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A bit of a slow month, but here’s what I read this March:

John Ashbery. I spent several days near the start of this month in a retirement home in Iowa City—not, as you might imagine, the most enthralling place. But I was able to use the opportunity to read, in fairly concentrated doses, both Shadow Train and A Wave, Ashbery’s 11th and 12th books. The former consists entirely of four-by-fours: sixteen line poems split into four stanzas of four lines apiece. Ashbery often shines in long poems, which are naturally suited to his kitchen sink approach, but here the enforced brevity suits him well. The best pieces here are finely honed daggers—“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” and “Farm Film” especially—and overall it is among his most consistently rewarding volumes. A Wave is even better. It’s Ashbery’s best book so far, from the mixed feelings of “At North Farm” to the self-querying of the title poem. Though it’s been some time since the last installment, I do intend to finish what I started with my series of posts exploring “A Wave” in depth.

Denis Diderot. I found the Penguin Classics edition of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream in my local used bookstore and snatched it up. When a discussion group to which I belong decided to discuss the meaning of the Enlightenment today, I took the opportunity to read this volume. I was amply rewarded. In contrast to the stultifying, dogmatic optimism being peddled under the name of the Enlightenment by the likes of Steven Pinker, Diderot reminds us of the movement’s skeptical core and of the intellectual excitement of thinking through new ideas for oneself. Rameau’s Nephew is hilarious, a dialogue in which it is relentlessly unclear which character, if either, speaks for the author, as a genial moralist comes face to face with a thoroughgoing comic nihilist. For my money, though, it’s D’Alembert’s Dream that’s the real gem here. In it, Diderot—through the figure of the dreaming D’Alembert—works out the consequences of a fully secular, materialistic understanding of the world. As a reader, I could feel the intellectual ferment, the froth of thought. It is a useful solace in an age where the public face of atheism—for all it calls itself “skepticism”—is rank dogmatism that recommends offloading all the business of one’s thinking to approved experts. Diderot shows us a better way.

Stanisław Lem. My wife very kindly bought me Lem’s Solaris. I’m rather a fan of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (it’s between him and Yasujiro Ozu for my favorite), and while Solaris is one of his lesser films, that speaks more to his other films than to Solaris itself. Lem’s book is the basis of the film, so I knew roughly what I was in for, but Tarkovsky took enough liberties with it that it was a new experience. It’s an enjoyable book, but a deeply flawed one. It reminded me why I tend not read sci-fi: the writing is simply not very good for much of the book, especially at the beginning. What’s more, I found that the book consistently raised issues that it left frustratingly unresolved—not so much in terms of plot (though there was some of that) than in terms of the philosophical issues the plot raises. My issue is not with ambiguity itself, but with the fact that Lem did not probe the issues deeply enough to at least clarify the contours of this ambiguity. For instance, the appearance of the “visitors” raises deep issues of realism and idealism: what would it be to encounter not the external world but a world limited by our ideas—ideas that, of course, always fall short of reality. But Lem never satisfactorily addresses this. Most aggravating for me, though, was the mythology of science that ran through the book. I’m currently a graduate student studying philosophy of science, and I simply did not recognize anything of the human activity I study in Lem’s descriptions of the science surrounding Solaris. I hope to write a more extended post on this, so I’ll save the details for later.

As usual, I am in the middle of many books. In addition to continuing to wade through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, I’ve been reading Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m working my way through John KeatsSelected Poetry (Oxford World Classics) and Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems (Borzoi). I’ve also been working my way through Hackett’s collection of Karl Marx’s Selected Writings.

John Ashbery is a much less difficult and much more direct poet than he is generally made out to be. Consider “At North Farm”, the first poem in A Wave, possibly Ashbery’s best book:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

The effect of this poem is nothing if not immediate. It consists of four basic movements: (1) the image of the “furious” traveler approaching “you”; (2) the uncertainty of recognition (will the traveler recognize you); (3) the paradox of the barren land and bursting granaries; and (4) a second uncertainty, this time concerning reciprocity (is your offering sufficient).

Does this add up to anything? The poem’s final two words are the key: “mixed feelings.” The first three lines present us with the mysterious traveler who, we find later, bears some gift. To deliver this he navigates difficult terrain and weather with remarkable persistence. All this conveys a sense of inevitability, of destiny: he is meant to find you. Even without knowing who he is or what he brings, there is something exhilarating in being in this position: it is enough that “Somewhere someone” should be making this voyage to find you.

