Realizing Belatedness which is also an Emptiness
By David Bowen
As You Came from the Holy Land seems to be more directly autobiographical than the previous few poems in Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The “you” addressed is clearly the poet himself, perhaps in the past, coming fresh from the farm on that “Holy Land”
of western New York state
were the graves all right in their bushings
was there a note of panic in the late August air
because the old man had peed in his pants again
was there turning away from the late afternoon glare
as though it too could be wished away
was any of this present
and how could this be
the magic solution to what you are in now
whatever has held you motionless
like this so long through the dark season
until now the women come out in navy blue
and the worms come out of the compost to die
it is the end of any season
The poet recalls a time from home, when the hour got late, the “glare” of that lateness a little harsh, and the anxiety of age and losing control became a cause for general panic. The compost has become too cold and dry to support the feast of festering life any longer. The poet as a young man had been trapped “motionless” in the dark summer, dark with the old demands and expectations and high yearnings. Is the end of this season the solution to it, the escape from its darkness? There is simply a change of clothes, a shade darker, for a season whose darkened promise is something other than summer’s high acclaim. The poet again feels the hold of cyclic time upon his life.
Yet, after Packet-Boat and Worsening Situation, he would have none of it, not “earth’s dependency” or the “fixed sign at the crossroads.” He is “sitting not wanting to be disturbed”; he doesn’t want to be taken for any more rides and he is wary of the wide “numbered land” before him. That vista is his prospect, “as you came from that holy land.” The house he will build, his work,
is built in tomorrow
but surely not before the examination
of what is right and will befall
not before the census
and the writing down of names
remember you are free to wander away
as from other times other scenes that were taking place
Thus, the poet is faced with the weight of the distinguished past overwhelming the terrain he has sought to build his futurity upon. There are the names of the dead to be taken and studied and revived. Yet he can also simply “wander away,” and wants himself always, and us too, to keep that route in mind: there are always other traditions going on, unknown to us in this one, buried in this one we habitually till, ignorant of where else we might wander to, what other histories we might plunge into. Apparently, Ashbery has been and can further go “elsewhere.”
This attitude for Ashbery is inevitable, necessary, in his self-acknowledged tardiness by birth to a tradition exhaustively weighed down with its own achievement. This is the necessary
history of someone who came too late
the time is ripe now and the adage
is hatching as the seasons change and tremble
The canonical tradition now suffering belated additions becomes ripe at its high-summer’s end. The kernel of living speech at the core of the old canonical “adage” is emerging as if from a hard egg; the very foundations of the seasons tremble in their changing condition. This promise of a bright occurence and self-promised accomplishment in the poet picks up where As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat left off:
it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest
were happening in the sky
but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it
Yet again, the poet, once Shelley’s legislator of the world, the visionary world, is obstructed from witnessing his own bright happening, his eventual emergence. Ironically, we are meant to understand that the old adage will not hatch anything we will be present for; we will never hear the Name of names or Form of forms arising out of our transcendental tradition. Asbhery is once again unmaking the poem, moving away from the utterance of the Real poetry has so long sought. At the moment of its coming into being, the monstrous event dissolves in the twilight of the Late Romantic era.
Interestingly, the expectation of the “monstrous” should be read in the old sense of prodigal or marvelous. The root of “monster” comes from “to warn” as in a portent of an atrocity or a wicked entity; this “monere” implies a spectacle of wicked omen. Further, “monster” might have been formed from, with “monere” or “to warn,” “lustrum” which connotes a brightening as well as a cleansing (“lave”). Thus, we are led to expect much of this portentous omen of a spectacular sky, which then fails us, in our failing sight and the heavy press of the late hour in these last of days.
As in Packet-Boat, the night brings its own liberatory spectacle at the end of the poem.
out of night the token emerges
its leaves like birds alighting all at once under a tree
taken up and shaken again
put down in weak rage
knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the past
only in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what time it is
when that time is already past
The token is the poem itself, which is in turn a trace or tracing of that “thing of monstrous interest” that seemed to disappear in the twilight. The moment cannot be captured as it was; there is simply this luminous trace. Its leaves or words, however, alight only themselves and the poem. The token, like an ancient disabused Tree of Life, has been “taken up and shaken again,” anticipating a passage in Ashbery’s next major poem, Grand Galop:
But I was trying to tell you about a strange thing
That happened to me, but this is no way to tell about it,
By making it truly happen. It drifts away in fragments.
And one is left sitting in the yard
To try to write poetry
Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,
Took up and put down again
Like so much gorgeous raw material […]
Thus, the “raw material” or materia poetica of poetic art is no longer Nature or God or their belated prostheses, but the canonical tradition itself, the forms and their progenitors (Wyatt and Surrey). This is the condition of belatedness: one’s material, one’s matter, has already been transformed over and again; we live with the painful conscience that even the most primordial element is a product of artifice, of poetic labor.
From the difficult end of As You Came from the Holy Land, the reader begins to understand what’s at stake in Ashbery’s poetry: reiterating Packet-Boat, the redundant theme becomes the fact of belatedness not simply in canonical tradition but in one’s own temporality as well. The poet is always laboring away after the fact of the sensations or perceptions he writes of. His life is fleeing in the labor, and the finished product witnesses a sort of death. This temporal belatedness in the work of art has always existed, but only in our canonical belatedness have been able to realize and come terms with such extreme conditions of time and mortality.
Thus far, all Ashbery might achieve is the precious and fleeting moment’s empty monument to itself, its glittering, never-to-be-tendered token. Its emptiness is distributed in the moment and in the poet, and in all the aspects and voices of the poet’s subjectivity. That void survives and thrives in and by the fact of its devastation. This recalls again Grand Galop where one is
On the desert, with oneself cleaned up, and the location
Almost brand-new what with the removal of gum
This desertification of the American cultural landscape is exactly how our culture functions, and its extreme outcome of total vastation might be its only redemption. This is the only moment of the modern individual’s immortality, in passing. The poet must empty out the landscape, and know how to distribute the void aftermath, to gather the vital absences into his utterance. Each of the poet’s unmade, unraveled and emptied out poems is the distinguishing act of a quietly ecstatic desperation wrought from a belated subjectivity. Grand Galop is the next moment in that self-emptying out.
© David Bowen