As We Know
“There is another world,” writes the French poet Paul Eluard, “and it is in this one.” Plotting itineraries from Some Trees through The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains, Fragments, and The Double Dream of Spring, and from Three Poems through Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, The Vermont Notebook, Houseboat Days, and finally As We Know, one finds Eluard’s idea as the central and interconnecting theme in the corpus of Ashbery’s poetic work. The first poem, Litany, in the present collection of poems opens: “For some one like me/The simple things/Like having toast or/Going to church. . . ./Like having wine and cheese,/The parents of the town/Pissing elegantly. . . ./The casual purring of a donkey” as well as “The/Snapdragons consumed in a wind” do “rouse me from my accounts.” He is fully aware of the “lived eventualities/That torment our best intentions” and “the epidemic of the way we live now”—the “disorderly house” of our “drab existences.” Yet he wishes “to retain my kinship/To the rest,” while keeping “my difference,” as he writes in Litany.
Although he writes in “The Preludes” that he is “trapped in the principle of the great beyond” in this checkerboard space of our world, he says, “I no longer have any metaphysical reasons/For doing the things I do.” And while, in the same poem, he concludes that “we are all ushered in—/Into the presence that explains,” in “Their Day” he realizes that
From these boxed perimetersWe issue forth irregularly. Sometimes in fear,But mostly with no knowledge of knowing, only a generalBut selective feeling that the world had to go on being goodto us.
In “Haunted Landscape,” Ashbery comments,
But you wanted to know why so much action took on somuch lifeAnd still managed to remain itself, aloof, smiling andcourteous.Is that the way life is supposed to happen? We’ll probablynever know.
Combined with a “passionate intelligence,” a deep, self-reflective, exploratory attitude and a skeptical honesty sustain As We Know, instead of any kind of metaphysical reverie or speculative enchantment. With an incredible range of inventive vocabulary and verbal postures reminiscent of John Berryman, Ashbery continues his “immense journey” (Fragments) in the midst of “intimidated solitude and isolation” (Fragments), and, he says in the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, “deep into the midst of things.” Some Trees talks of “We see us as we truly behave,” but in this volume the focus is on “as we know.” Even then there is that skepticism, tentativeness, and a meditative humility in Ashbery’s thinking—“We shall never recognize our true reflections,” and “One can never change the core...
(The entire section is 1333 words.)