I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.

So Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it, in “Experience.” In reading John Ashbery, I get the sense that he agrees entirely with Waldo, except on one key point. This lubricity of all objects, Waldo says, is “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery disagrees. He is quite happy to be the fool and playmate of nature, to let objects slide from his grasp, and to move on to the next without regret. He is at home in the world’s transformations.

Lubricity is a constant fact in the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Time, especially offers no firm hold. The future is impossible, the past non-existent, the present empty, as we learn in “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

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 emphasis on change also helps make sense of the frequent use of cloud imagery, as for instance here (“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”):

[…] The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.

And here (“Poem in Three Parts”):

Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.

Ephemerality, lubricity—these are the only constants in these poems. But what evidence is there that Ashbery is at home in this world of incessant change? The much-remarked on feature of his style, the way thoughts and images succeed one another without readily apparent connection, is one indication. If the world is never stable, then neither will his poems be stable. (More on this in a bit.) But there is also more direct evidence. In “Scheherazade,” one of the most striking poems in the volume, the slipperiness of time is explicitly given a positive valence:

In all this springing up was no hint
Of a tide, only a pleasant wavering of the air
In which all things seemed present, whether
Just past or soon to come. It was all invitation.

An invitation to what? To motion, for one, to change. But it is also an invitation to description. And this brings us back to the question of the extent to which Ashbery’s poems are stable, the extent to which they fully embrace the transitory nature of the world. The line between reality and descriptions of reality is an obsession in these poems—or, rather, the blurring of this line is an obsession.

This is seen in Ashbery’s consistent use of terms associated with writing to describe the natural world. For instance (“Scheherazade” again), leaves “are scrawled on the light” and, later in that same poem, we are told about the “story” of flowers and about stones “That read as patches of sunlight.” The world is not separate from our descriptions of it:

[…] It is we who make this
Jungle and call it space, naming each root,
Each serpent, of the sound of the name
As it clinks dully against our pleasure,
Indifference that is pleasure.

Description is an ordering of the world, and these poems are thus attempts to find (or impose; with Ashbery the distinction is not important) order in the whirling world. Are they not then at odds with change, and the ephemerality of all structure that is the result of change? To an extent, yes, but Ashbery takes this in stride. His poems are small, ephemeral joys, impermanent monuments, and they know it. They do not aim for perfection, for a separation of the good from the bad, preserving only the former. As Ashbery puts it in “Mixed Feelings”:

They look as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.

The impression these poems give of being off-hand babbling is a carefully constructed illusion—what else could it be? But that’s the joy of it.

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Translation

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage lush.
Siskins in flight
gather in the vines,
sounding cheep, cheep.

The kudzu is spreading,
extending through the valley,
its foliage dense.
I cut it and steam it
to make fine and coarse cloth,
clothing I won’t tire of.

I tell my nurse,
tell her I’m going home.
I clean my underwear,
I wash my clothes.
Which are washed? Which not?
I’m going to visit my parents.

Original

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉萋萋
黃鳥于飛
集于灌木
其鳴喈喈

葛之覃兮
施于中谷
維葉莫莫
是刈是濩
為絺為綌
服之無斁

言告師氏
言告言歸
薄污我私
薄澣我衣
害澣害否
歸寧父母

When my wife last returned from China, she brought back an edition of the Shijing, the Chinese classic of songs. Thus begins my project to translate it. As always, feedback is welcome. Here’s the first poem. You can see an earlier post of mine about it here.

Translation

“Shut! Shut!” the fishhawk cries
from the sandbar in the river.
Demure, the noble lady,
fine bride for a gentleman.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we track it.
Demure, the noble lady:
awake, asleep, I seek her.

Seeking but not finding,
awake, asleep, I miss her.
With endlessly worrying,
I toss, and turn, and toss.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we pick it.
Demure, the noble lady:
qin and se befriend her.

Ragged, the floatingheart:
left and right we sift it.
Demure, the noble lady:
bells and drums amuse her.

