Sweet Thief, whence didst thou steal that sweet that smells
if not from my love's breath? Thy purple pride
which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
in my love's veins thou has too grossly died.
I was still a virgin when I found Wright's poem, that I loved but did not understand. I still remember the first lines, that in retrospect sound like something from Gluck's Wild Iris:
I would leap too
into the light,
if I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
on the other side of the road.
I was moved first by the line break, the confidence of that word alone, and then by the symbolic weight of that movement into a light which is death. I'm sure my Catholic upbringing had more than a little to do with that. His work is filled with this kind of directness, filled with music and symbolic intention. My copy of Above the River, Wright's collected, was the first collection of poetry I ever bought and it's rifled with scraps of paper of copied lines, versions, love letters to a dead man's meter.
So coming to Ashbery has been long, tenuous. I don't feel as though I can read him. Mostly. There are lines I love, and then they feel corrupted by the vulgarity of, I'm not even sure how to say this, the commonplace. I've bought several of his books, and most recently--this past winter--really lived with A Worldly Country, which I must say overwhelms me in much the same way a book by Michael Burkard does, porous darkness, the halo of a hidden thing. Ashbery's is a book I clutch to me, but without really knowing why.
Much will be forgiven those
on whom nothing has dawned. But I wonder,
does our polemic have an axis? And if so,
who does the illuminating? Isn't not as though I haven't stayed,
stinking, in the dark. What does this
particular mess have to do with me, surely
one or more may have wondered. And if he
or she suddenly saw in retrospect
the victimhood of all those years, how pain
was as reversible as pleasure, would they stand
for nothing selling in shops now, the cornucopias
of bargain basements open to the weather?
From pantry and hayloft spiffy white legs
emerge. A way of sitting down
has been established, though it's the same stuff
we groped through before: reeds, old motor-boat
sections, skeins of herring. We brought something else--
some enlightenment we thought the months
might enjoy in their gradual progress through the years:
"sudden realizations," the meaning of dreams
and travel, and how hotel rooms
can become the meaningful space one has always lived in.
It's only a shred, really, a fragment of a life
no one else seemed interested in. Not that it can be carried away:
It belongs to the decor, the dance, forever.
If Wright has light and darkness, nature and the resurrections, Ashbery has the city, filled with lives, fragments and trash. We might think here of Doty's memoir Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, really a kind of ars poetica that explores his interest in the object, the glitter of commerce, and the way human history is an inheritance of beautiful trash, how experience is marked by artifact. One cannot abandon the literal in Ashberry, since his philosophical meanderings ("Much will be forgiven those / on whom nothing has dawned. But I wonder, / does our polemic have an axis? And if so, / who does the illuminating?) easily reflect other subjective experiences. Isn't the reader forced into a moment of self-examination here, as we become the "he / or she" of the poem and must consider "in retrospect / the victimhood" of our own years, how "pain / was reversible as pleasure"? Ashberry's thinking in the first stanza is anchored to a consideration of the objects at the "bargain basement" of the second, "reeds, old motor-boat / sections", an event to which any of us, in any part of the human city, surely bring along our own '"sudden realizations", the meaning of dreams". This is the dance, that in a capitalistic culture, we are always faced with the awareness of our own insignificance--our loved things end up for sale to strangers, "the meaningful space one has always lived in", indeed our very life itself, is no more than "a fragment / no one else seemed interested in . . . forever".
It's not until reading Helen Vendler's essay (from Invisible Listeners) yesterday on Ashbery, "John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past", that I finally had some insight as to why I can almost never seem to reconcile Ashbery's meaningful insights with his crass Americana. In it she writes, "Ashbery's greatest formal contribution has been to bring into lyric a vast social lexicon of both English English and American English--common speech, journalistic cliche, business and technical and scientific language, allusion to pop culture as well as to canonical works. . . . In his syntax, as well as his diction, Ashbery juxtaposes the high . . . with the demotic."
Ahh, that's it exactly. Vendler makes me so wet. Whereas Wright's spiritual vision is exemplified by the way words in his poems have a hierarchic value, so that the literal is regularly symbolic, in Ashbery all hierarchy becomes horizontal, and the effect is at times a surreal relationship between different kinds of speech.
I think it will be a lifelong struggle with Ashbery's work for me, and I'm ok with that. I'm drawn to his poetry because it's so tonally rich, even if, as Vendler says, he's ultimately a "comic poet". Though I think he's doing more to return language to language, I struggle and mostly feel uninvited, which I know is its own kind of invitation. I'm much more attracted to poems by Tomaz Salamun, who's so much more aggressive about the inaccessibility of language and the juxtaposition of the symbolic with the archaic. Still
in my sleepless brine, I toss between the struggle of Ashbery and the lyric meditations of Wright-like prayer, poems say, from Michael Dickman's first book, The End of the West. Here's the first section of "My Dead Friends Come Back", something James Wright may have been saying to those small frogs killed on a highway at night:
If you want to
come back, just you
I say, it's fine
From the flattened universe
From His side
of the bed
Shave my head and put me in the ground with you surrounded by
Shit and violets
. . . . . . .