Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uncollect’d Ashbery

Some Clouds

Ah sweet cormorancy (“A large dark bird perched in an upright position on some rock or buoy over the water can hardly be anything else.”) Peterson’s earlier field guides put the cormorant on a page with the boobies. (When not diving deep in search of fishy literary whatnot, cormorants like to stand about—wings half-extend’d—in mock poses of abject helplessness.) One pleasure of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987 (Library of America, 2008): the sixty-five uncollect’d pieces. Fugitive things like “Nouvelles Pièces Froides” (beginning: “Stan and Angela can’t—can’t stan’ / Angela. I can’t understand / Each other. The two of them / With everything to live for can’t / Stand it at the same old stand. / Why? It’s a pun—a play on words”) out of Kenward Elmslie’s ZZZ (1974) or “Morning in Helsinki” (beginning in high nonchalance: “Angels visit us / Fairly regularly / But they almost never comment / On our containment”). Without attending too closely to the round-up, one thinks, “At last, all the early—print’d (one gets breeze-carry’d reports of unpublish’d things deposit’d with various custodians)—Ashbery poetry in a single volume.” So: looking into the copies of Locus Solus I drug out of the stacks, I am mildly stunned to find two pieces uncollect’d “still.” (Though list’d in David Kermani’s early—1976—bibliography, along with, I see, another uncollect’d piece call’d “From a Comic Book” that LeRoi Jones print’d next to “Leaving the Atocha Station” in Yūgen 7 in 1961.) The six Ashbery poems of Locus Solus I (1961): “Idaho,” “Spring Twilight,” “Thoughts of a Young Girl,” “The Passive Preacher,” “Winter,” and “A White Paper.” Era of The Tennis Court Oath (1962). See Ashbery talking to John Tranter (in 1985) about that early work, doubt and experiment vying with one another:
. . . I also hadn’t reread most of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath—my second book, which everybody throws up their hands over—in about twenty-five years. And some of them are a lot better than I thought. A few of them I’d read aloud sometimes for my poetry readings (maybe ten in the book), but the others I hadn’t reread since the book came out. I was surprised at how really interesting they are, because I’d concluded that they probably weren’t very good. And I did write them during a period when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I began living in France and I was unused to the foreign environment and language and everything. They were really experiments which I didn’t think would ever be published—I didn’t think I’d ever have another book published after [. . .] the colossal unsuccess of the first one.
A story Ashbery’s repeat’d, too, elsewhere. One of the uncollect’d pieces:
Spring Twilight

What are they destroying there, greasy there
All gloated?       The fantail
Best and all females
With the beer
On the riding night
The fat and ice nearing to me
In poles       She is oinking at the bars
I think so       instead mad pulp
The poles borne closer nautical edge
She hips unlikely fail match
Contrasting life.

Line for the
Great forked wobbling over my shoulder
Sausage pinnacle storm windows
To stroke the drawing room iced nuts
Down the avenue on the box
She gleams my fat
It barks on the prompt avenue noiselessly
Afoul pieces in which her
Massive feet and ankles
The stone partridge expelled mud
Slanting floor of spring

“Actually lined the face with brow
I shall never marry the goose man
I shall never marry the goose man

Tell the avenue
And before he had a chance to they go
And before he chance to get back
Its second dog

The porridge after good-looking woman
Was employed in craze
The visits of fate
The visits of fate
The visits of fate
Twisting the usual of dummy

Downgraded reptile of beans
Tomorrow now the lightened tree
My country
Machines to do work
And match—light his pride
With crow       The facts is too important
It seems to me beaver pets
Wait in the barrel is nearer
Perfect bus white man’s
Violation of sleep the near thing
Which will remove
Can lice
To accept a little
Sickness, to my valentine in the bulb.

She ran out of the drawing room into the street
A glass girl and I       The factors
Of southern states
Would you distinguish for us.
Constantly thwart’d, indistinguishable. One thinks (briefly) of Eliot, a kind of mockery of the high solemnity of “Ash Wednesday” (“Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope . . .”) in that “And before he had a chance to they go / And before he chance to get back . . .” One thinks, too, of American song (“I shall never marry the goose man”) and story (“porridge,” “beans,” “A glass girl and I”). Is there a loose thread of animosity / indifference toward womankind here, never yank’d too hard? (“She is oinking at the bars,” “She hips unlikely fail match” “She gleams my fat,” &c.) Some of it sounds Clark Coolidge pre-Clark Coolidge (“Sausage pinnacle storm windows”) or “Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts” crewish (The Tennis Court Oath being one of Language writing’s own grande permission works). The other uncollect’d:

      There is a

            I like                           however

    He didn’t want to get that


    to worry about       made

new cars came out                       the           the day

        all we’ve got               don’t try to build

    walk her             kept saying,             No, we’re going

              keeps               I think you

      except               in               when I think you

                                                                  It was

moderately           are all right           is wonderful

                                                                  Has the

                                                                  gotten us?

