Book Review: Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery

Over a long and fruitful career John Ashbery has proven what many wouldn't have dared suggest: it is possible for a poet to work in abstractions and also maintain a distinct and resonant voice. Just as an art aficionado knows a Pollock or a Rothko without being told, so does a reader of poetry know an Ashbery without needing to see the name on the cover – or, for that matter, understanding what the poem is about.

"About" is the wrong word anyway. This volume of selected poems (and prose poems) from the nine books Ashbery has published over the past two decades shows that age certainly hasn't slowed this octogenarian's pen; rather, time has broadened his palette, expanding the acreage of his peculiar subject matter. "Of" is a better word than "about" – "of" as in "made of."

What is a poem like "Finnish Rhapsody" made of? In this instance the answer is easy – it's made of two-phrased lines in which the second phrase restates the first.

Don't fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.

Another "easy" one is "Hotel Lautréamont," which is written in an obscure form called a pantoum, where lines repeat at specific intervals from stanza to stanza. These exceptions still go to prove the rule of Ashberian uniqueness. Their playful tricks suggest the fecund phraseology of ancient epic poetry without taking any specific epic form. We scent a dialogue with Shakespeare, a reflection of ee cummings, a Yeatsian echo, but each poem is never anything less than an Ashbery, though some may be said to be more distinguished than others.

"Offshore Breeze" demonstrates the poet's method succinctly. The first and second stanzas talk of an "I" and a "you" and some things, but no "he." Yet here is the third and final stanza:

What happens is you get the unreconstructed story,
An offshore breeze pushing one gently away,
Not far away. And the leggings of those meeting to
See about it are a sunset,
Brilliant and disordered, and sharp
As a word held in the mouth too long.
And he spat out the pit.

In that sharp last line, and not until then, perspective and metaphor are twisted into a completely new direction. It's startling and moving, without being "about." As Alan Brown put it in the Sunday Times, "Ashbery is still exuberantly dedicated to the truthful rendering of experience as a flow of sensations that defy interpretation."

"The Big Cloud," an exceptionally beautiful lyric that's also from 1987's April Galleons, seems at first to be "about" something. "For ages man has labored to put his dreams in order. Look at the result. / Once an idea like the correct time has been elucidated / It must fade or spread…" Yes, that feels true, philosophically at least. But as the poem delves deeper into the idea, abstractions pile up – "Last words are uttered, and first love / Ascends to its truly majestic position unimpaired." And then, in the final stanza, concrete images elucidate particular lives – "Letters were strewn across the floor, / Singing the joyful song of how no one was ever going to read them." As happens repeatedly in Ashbery's work, objects and ideas take on flesh and personality. The poem ends elegaically:

It was existence again in all its tautness,
Playing its adolescent joke, its pictures
Teasing our notion of fragility with their monumental permanence.
But life was never the same again. Something faltered,
Something went away.

That's about as sentimental as Ashbery gets. Contrast the above with the opening of the title poem, from 1992: "A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure." This immediately undercuts any sense of groundedness we may have brought to our reading of the poem. "Still Life with Stranger," from the same volume, ends: "The whole cast of characters is imaginary / now, but up ahead, in shadow, the past waits." This boldly states what is usually unsaid: that these words are not meant as a direct reflection of any reality. A later poem, "The Green Mummies," begins with another perfect example: "Avuncular and teeming, the kind luggage / hosed down the original site."

Always playing, Ashbery writes inexplicable sentences in utterly graceful English. We extract meaning from them a little like we abstract it from music or sculpture. He presents facts and interpretations in tones of great seriousness, but with the subjects drained out. And somehow he makes this weird narrative flow work over the long haul, even through some very lengthy poems. The title poem of 1994's And the Stars Were Shining is like a short story or a movie set in an alien yet familiar universe. The narrator leaps through hoops of images, then pauses to reflect on the creative spirit:

…Some people have an idea a day,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber.

And in the final section comes close to stating a philosophy of art: "It's as though we've come refreshed / from another planet, and spied immediately what was lacking in this one: / an orange, fresh linens, ink, a pen." "The Problem of Anxiety," from 1995's Can You Hear, Bird, asks, "Suppose this poem were about you–would you / put in the things I've carefully left out: / descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily / people behave toward each other?"

Sometimes when Ashbery starts to make too much sense, his poems lose force, as in some of the selections from Can You Hear, Bird. "…By an Earthquake" breaks out of this tendency with its playful form, a series of disconnected vignettes like these: "Albert has a dream, or an unusual experience, psychic or otherwise, which enables him to conquer a serious character weakness and become successful in his new narrative, 'Boris Karloff,'" and "Too many passengers have piled onto a cable car in San Francisco; the conductor is obliged to push some of them off." And the long poem "Tuesday Evening" is made of sometimes Shakespearean rhyming quatrains: "…It's getting late; the pageant / oozes forward, act four is yet to come, and so is dusk." The dada-esque prose poem "The Bobinski Brother," from Your Name Here (2000), could hardly be more different. "'Her name is Liz, and I need her in my biz,' I hummed wantonly. A band of clouds all slanted in the same direction drifted across the hairline horizon like a tribe of adults and children, all hastening toward some unknown destination." And so on.

The visual asserts its importance with the book-length poem "Girls on the Run," inscribed "after Henry Darger," the reclusive folk artist. "…The droplets made diagonal streaks in the air / where pterodactyls had been." But in the final volume represented here, 2005's Where Shall I Wander, Ashbery seems to be looking at politics and war, though, as always, in a skewed way. The prose poem "Heavy Home" closes: "For the time being the disputed enclave is yours. But its cadence is elsewhere." Finally, the short poem "Annuals and Perennials" begins with a discussion of "…this America, home of the free, / colored ashes smeared on the base / or pedestal that flourishes ways of doubting / to be graceful…" and ends with this devastating one-line stanza:

"We have shapes but no power."

By contrast, Ashbery's poems – certainly the best of them, as selected in this volume – come in many shapes, and bear masses of cutting, jostling power.

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