Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.



Dali said once that it took him his whole life to learn how to paint like an 8 year old child. I'm pretty sure he said this or something near it. This is during that last productive stint, he's wearing a white robe and a long thin white mustache that droops, and walks with a cane like some newage guru out of a sci-fi flick, hermit, guardian of the oracle, sage. He's near a canvas, swallowtail, cello-knob, black line on white horizon, swift, with all the force and grace of an accident.

I said in my last post I could accept Tomaz Salamun's work in a way I could not Ashberry's, though it is no less accessible or easy. I could be talking about my preference for Dostoevsky over Tolstoy.

Salamun is a kind of demon, and he calls upon passions in a manner to which Ashberry remains analytical and ultimately, as Vendler pointed out, comedic. This is really saying that Ashberry opens up moments of philosophical sadness that are redeemed by pleasures of critical and/or colloquial speech on the same plane. The effect can be deeply contemplative, if jarring. I'd argue that Ashberry is in this way more accessible than Salamun, who looks to history as if to flesh.

Stylistically, he's not as diverse as Ashberry, writing in successive short declarations that burst like fearsome fat berries. Sometimes they have that lyric intensity of a clean aphorism: "Heaven was conceived with a knife." "The grass is authentic." "Beauty of man is the furthest history." "Poetry is a martyr's hatchery." Sometimes their intensity feels symbolic, though their meaning remains oblique: "The foot is in the warmish place, secure." "Feathers in my mouth grow." "A bull's berry walks on a wire." "The crocodile stuffs my body into its tongue."

I think Vendler's assessment of Ashberry's writing--that it works on a horizontal level, equalizing different kinds of speech toward a surrealistic effect--is true of some of Salamun's poetry as well, though Salamun is a trickster of sorts and is not really funny at all. His vision is darker, and beautifully nihilistic. He reminds me of Breton's The Absence of Myth, in which he argues that a godless existence is the only one capable of miracles of attention. Here is the very center of Salamun's book There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair:

Eternity is
cruel and crystal.
It ruins

everything alive.
It replaces people and
loves and does not

the well. With your hand
you dust a glass

you do not
break it. Let every

die as
a man does. Death
protects us.

Here Salamun is working in a way much opposed to Ashberry, but it requires our attention to the relationship between the hand and the glass as elements: flesh and crystal. The domestic act of dusting a glass becomes a challenge: whether or not flesh is capable of "breaking" crystal. In the end, it is the cut that becomes mortal for Salamun, and what he wants to preserve is the possibility of the wound. Death is that barrier we cannot know beyond. We must care for it. There's also a finality to the end of the poem because Salamun has symbolic purpose, and I'd argue that unlike Ashberry, he doesn't believe that language is ultimately a joke of meaning. In this way, he's not nihilistic at all. He believes in a poem the way he believes in hot flesh. His is a reassignment of those religious doctrines that posit the body against the spirit--for Salamun the temporary blood is more valuable than eternity.

This allows his poetry to have an apocalyptic playfulness about it that invites both elegance and accident, and so leaps between them in an almost associative directness:

These are the islands of Vis and Hvar!
Two lullabies above the complexion of black golden
Saturns. Hills, charred long ago during
the bleating of sheep and lambs,
during the elliptical carriers of fire,
and rain forcing its way between
branches, without noticing the leaves, without
drinking them.
For years I felt that orange shovel.

I say "almost" associative, because though the locomotion of his brief sentences propels us into huge leaps, they are not exactly pulled from the unconscious the way lines from Breton's Soluble Fish might have been, leapt down, caught for their very strange, dreamlike elusivity. I saw Salamun read at AWP last year and I was struck by what I saw:

a boy. Reading to a tree. And in the tree a bird and a fox. The storm cloud was small. A head drawn inside a head. A black hairy raindrop on his cheek.

Strange, but that's what I saw. The outsider as a child. And I realized that what happens in Salamun's poems is what happens when children are serious, when serious children play. Things are said, described, in the simplest, most direct ways, but ways that are poetry, because they haven't yet learned the rules. When adults speak to animals, trees and storms, we call it witchcraft. We call it melodrama. We call it weird. But if my niece before bedtime says she wants ice cream, ("shoeberry ice cream" is her favorite) and we tell her it's too late she replies, "I'll brush my teeth with it." If you tell her no, she frowns and darkens and says loudly: "You make me sad--forever." Salamun too works in short sentences fraught with symbolic play, accidental intensity, but articulate with certitude and feeling. Though readers may find him difficult, inaccessible, even ridiculous, I'd argue there is an often overlooked relentless childlike simplicity to Salamun's work that affords him philosophical insight and descriptive prowess:

Nice Hat, Thanks.

Little burnt villages. Heavy drinkers.
Incredible! Such is my influence:
We're ducks.
I took the distribution and the title from Joshua.
Arms are a genuine feeling.
These are our mouths and palms.
Frogs are resoled.
O God, how near we are to each other.
I lick God's mind and roll over like a turtle.
The swallow's dome has pity and destroys.
Heaps of sand. Mothers, mothers.
The enemy is tortured and juts out.
Mommy carries the chapter.

. . . . . . .

Friends and Strangers, steal him if you can!

. . . . . . .



I've never been able to fully enter Ashbery. Some Trees felt energetic but mysterious, especially for someone like me who arrived at contemporary poetry through those narrative confessional poets--James Wright and Ai--inheritors of Lowell and Jarrell. I can still remember the moment I first read Wright's "Small Frogs Killed on a Highway". Before this poem I sat in the library and memorized Shakespearean sonnets, eyeing the stacks for some answer to my loneliness. Instead I had lines that summoned some idea of the lover's brutality. I still remember them:

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.

For Now

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

Trillium or
something else

Shit and violets

. . . . . . .

My photo
I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.