                                    , of apathy

      A modern such a fundamental

          against the rocks.”       At the bottom of the

omen of the bad                             really gets

          gives you                                 a you are to complete

      threatens for the but I under

trap of shoulders longer written

            won’t he anybody

                            of the artist

(something without very little respect

              to these people but I

                                                                Please let

      with which they are

                    falling into her hands

      is a constant . . .       empty it . . .       I can’t stand

          with equal parts build over the


                      lunch at four                     and                     event

                                    against the white surface

An international                                 In the             Part of the

            early spring               by the bright               where

              deserted               weather               I had just almost

      with woven               that smell before               you to shut up

                            That’s where

                                                    have soaked in it

              You fall in love

Whore! Bitch                             maniac                       You don’t


      to be annoyance                               and hopelessness

                          crash                               after arriving

      in New York

          Complete                     marked sophomores               younger

sensational                     our house tonight!                     had heard

      whose                       is remarkably                       to catch in him

pitch, floating             That day were like those

              he jiggled hap-                       (he and

              and a clip                               “Marvelous!”

              Marvelous! Perfect!             to offend artists he is                                                                                                                 help-

in disapproval. But when the “betrayal” music

              And had set                         the color               all by himself

had quarrelled freely                               It was very painful for
                                                                                          both of us

          went out and persuaded him                       “Sir” has

            enabled him                                   went out of his mind

                                        paid his bills and

      supervisor of             as             sometimes borders

                                        Had he taken percentages

      band                     stinks.                     Are still close friends

It’s always a pleasure       Sunday morning             Not long

                                                                                        ago I asked

    him                 Ugh!                 All I ask, as I’ve                 and

      eventually set out             to put             on each

      Saturday by featuring

                                                                            on the telephone

            Does he take you to a fancy restau-
            Showing you the fash-
            pretty girls around town?

feet high up               Nobody knows               Nobody cares

            stayed lost               to what is               to set up your

      And the weirdest               the efforts               explorers

            he wrung             a good base             for it

      All good things


      of your parents

                                                                              men joined

                                                                        And the dozen others


                                          , but until

              And music schools                                               And

      What began             as

              Your ten-dollar

          —then the very fact jazz is

                It is the first age

                                                  As a result

          French horns

                                early forties

          relative obscurity

                              the early fifties

playing blues.

But listen a little closer too

                                        legs sleeps on her stomach

    fried chicken             and the free whiskey

          but it, like

                      adds mystery to             having them play

and at best
                                                            suspension, the sad

              then had begun, the mural

                        entire       cast
                                                                they’ll repeat all the

          the very effort to                       sandpipers

Through a wall of crystal                           who came here

          with good times.”       of the early morning, was

                                                                              coined here


                        of how, when and by whom

                                                  a pleasure

              too rapidly

into a new key

                                                                    that time excep-

who came to
moment was past                   much happens been told
                                  and written, with all incomprehen
afterward                                 not how it was
                                                As they themselves knew it

                for the lamp           in timeless

                                                        the room had


                                  riots, unemployment

      During the time it was happening

                                                    The painting,

Suspension of time. The more brilliant.     which it
                                                                world on the blast

          language and for those in whose lives

      at such long range, their imaginations

                                the dance steps

                                          by tuberculosis

                                  , “they’ll tell you in London’s

                                          who found them most

          old, deep bed               old moods

      a great

                                                        most their own.
What, in a later piece (“The New Spirit”) becomes “examples of leaving out”: “clean-washed sea / The flowers were.” With its admonitory shrug (or shrug within a shrug): “But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on / to divide all.” “Winter” is something of a purely tonal piece, the aerated fragments mounting narrative tones—anxiety, lassitude, joy, puzzlement—rather than narrative trajectory (note the self-referential commentary, “unresolved / of how, when and by whom / a pleasure”). Irresolution in lieu of “all incomprehen / afterward”—the result of so much “much happens been told / and written” doings. Sparse economies of nigh naught, array’d. Conjunctions without conjunct. Ashbery’s wry humor nonetheless evident: “band       stinks.       Are still close friends.”

John Ashbery, c. 1998
(Photograph by John Tranter)