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.