Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582
Ashbery’s finest work may be in his long poems, where the space gives him time to develop a sense of what it is like to attempt to deal with a specific, recalcitrant subject. A shorter poem, such as “Mixed Feelings” (from the volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), while being a good poem, provides a kind of five-finger exercise in understanding Ashbery’s peculiar charms as a poet. The idea is a simple one. The poet either thinks he is smelling frying sausages while looking at an old photograph, or he is, in fact, doing so. It hardly matters. What does matter is his attempt to date the picture, which is not too difficult, because he recognizes the aircraft in the photograph as one used in World War II.
Some young women are leaning against it. He imagines their names, typically common names for women at the time, and thereby provides a perceptive confirmation of the fact that times change, as does the style in choosing names for children. He wonders how he would explain to them how much the world has changed in more than thirty years. Would they want to listen, he wonders, standing as they do with that smart knowingness of young women? Perhaps they would tell him to get lost, using the slang of the day. Perhaps they would rather go to a café for a cup of coffee. Ashbery is, in fact, slyly evoking the social world of wartime, when servicemen tried to pick up young women with a smart quip and were often rebuffed just as smartly.
Ashbery is not sure if his imagined setting is right. The picture reminds him of California, but his reference to the garment district suggests New York. The light looks western, and the idea of the aircraft is strongly allied to the Pacific Coast for him. The Donald Duck cartoon on the airplane is a lovely touch, and it was common for combat aircraft to carry some kind of cartoon on the fuselage. He wonders about the girls in the photograph, but he is not going to spend much time at it. In the end, he imagines that sometime he will meet young women like them in an airport lounge and that they will then chat with him just as trivially as the women in the photograph might have done.
It is a very modest poem, and it shows that Ashbery can make sense if he wants to. It possesses the sort of tender stillness that often appears in short passages in his longer poems, and it has that peculiar eye for detail which is a mark of his work. It makes even his most obscure metaphors ring with associations that are hard to place but difficult to forget. The easy informality, the simple conversational style, and the cogent, economical way in which a complicated idea is presented with little sense of trickiness are elements that come and go in his longer poems, but they have a life of their own in many of his shorter works, in which a quiet moment is captured. It is a clever poem, but it is difficult to tell that from a quick reading. The poem is based on the association of ideas, but it is the way those ideas are dropped into place—with such seeming innocence, starting with the homely idea of the smell of sausages, a common kind of food for the troops—which leads to the photograph and beyond.
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