This exhilaration, however, soon gives way to doubt—the first mixing of feelings. Even forgetting the perilousness of the voyage, which could cut it off at any moment, what if he can’t find you? Or what if he finds you but can’t recognize you? Or what if he decides not to give you “the thing he has for you” after all? The very inevitability of the encounter that was so exhilarating now comes into question, and you do not quite know how to feel.

With the poem’s third movement, we leave the images of travel for those of domesticity, of life “At North Farm” (more on North Farm later). The very landscape, it turns out, personifies these mixed feelings: “Hardly anything grows here, / Yet the granaries are bursting with meal”. And, though nothing grows here, it somehow is flush with life: “fattening fish” and birds that “darken the sky.”

This externalization of feeling is drawn back inward in the poem’s final lines, which reveal your uncertainty concerning your adequacy to receive the gift he brings. A lot happens here. We learn that you leave a modest offering of your own, of milk, and the phrasing suggests you do this each night. Thus we learn that you don’t know when he will arrive, though you know he is coming. The inevitability is tempered with a new sort of doubt, the kind that leads to diffuse waiting whose precise endpoint you can’t predict. Further, there is the anxiety that, if you have mixed feelings about the traveler’s arrival and his gift, perhaps you are therefore unworthy of it.

All of this is right there, on the surface of the poem—one need simply read it and feel it, without any digging. The poem expertly draws the reader through this exhilaration, reservation, uncertainty, and anxiety: each one is felt in turn.

But is this enough? Is the poem a mere device for drawing out these feelings, or is it “about” something more definite? The poem is slippery in a classic Ashberian fashion. It begins, after all, with the deliberately indefinite “Somewhere someone” and ends with the equally vague “mixed feelings”. Who is traveling toward us, and what are our feelings toward him?

The second question I think is answered by what I have written above—the feelings we have as we read the poem (which are made our own by Ashbery’s use of the second person) give “mixed feelings” definite substance—but the first question deserves further scrutiny. Who is this mysterious traveler? Helen Vendler suggests that is the Angel of Death, and it could be, but I think this is reading too much into the poem, in a way that limits its possibilities. Instead, I think we should recognize that Ashbery’s refusal to identify the traveler plays an important role in the poem.

Consider the title of the poem: “At North Farm”. North Farm is a location in the Finnish epic The Kalevala, which I have not read. A little online research, however, reveals some interesting details. Per the link just given, one of the epic’s main story patterns is the gaining of a bride. In one version of this pattern, Väinänmöinen travels to North Farm, where he is offered a bride, who refuses to marry him unless he can carry out three difficult tasks.

What does this do to our reading of the poem? One tempting move would be to deny Vendler’s reading altogether: the traveler is just Väinänmöinen, end of story. But this undersells the poem. Ashbery uses the Finnish epic, but he does not simply recreate it in this way. Instead, considering this background information deepens our reaction to the poem in three ways.

First, it introduces an additional source of mixed feelings. In The Kalevala, the bride is offered to Väinänmöinen by someone else—she has only limited agency over her marriage. He may be furiously traveling with his gift, but she (the poem’s “you”) has little say in this. Insofar as there is something inevitable or destined about their meeting, this is imposed. This, however, leads to the second deepening of our reading: the re-assertion of agency by setting Väinänmöinen tasks he must complete. This is not quite the right of refusal of his gift, but it is close. In reading the poem without considering the reference to the Kalevala, it is easy to overlook this possibility of rejecting the gift—tracing out the reference brings this possibility to the fore.

In the previous paragraph, I more or less treated the poem as describing the perspective of the potential bride. The purpose of this was not to read the poem as elaborating a scene from The Kalevala, however, but rather to expand the range of feelings it evokes. This brings me to the third way in which our reading of the poem is deepened by considering its reference to that epic: we are brought to consider the first two words of the poem more deeply. “Somewhere someone”—the natural questions, then, are: who? and where?

I think it’s important that the poem doesn’t answer these questions. Above, I considered your doubts that the traveler will recognize you. In thinking about the poem’s opening, however, we realize that the inverse is also true: there is also the possibility that you will fail to recognize the traveler. He is, after all, merely “someone”, and the world is full of someones. If we try to pin down this someone, whether as Väinänmöinen or as The Angel of Death or as anything else you please, we miss this, and impoverish the poem. I am not saying that we shouldn’t identify the someone as we read, shouldn’t give this vagueness definite content. We should, however, recognize that the traveler about whom we have such richly mixed feelings can have many identities, and that therefore any definite identification must be tentative and temporary: this, too, is shifting.