John Ashbery’s latest collection of more than eighty poems is a remarkable achievement, particularly because each poem is a formulation against formulation, an act of would-be meaning that resists coherence and meaning. The tentative quality of Ashbery’s poems is nothing new to his readers. This particular collection adds some new tinctures to the Ashbery oeuvre, something about the limits of an individual’s dream and the need to negotiate with others. These poems seem to reflect upon the difficulty of creating meaning alone.
Ashbery announces a number of motifs in the first poem, “Light Turnouts,” perhaps a play on turning out the lights before sleep and dream. Here the title suggests a tentative or light escape or moment of order. Addressing some emanation of the spirit, the speaker asks “Dear ghost, what shelter/ in the noonday crowd? I’m going to write/ an hour then read what someone else has written.” If writing is a kind of shelter for the individual from the crowd, the individual is often carried back to others by reading. If there can be said to be a unifying theme in these poems, it is something like the negotiation between the imaginative flight of the individual in his own subjectivity and the need and reality of discourse with others and an admission of the influence of others in our thought. The second stanza suggests the way in which the adventure of the individual can be stopped, even if in nothing so certain as a mansion: “You’ve no mansion for this to happen in./ But your adventures are like safe houses,/ your knowing where to stop and adventure/ of another order, like seizing the weather.” The flight of the imagination, shifting and elusive as weather, needs at times to be stopped or seized.
The “safe house” or “mansion,” in which it might be possible to connect to those from the past who inform and give the present adventurer meaning, is both desired and haunted in these poems, something to be fled and something to be sought. In “The Phantom Agents,” these mansions are like “decrepit cinemas/ whose balconies were walled off decades ago…where yellowing lobby cards announce/ the advent of next week’s Republic serial: names of a certain importance once, names that float/ in the past, like a drift of gnats on a summer evening.” This view of the past is depressing, equating the record of human effort with fleeting projections, insignificant as tiny insects. It evokes what Robert Lowell called “the horrifying mortmain of ephemera.”
At other points, Ashbery seems willing to concede the necessity of some public place in the house of the self, as he does in “From Estuaries, From Casinos”: “And though I feel like a fish out of water I/ recognize the workmen who proceed before me,/ nailing the thing down.” Always sensing the lack of a central public stage, Ashbery seems uncompelled to speak or to “nail down” meaning in a recognizable edifice. Nevertheless, the building materials remain ready as a last resort: “Who asks anything of me?/ I am available, my heart pinned in a trance/ to the notice board, the stone/ inside me ready to speak, if that is all that can save us.” There are a variety of metaphors in those phrases, “notice board,” “pinned,” “stone,” which suggest building materials, school, the cliché of getting water from stone; Ashbery’s forte is an ability to create a stream of figures which almost but do not quite cohere into a mythos or a meaning.
The title poem,...
(The entire section is 1423 words.)