Conjunctions:49 A Writers’ Aviary

Besides, of Bedouins (Hotel Lautréamont, 1992)
A hotel is distinguished by its many rooms, and a room always stands for a moment of the mind, so every collection of poetry is necessarily a hotel, a sequence of spaces threaded in and above, and there within we live, in passing, in a corridor, in what brushes by your sleeve, the underscore of breath.

This is wealth, and we’re just passing through, as they say, there we are and then are not, another stranger, and there’s something clean in that. And to those whose loneliness / shouts envy in my face, it’s a state of pure sunlight, pared of memory, and it’s a dream; it’s the dream: to be seen from the back, walking away until the seer fades, and the reader is left with an open book.

Hotel Lautréamont traces an exile—an ambulatory self-exile in both senses of the term: of the voluntarily chosen, deeply wanted, and escorted, and of the self that walks out on the self until it runs out of land:

          There is nothing to do except observe the horizon,
           the only one, that seems to want to sever itself
          from the passing sky.

Which is passing behind
                             a screen on which a shadow-play keeps time with the gate
swinging back and forth of the face, of the name.

Lautréamont was a man who abandoned his name for another of a fictional character from a nineteenth-century sensationalist novel that no one now remembers how to write the self away and make a dubious hero splinter into the actual. Isidore Ducasse, the author forever on the outside, and Maldoror, the character forever trapped within, meet in this name of another on the cover that divides one world from the next. Lautréamont exiled himself from himself, leaving his native Montevideo to go to Paris and die of the siege. And Joseph Cornell was an exile from and within his native land and never left New York. You can exile inside; you can build room after very small room with the many addresses of repeated objects. Exiled himself into a small red ball, a grid of white, the repeated word “Hotel.”

Seen on a bench this morning: a man in a gray coat is always a photograph in black and white, and the stranger is innumerable and habitable, in a soft hat, quietly sealed. “Still Life with Stranger” is full of bees and snow.

Ashbery speaks of those homeless hirsutes we call men; this is his homage to them. We see a line walking silhouetted against the horizon, letter for letter, person for person, counting in his sleep, if poetry does not keep track, there will be no more ceremony to this loss and
                      if we are to be more than music
                                                                         be erased. It is this
we will interrogate. The erased conveys its passing through a split second of unclarity, a cloud across the surface, and the paper is no longer virgin. It’s a white rectangle with a smudge that looks a little like the condensed breath of someone who just left the window.

From the outside, a hotel is no more than a pattern of windows, often all the same, counters in a game of concentration, and you will never be able to remember where you saw each one before.

Ashbery also exiled himself to Paris where he fell in love with the work of Raymond Roussel, to whom no better monument to alienation both self and universal has ever been conceived. There is all that outside. It does extend in all directions becoming infinitely more grand and infinitely more precise, and always and essentially without depth. Which was the world he built and into which he fled and lived forever among his simple magic and unlikely machines.

That these three men—Lautréamont, Roussel, and Cornell—are the same one is a law of physics that may seem to have no purpose until it emerges as this book: great rivers run into each other and graves

Digression: that is, of course, a gross misreading of the line or is it. The lines run:
we will meet on a stone up there, and all will not be well,
but that is useful. Great rivers run into each other and graves
have split open, the tyranny of dust plays well, there is
so little to notice. Besides we have always known each other.

And so, because of the line break, we can claim “great rivers run into each other and graves” as a legitimate unit, but more important, this sequence exemplifies Ashbery’s device of rarely letting lines conform to the units of sense; they are always carefully offset. Agamben speaks of the violence inherent in poetry at the site of the line break; it is broken, and its breaking breaks sense open, while on the other hand, when meaning, as in Ashbery, achieves its end in the middle of the line, it similarly ruptures that structure; these ends un-ended, the grave has split, and if something comes alive again because of it, it is this unease that pushes onward, which is the exile inherent in language, now relieved of all constraint. Ashbery’s lines will not stay put, but restlessly wander from humor to mourning, resting only a moment suspended as each line breaks into another room with a door at each extreme.

The implications of the hotel are endless, arcanely transient, archly anonymous, always pushing tomorrow off somewhere else. By the time you get there, a hotel room is always empty. In 1981, Sophie Calle spent three weeks as a chambermaid constructing portraits of the hotel guests, portraits constructed in and of their absence, built of the haphazard evidence of daily objects, detritus, traces, until the person in their lack becomes enormous. This we call the present.