Original

關關雎鳩
在河之洲
窈窕淑女
君子好逑

參差荇菜
左右流之
窈窕淑女
寤寐求之

求之不得
寤寐思服
悠哉悠哉
輾轉反側

參差荇菜
左右采之
窈窕淑女
琴瑟友之

參差荇菜
左右芼之
窈窕淑女
鍾鼓樂之

Poem: As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
Poet: John Ashbery

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the Sun yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
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 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.
Come in. 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.

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.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.


For some time now, the Library of America volume of Ashbery’s poetry (1956-1987) has lan­guished on my shelf. Now that he is dead, I suppose it is time at last to crack it open. I am beginning in the obvious place, with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and with the first poem within it, which you can read above. With the exception of two forgettable poems in a recent-ish issue of the Denver Quarterly, this is my first encounter with Ashbery.

It is an appropriate poem for the occasion: the entire final stanza might be read as a commentary on his death, not least that fourth line: “And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth…” But, rich as that reading is, I will lay it aside, and try to enter the poem as it was written—by one still alive. We may yet circle back to death.

The poem’s characters have no names, only pronouns: “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “her.” I often find this frustrating, little more than perverse obscurantism, but here it enriches the poem. This poem plays, deliberately, with the opaque nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” that together form the poem’s “we.” At several points, they appear to be blended together. Consider these lines:

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?

The shift from “you” to “I” here makes sense in context. The narrator (“I”) tells us that a look of glass stops “you.” At this point, the narrator imagines what is in “your” head—thus the shift to the first person. But it is still “you” he is talking about, not himself. Later in the stanza, however, the “I” is carried through:

Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated…

 Though we have left “your” thoughts by this point, this feels—at least to me—like the same “I” as before. And so I start to get the sense that the “you” and the “I” of this poem are the same person, seen from different vantage points, which we might call the self-identifying (“I”) and the self-estranged (“you”). This fits with the theme of perception and objectivity that the opening lines of the third stanza raise.

The sense is only heightened in the next stanza. “You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx,” we learn. But, almost immediately after this, we encounter the “her,” who has “come to ask once more / If I was coming in.” This is just the question one might put to someone who has slept for too long in the sun—but it is “you,” not “I,” who has done that. Once again, “you” and “I” seem to merge into a single person.

One possibility is that “you” is just “I” addressed from “her” perspective, as suggested by these lines:

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.
Come in.

The final “Come in” suggests this is in “her” voice, since a few lines later we find that it is “her” who asks “If I was coming in.” This move doesn’t seem to work for the lines quoted above from the third stanza, however: there it does seem to be a self-estranged perspective, not the perspective of some other.

In the poem’s final stanza, all of these personalities drop out, and we are left only with night, and with things. The lushness of summer makes demands, creates the uneasiness that characterizes so much of this poem, but at least the summer night, when this lushness is shrouded and quieted, and the “small things” are able at last to speak out, “gives more than it takes.” And here the brief respite of night forebodes the longer respite of winter. At this point we may, once again, think of death, which, does, after all, eliminate the selves behind all pronouns, in the end.

 

Translation:

Drinking Wine (5)

I build my hut in a settled place
And yet—no clamor of carts or horses.

You ask, sir, How can it be so?
The distant heart secludes the place.

Plucking chrysanthemums at the eastern hedge,
Idly observing the southern mountains,

The mountain air beautiful day and night,
The birds returning like old friends—

In all of this, there is clear meaning.
Even hoping to share it, I lose speech.

Original (traditional characters):

飲酒

結廬在人境
而無車馬喧
問君何能爾
心遠地自偏
採菊東籬下
悠然見南山
山氣日夕佳
飛鳥相與還
此中有真意
欲辯已忘言

Original (simplified characters):

饮酒

结庐在人境
而无车马喧
问君何能尔
心远地自偏
采菊东篱下
悠然见南山
山气日夕佳
飞鸟相与还
此中有真意
欲辨已忘言