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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.

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.