And it is constructed of dream. Hotel rooms are permanently permeated with dream. If it is thought that dreams stain the air, and they do, then in hotels they’re layered in among strangers because they must build from night to night, are never the product of a single night’s work but must wait, leaving those who live in hotels to create a composite mind shared with everyone else who has recently passed through.

To build a mind out of the never-met. Ashbery’s work is always an exchange of dream, which is a turning from the door every time and every room that glides alone, uncompromising the view, as wrote the surrealists for whom, like Lautréamont, Roussel, and Cornell, and regardless of timing, Ashbery was a precursor, living there a second time, a graceful loop autonomous as the birds’ song, the vultures’ sleep. You sing and I’ll weep. Birds inhabit the person, and the exile is complete. Which is itself in silence, in coming into possession of the self, must be exiled from all else, becoming sovereign, a renovated conference of the birds:

Noon intersects with fat birds: rain of, who won, and winning, rain of oblivion, sudden as a sigh. In the bird, Ashbery and Cornell pass and brush, lightly of hands: aerial Bedouin, migration that does not return with the season.

on a forgotten afternoon filled with birds; wings
                                                             How the forgetting, too, plays into his
economy of loss; there is just one spot
on the horizon, and it may or may not have been
the one living thing that always is
                                                      the past. Of it we
build individual habitats for bird and person
                                                                   The smallest home is a thimble
until it is a needle, famous for being nearly all window, and what of the air balloon, and what are these boxes if not exits. And how do you tell a bird from a stone? The answer to the riddle had something to do with a pale blue egg upside down in a glass. What is that in your hand?
                                                                                                                          There was no season.

We found a homogeneous weather composed entirely of ritual objects. Here he and Cornell confer:
                                    feather? and if so, how related to snow? and exactly how to manifest this emptiness in such a crowded place. How inexorably to state the birds were here once,
from Uccello, who also
                                   earned his name from absent birds, birds he painted
that no one now can find, we know is just the beginning
of they were
once of the interwoven, when after all, they got away, and the shore repeats because the body is a finite thing and Ashbery finds this sad. He is right, and so intricately so in positioning the grief at the point at which bird and man meet, which is the hotel, half arm, midbeak, the fulcrum between a bird’s foot, which can only be called a claw, and its wing. There is no thing that does not mean. And Ashbery, dedicated to contingency, here constructs a deep mourning for just that inability.
                                                               We move continually
outward along a chain of islands, ever alien:
                     Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete the one in me?
       And of what shape, what silhouette crossed the yard and odd in peace did shed a peace in the dark within the body lies the bird
as whatever’s left of flight:

... the heart flies a little away,
perhaps accompanying, perhaps not. Perhaps a familiar spirit,
possibly a stranger, a small enemy

                                           Ashbery’s first aspiration was to be a painter, and
curving outward, with his hand upon the snow in an untitled collage
by Joseph Cornell. There was no Hotel Lautréamont
among the prodigious series Cornell constructed in the fifties.

                                           ... And when it was over, that was the truth: a nest of eggs still hidden, the false flight of a bird.

Ashbery’s exile is positive, the fulfillment of a promise, the reconciliation with a stranger who never faces you, but keeps looking onward, drawing you out. In his configuration, exile is the refusal to be rendered homeless by constituting that home everywhere.

Exile in style, too. While in Reported Sightings, Ashbery writes, “The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience,” he also says that he was shocked when he first saw Cornell’s work in a magazine at the age of ten—shocked because Cornell was seeing what no child ever naturally would, and delivered in a rush all the psychological insight of thirty years’ experience; to sense the extension of the self as a serial dislocation (only a lining / that dictates the separation of this you from this some other), and the fact that the elements of a personality can be freely recombined as a type of flight should be shocking indeed to a child of ten.

And once internalized, became Ashbery’s principle of composition based on cumulative juxtaposition that carves up every outward through a neat exchange of metaphor for metonymy, a chain of associations that begin and begin and begin again. In haunted stanzas, we start with rain, then a harpsichord shelling peas, then rowboats. Then darkness. Then: Happiness no longer was a thing to hold on to, but became a great curve, listening instead
               is the entire oeuvre: the darkness necessary to the intelligence of happiness, which must be a curve, it must have that wing, and it must exceed the frame of the mind, turning to pure motion, and all of it, the listening that sends our attention elsewhere still.
                                Archipelago. It is a book of ships:
                                                                              that excited skiff
or schooner with its layered sails that climb like clouds; there are so many ways out, but among them, sail and wing are mostly ancient. Ocean vessels, convey-ness hither. He expands on the theme: flotsam and jetsam and their fine distinctions, what we toss overboard, memory and meter, to make the ship lighter and lighter, it’s practically floating, it’s learning to fly. Thereby becoming the point that wanders free of a line, and often contrasted with its opposite: all buildings that are not hotels, and that therefore hold us down:

And so in turn he who gets locked up is lost
too, and must watch a boat nudge the pier
outside his window, forever, and for aye
                                                                    is that wide inviting; we picture
it wooden, its paint peeling and an oar of sun aslant its emptiness, a rope in the bottom, coiled.

