As We Know

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“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.

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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 of things” (The Tennis Court Oath). Because of this sense of reality and self, his powerful and dense long poem, Litany, ends not in any kind of speculative flight or metaphysical abstraction, but on a mundane note.

Even though Ashbery claims words are the “total environment” and “An idea I had and talked about/Became the things I do,” the final lines in “Tapestry” raise a different question: “As words go crying after themselves,/leaving the dream/Upended in a puddle somewhere/As though ’dead’ were just another adjective.” Yet “Fools rush into my head, and so I write,” Ashbery remarks in Litany. To tell, to communicate, to express becomes unavoidable and urgent for the poet.

  We must first trick the ideaInto being, then dismantle it,Scattering the pieces on the wind,So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendshipWill stay with us at the last, backed by the nightWhose ruse gave it our final meaning.

It is no wonder, then, that Ashbery’s last book of poems before As We Know had already anticipated the first poem of the present collection, Litany.

Despite the “unprepared knowledge/Of ourselves” and “Antithesis chirping/To antithesis,” despite “meaningless/Rolling and lurching” in this “ambiguous space” of our existence, Ashbery, the indefatigable beginner, does not escape into silence. This is because existence “is a part of all being, and is . . . to be prized” (The Double Dream of Spring). Nor does he indulge in lyric abstraction. As “Histoire Universelle” states, “To free speech is an aspect of the dream and of Dreamland/In general that asserts an even larger/View of the universe. . . .” Further, he states in Litany that “In the beginning of speech the question/Of frontiers is taken up again.” So, when we return to “As We Know,” we return to the “small capitulations/Of the dance.” “Life is not really for the squeamish either.” Articulation, communication, the power of the word becomes for Ashbery a holy and human essential—“There is a central crater/Which is the word.” After all, litany is a chant, a song, that connects two and more.

Litany as well as several other poems in the volume do not lead us to any climactic ascensions, but dare us to epiphanic “ecstasy and apprehension”—an intensification of momentary consciousness and an exploration of history, reality, and life. Ashbery defines his poetry in the New York Quarterly interview as “consciously trying to explore consciousness.” There is, one could say, a radical corporeality and radical immaterialism in these poems which we have already experienced in his The Double Dream of Spring and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Litany, a variation on the original theme, is also an improvisation on other recurrent motifs—time, history, flux, death, beginning, voyaging, knowing, and writing. The diastolic movement of this two-columned, seventy-page-long poem creates a mood of destiny, transformation, and equilibrium. The “carnivorous/Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving/Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know/involves presence.” The language and style of the poem appropriate a kind of daringness, materiality, and sublimity. Ashbery appears, in his own words, as an “adventurous acolyte” offering us a “task and vision, vision in the form of a task” on “the threshold of so much unmeaning, so much/Being” (Fragments). What is remarkable is that the poem becomes its own creation, a means of transformation and awareness: “code names for the silence,” both “in an explosion of surprise” and by a “great implosion,” in the words of the poem.

In the same New York Quarterly interview, Ashbery explains his own methodology of writing poetry. “My poetry,” he remarks, “doesn’t have subjects”; so, “fluidity of thought rather than objects of thought” informs it, and frequently the poems comment “on themselves . . . therefore the methodology occasionally coincides with the subject.” Litany resonates with such meditations as the personal and “the other” and the particular and the general interpenetrate and the poem acquires another dimension—of recognition, cognition, and recollection. The italicized column of the poem in its second movement is devoted to an intense reflection on poetry and criticism and their significance in our lives. Poetry is constantly happening, and so is criticism, for both are inextricably connected with us and in us; and the “tale/Is still so magnificent in the telling” in the face of uncertainties and failures. This telling is conjugated with the concept of the thing itself, be it an object or idea—“The artifice lets it become itself,/Nestling in truth.”

Regarding joy, Ashbery writes, “it was not joy/But rather something more like the concept of joy,/I was able to experience it like a fruit/One peels, then eats.” Peeling and participating, reaching into the very kernel:

There comes a time when the momentis full of, knows only itself...........................................................................................................To know itself, and to know everything elseAs well,

This is the “sudden moment of maturity,” which is “suffused with a kinetic/purpose.” The purpose, according to Ashbery, is the question of the “frontier”—his own question: “But what shall clean me within?” And his answer, total and epiphanic, is: “The way to nothing/Is the way to all things.” Not a matter of epistemology, but of kenosis, which is “something like/Grace, in the long run, which is what poetry is.”

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