line. One feels at this moment in As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat that Ashbery has successfully solicited, in the time of writing what has been later published in cold, hardening print, the self-estranging kernel of his inner psyche; he has arrested the latter’s attention upon himself, the banal, trivial busybody of John Ashbery. Yet can he be certain: “was I the perceived?”
Ashbery then also addresses his ideal audience, his brothers out in the Other world, hidden within their own selves, either hiding from themselves or embattled otherwise. They, even we, are not listening to him,
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?
Have we caught the looking-glass moment along with the startled and anxious poet? “As I am” is the poetry itself, Ashbery’s looking-glass. Even so, in this poem, perhaps we have the traces of this movement of the self momentarily stilled, the quietly urgent notation on the encounter.
Yet we probably have not communed with Ashbery satisfactorily: the poet went unnoticed at the time of writing, working away piecemeal at his solitary task, becoming something other to himself, and even more so to the unheeding world around, not catching word until long after the event or its failure to happen had occurred. We, the other world as yet beyond the poet, are
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
The children play unheedful of the great works the poet is quietly ruminating toward. Perhaps the world’s separate incessant activities are also a distraction upon the mind of the struggling poet, clouding his otherwise limpid thoughts and figurations, obstructing the revelations. Indeed, afternoon has suddenly and sneakily come upon the poet and the reader. Meanwhile, the rambunctious players act as clouds obscuring the sky and its far horizon as day’s decline hastens. Their own minds too are clouded, impatient, restless busybodies. We know this for ourselves, guilty yet proud of such desperate delusions of freedom. Yet we, and they, like all earthly entities, will dissipate, our swift rabble of contentions will become meaningless as the weight of the dark bears down, pushing our meager and relatively delicate contours into the ultimate confusion and changeling magic of “limpid, dense twilight.”
Ashbery’s poetry is this very twilight, limpid and dense, a realm of immense, atmospheric reflection. The poet has abided, quietly anxious, and finally reached his proper realm akin to the sad yet comic magic A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His thought is so clear, so free of extraneous linguistic chaff, that its very incandescence can weave itself into a dense, reflective sinuosity, dissipating even the hardened contours of entities and shapes in its own glassy Form of forms. This poetry is a growing, universal absorption by an utter solitude, a paradoxical clarity so encompassing that those aforementioned forms of the confused world are smeared opaque in its greater opacity: the moving self-estrangement of its own ever-widening reach of visionary selfhood.
Still, between Ashbery the poet and his soul the muse, those clouds, us, his distracting and clamoring brothers intervene. Yet as mentioned before, these clouds are internal too: the poet’s clutterings of mind. Ashbery had been readied upon his own self-emptied heights as both poet and soul as he left off with the end of Three Poems, in The Recital. At the opening of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the world below, and his more trivial and intrusive thoughts, call and urge him on to ‘something new,’ and perhaps “Harsh words are spoken” by this clamor. Yet, what could be left after the cosmo-psychic meditations of Three Poems?
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.
The universal ballade would certainly not be the limber enlargement of poetic thought in the radical prose of Three Poems.
However, thus the page is terminated: the poet gazing nebulously after his own twilight dream has unbeknownst to himself heralded himself back to himself with that “tooting of a horn,” in order to gaze “down there” on his audience’s expectation of a grand new fete, a celebration of his creative re-emergence from the depthless light of The Recital. A new spectacle from the poet has been struggling to rise out of that emptied and yet noble vastation. The poet’s own glance will be the one that “takes in the whole world,” if he really is to succeed. This would indeed be a problematic triumph at the ends of modernity, probably not achievable as a glancing “ballade,” unless our wide world has become the Fragment of fragments in its shattering ruination under the weight of History, abiding in its own belated non-epoch.
As we know, Ashbery’s poetry is certainly not so rigid a form as the ballade; our wide world has itself already witnessed the breaking of all pre-existing forms. Any one form cannot take in the world at a glance. Ashbery knows this, and knows he and his world need a flexible poetry of extended lines compressing yet stringing out intensive figurations in order for the edge of language and thought we are living on to be caught in the net of a singular human figuration.
A new breath proceeds us in a turning to the second page. As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat resumes, yet confusion has returned with Ashbery’s mannered self-defeat, which is indeed a helpful success:
The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
The poet’s vision has been filled with new stuff, and is no longer a vast wastage of pure, gleaming emptiness. Has this then been a new emergence? Is this mere ash falling now from old, fiery wreckage? Will this falling disarray be what the reader is left with, dominating the poet’s vision, our vision? How could these “gray flakes” water his great desert?
The poet’s vision has suddenly become cluttered with so much chaff and grit. Bits and pieces of gnawings and knottings have obstructed the light, are patches in it. Perhaps this is the inevitable aftermath of basking in the Ashberyian light for cognitive eons. Yet perhaps these sun motes are simply the visual phenomena created by sunlight at dusk. This is also that time of lengthening shadows, Other presences crossing with the threshold of ours. In this grayly kaleidoscopic twilight, we, poet and reader become, once again, riddles to ourselves, far more estranged than we had thought before. The swarm of these knotted bits are not quite Milton’s “gay motes that people the Sun Beams” in Il Penseroso; Ashbery’s are gray motes, “motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams,” as in Shelley’s Hellas. Yet this unease of soul will provide new poetry, a new triumph in dispossession.