              ... and the little house more sensible than ever before
as a boat passes, acquiescing to
the open, the shore …

the shores are still beautiful

                                              they always are
because they’re in midair; they’ve got nothing to do with the ironic earth but
mark its edge and own their sails and are sailing.
the ship was obliged to leave for the islands—it doesn’t matter which
They all came along
                                    ... you know how we keep an eye on

today. It left on a speeding ship.
As everything eventually Isidore Ducasse got on board and sailed right out of his life.

And when you died
they remembered you chiefly. It was two
lights on a rowboat, a half-mile off shore

Second digression into formal considerations: rhyme: that his rhymes, too, follow a scheme designed to undermine the physical form of the poem as determined by line. The rhymes fall internal, often insistent, but also often hidden: obliged to leave for the islands; don’t care he said, going down all those stairs; Even in the beginning one had grave misgivings; So many mystery guests. And the rain that sifts. These midline rhymes implode the phrase, fold it in two. Strongly rhythmic, they set up patterns that run counterpoint to those established by the line breaks, while they also cut across meaning, which itself is often bisected by the line. Again, Agamben: that rhyme is often an inherent conflict of sound and sense, at the very least making the word serve two separate ends. These various violences, three modes all working at odds, result in a surface that is constantly disrupted and must thus constantly remake itself, which in turn calls attention to itself and discourages us from looking for meaning elsewhere, where it isn’t. Or he poises rhymes on top of each other, both in the middle of the line: cloud directly above aloud, lay above clay, and we fall straight down through the poem as if down a mine, blindness swaddled in sound. Everything here is in motion, the tension between gravity and its enemies, wing and sail, my ship, now my bird, finally only reconciled in language:
               my words as their feathery hulls
blow away

And there are many, many words here; in fact, it’s a text in which the common noun comes into its own—bell, river, train; he picks inherently noble words; lilac, garden, sun: these are things with integrity, echoing strangely amid the ironic and lasting oddly longer. Lamp, tower, weather— they’re the short, hard words of which the world is constructed, inviolate and categorical, never naming one alone but a timeless form that comes down, rain, sea, song.

These words are of the same class as Cornell’s objects, and the method of composition is the same: pipe, globe, chart of the sky. Ashbery looked up from the box and said, I am banished to an asteroid. What he has done with things, I have done with words, which is to arrange them according to the schedule of the night, the compositional principle of the constellation, the continual reconfiguration of swan, ice, owl. Of bridge, dust, hour: a gathering of the elements that fueled nineteenth-century romanticism, all that seething nature reaching as we are reaching without ever touching it’s getting taller as if the world and not the universe were expanding visibly abandoning something diminishing on the shore. And this allows him to risk a romantic treatment of beauty:

Bells chimed, the sky healed.

not the lamps purling / in the dark river

and dancers shift across the stage like leaves

Which is necessarily based on the romantic foundation of loss, the indelibly inaccessible: all these images are composed of immense inner distances, and again, we have recourse to cosmology, the many references to stars, comets, moons, the universe on the head of a pin is here sequestered,
                                                                                                                                                 as did Cornell
in boxes,
             in language: Ashbery
inserts at the precise center a gap unbridgeable because it’s entirely contained, sometimes even in a single word: pier, fog, gone. An exile is not an exile except seen from the land he has left or in looking back; what we are leaving is the past, and that cannot be done. Words such as once, anymore, were always, left behind, and no longer weave in and out of the overall attempt at humor, and eventually coalesce into their own sort of home. That the exile should inhabit the unattainable: so much
       that is not ours, and the tale
       besides, of Bedouins
       who broke out of silence as a river.
It’s hard to make a solid object that doesn’t end. And does it echo in every box or to have thought one face back to a light that you could breathe.
        and the wind whispered it to the stars
        and the people all got up to go
        and looked back on love

The author of many volumes of poetry, Cole Swensen is the founding editor of La Presse Books. She coedited the Norton anthology American Hybrid and guest-edited the first annual Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn). She wrote Landscapes on a Train (Nightboat Books)