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This is intended as the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on Ashbery’s long poem “A Wave” (from his collection of the same name). This is an experiment of sorts. I have read the poem in full in one sitting. This gave me a feel for the movement of the poem, and for some of its local delights, but most of the poem was lost. So now I’m undertaking a very different kind of reading, painstakingly moving through it, stanza by stanza, over a span of days (possibly weeks). I’ll write about it as I go, and see what I find. This post concerns the first three stanzas.

The very first line of the poem raises a problem of self-knowledge: “To pass through pain and not know it”. Ashbery immediately externalizes this pain as “A car door slamming in the night.” It’s something distant, something heard but (I suspect) not seen, identified but not known. I take the following lines from the second stanza to pick up on this issue of self-knowledge:

And our landscape came to be as it is today:
Partially out of focus, some of it too near, the middle distance
A haven of serenity and unreachable…

The landscape here encompasses both self and other. What is near (the self) is “partially out of focus”, difficult to know clearly. The middle distance (others) is seen more clearly, and is enticing, but is “unreachable”. Why? What constitutes the middle distance is relative to one’s own location. What is now the middle distance can be brought closer, but at the cost of moving out of focus.

Why do I read Ashbery’s term “landscape” in this interiorizing way? Ashbery in these stanzas (and throughout his work) blurs the line between reality and representation. In the third stanza, “wet streets / That seem so permanent” suddenly change and become “another idea, a new conception”. Exterior events and interior perceptions thereof are not clearly distinguished. We inhabit a material world, but we move through it by constructing representations, and we can never quite disentangle the two. Ashbery is a poet of this entanglement.

As a result, there is a double movement in these stanzas: first, of time through us and, second, of us through time. The first movement can be seen in these lines:

Yet each day of the week, once it had arrived, seemed the threshold
Of love and desperation again. At night it sang
In the black trees: My mindless, oh my mindless, oh.

It is the days that arrive, that come to us even as we are largely stationary. We need not do anything, make any exertion, for the next day to come. But this does not mean that we are totally passive, as these lines capture (“it” here is the “new conception” mentioned above):

The chroniqueurs who bad-mouthed it, the honest
Citizens whose going down into the day it was,
Are part of it, though none
Stand with you as you mope and thrash your way through time,
Imagining it as it is, a kind of tragic euphoria
In which your spirit is sprouted. And which is justified in you.

Our ideas, our conceptions, are the means by which we go “down into the day” that has arrived. Interestingly, the citizens who go down into the day through the idea are themselves part of it, such that is unclear whether we control our ideas or they control us. Also noteworthy in these rich lines is the isolation they present: “none / Stand (sic) with you”. Even as others enter our conceptions and interact with us materially, there is a gap: they exist only at the middle distance.

Those resplendent final lines of the stanza are Ashbery at his best, and speak for themselves. I only note that they raise a new issue, the problem of the justification of time (and life and existence more generally). Where that shall go in the remainder of the poem is for later posts to discuss.

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However much guidance history, via the helpful hand of habit, may provide, ultimately each new book demands a unique sensitivity in its reader, a fine attunement to its nuances. Any good book will furnish clues to help the reader along, will provide hints as to its methods.

That is the function of the following lines, which cap the seventh canto (of three hundred and twenty-four) in John Peck’s difficult Cantilena:

And I let move my mind’s motion
in a signing spiral around the finely
gritty brain pan of the baked water clock.

The difficulty of the poem is that characteristic of modernist poetry. Though Cantilena was just published this year, it is a clear descendant of that movement, a dense swirl of allusions to anything and everything. These lines provide a glimpse of the thread that holds the bulging fabric of the poem together.

First is the easiest part, the “mind’s motion,” suggesting that in moving through the poem’s web of images we are tracing out the structure or course of an individual’s thought. That is not, in itself, a very interesting characterization, though it is helpful. But the remainder of the lines flesh it out in an intriguing manner.

The voice says, “I let move…” This informs us both that there is something passive about his relation to his thought (it proceeds according to a logic of its own, unguided) and something active about it (he chooses, consciously, not to impede or alter this procession). The form this motion takes is a “signing spiral.” “Signing” because it is a kind of signature, though an ever-expanding rather than a completed signature, spiraling out from a fixed center.

The final line introduces a crucial ambiguity. The phrase “brain pan” refers to the skull, and thus the movement is suggested to occur within the confines of the head, a kind of pure interiority. The world comes into the mind, at least is represented therein, and thence emerges the poem. Yet the reference to the “baked water clock” immediately sends us to the outside world. This and the previous canto are set in Rome on the date of the Ferragosto (August 15). It is noon, and there is a “heat-ripple”—the water clock is thus “baked” by the very external sun. Thus, just as the world comes into the mind, the mind goes out and suffuses the world.

To fully grasp the what the water clock is doing here, we need to consider the two lines just previous to the three quoted above:

…I have not counted the hours, for shall increments
accuse the continuous hand of the heaper?

Time, the “heaper” (of images and allusions, among other things), works continuously. There is something false in hours, in the presumption of dividing a continuum into increments. Yet a clock fundamentally requires such division. Perhaps, though, this particular clock does not tell time in hours. Here the description of the brain pan as “finely gritty” comes into play. “Fine” suggests a continuum (a continuum is the limit of an increasingly fine division) and so flatly contradicts “grit.” Yet “finely gritty” aptly captures the manner in which the poem flows continuously through the various substantial, particulate images that it heaps up.

Cantilena is a kind of water clock, telling time not by counting out the hours, but by tracking the finely gritty motions of a mind. It remains to be seen how much help this will provide me as I proceed through the book, but, at least in the early stages, it seems a valuable foothold.