Might this twilight confusion ferment new life? Could we seriously believe we have been sullied with so much straw, left with dust-plagued lungs? Might there be in these motes enough to ignite new sparks, perhaps a real explosion?
Also in this twilight, shadows lengthen, shadowing over to us, almost Wordsworthian threshold-presences threatening to impinge on our beings. Previously, the poet beckoned his alien brother to cross the threshold, away from the harsh light of day, into the poet’s conjuring of twilight. He was calling for a Crossing within himself, a communion. Indeed, Ashbery’s “I” and “you” proceed seemingly interchangeably in this stanza.
And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn’t.
Where it had been “you” who had been in the sun too long, “I” turns out to be the one left on the outside. Or, in this twilight, perhaps outsides have become insides. Perhaps the poet is beckoned to a return to self of another self; other presences are shadowing over from the inside, casting upon the door standing open.
The poet is vaguely invited by “her,” whoever, whatever that pronoun represents, to make a Crossing. If he chooses not to do so, or rather, if he simply does not, he is asked not to harry or harass his own current hesitant stasis. He is requested not to agitate himself from his dazed state. Why be urged or worried “elsewhere” if he’s not going cross the liminal space before him? The shadow-lengthening twilight surrounding him is itself liminality, and there is no reason to vex him into an undue hastening. Where would he go? This is the drunken afterlife; the poet and reader have been taken for a ride.
The poet now enters a profound yet lustrous (because so deep) night.
The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
“The night sheen” is the monkishly pallid and gleaming moon, which has usurped midsummer, that previous “mid-point,” with its harsh and demanding expectation of a high noon. The reader might here recall Dickinson’s poem #569, which equates “Summer,” “Heaven,” and “Poets” whose universal “Comprehension” makes the former two “look a needless Show.” For himself as poet, Ashbery has made the summer and it’s mid-point’s Sublime demand “look a needless Show,” the great formal affair deflated. Indeed, “we” are again set in an “elsewhere” in which the sunlight “filters down,” for the moon is a sort of filtering of the light, a softening. The harsh glare of the Summer’s Heavenly Heights has dissipated.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
“All the small things” are relieved of the burden of day, shaking off and raising their sighs of worn-out anxiety; they have been saved from being lost in the glaring spectacle of the “great formal affair.” The cities of great heights and glamors, hosts of great formal affairs, have been flattened under the final collapsing of the lengthening shadows, Night’s embrasure, Shade of shades. We are now laid back in the declining hours of life, or perhaps the afterlife. Many of our small private things have been heaped backstage into the white boxes that blanket over a life, a life passed over. Yet the cities’ walls, their stratifications and fortifications, (in which the human “Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs,” the Tombs they inhabit [see below],) have crumbled to let our ghosts roam free, effortlessly mingling dreamscapes.
These nightly (dis)arrangements that people and enrich life’s surreal drifting are the poet’s and reader’s home at the ends of modernity. This is a nocturnal Sublime we have reached. We find ourselves in the gentle encompassing of darkest night, which releases us from the hard and fast logic of separateness that is the painful light and lightness of daily living. This is akin to Edward Hirsch’s own Night Parade. The shadows had lengthened until we were all engulfed and pressed down in the sea of night, and our sighing dreams were lifted up. The “lower versions of cities” are the cities of our dreams, the cities of a lone night’s-walk on forgotten streets. The dead, urban space by day, with its suffocating schedules and surveillances, has been itself obliterated. These cities of dreams shine forth upon the dark sea’s glittering surface.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it
Ashbery in As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat has renounced striving for the accepted or given route to the Sublime. The poet knows now the harsh injunctions and detrimental sacrifices the artist had to make spoiled the very base and reservoir of his art, his surrounding world. The formal demanding of summer’s mid-point “takes away too much” takes away too much life, too much of the lustre of the smaller things that make up a life. The formality of the day’s ceremonies, earlier in the poem, reminds one of the rigid despair described by Dickinson in poem #341:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
Perhaps Asbhery’s Sublime, in the aftermath of a disastrous belatedness, has collapsed into the everyday, smearing itself in fragments of dreams across all things. By day, these fragments glance at us only obliquely, from the shadows the poet comes to know and abide in. At night, the Fragment of fragments, Shadow of shadows, reigns.
The small things, liberatingly (con)fused in the thickets of shades, are the things of life night reserves, and it won’t give them up. The lower versions of cities are kept in its anarchic museum: hologrammatic and anagrammatic perspectives shifting, opening and closing at the eddy of motion. Night has heard and absorbed all the small sighs of earth, and yet saved them as dreams. We may retrieve them from its embrace only poetically. Night “gives more than it takes” if we know how to immerse ourselves. The small, strange glow-worm lantern of the poet’s eye allows us to bide time pleasantly (though not trivially) upon the shoals of night. In this way, we will discover the small things of life illuminated only in our inglorious yet authentically poetic self-defeat. This quietly luminous other side to a negative self-overcoming might very well be a condition of living at the ends of modernity.
© David Bowen