Conjunctions:49 A Writers’ Aviary

The Meandering Yangtze (Rivers and Mountains, 1966)
If you didn’t know what was going to happen next would you live your life any differently? 

Now everybody knows that you never can tell what will actually happen next. But for the most part, and barring emerging conditions, it’s possible to go on from one day to another as if everything was happening, if not according to plan, then at least as expected. 

Then again, you could go on the road or out to sea or just be out to lunch and the surprises might pile up like slices of baloney on the manager’s special. 

A more promising model might be the weather, unpredictable in its changes, but over time fractal patterns may be discerned. 

In the stadium of explanation, each complete thought follows the next under the regime of logic. Explanation abhors weather. 

I am writing this sentence on a chugging, uncomfortably musty ship, which is making its way down the Yangtze, China’s longest river. The boat glides on a thick ribbon of brown, sometimes garbage-strewn, water, bounded on both sides by tall green mountains. 

The river makes its way without making sense. 

The mountains seem imperious, as mountains usually do, beholden to nothing and to no one, except perhaps the river at their feet. I am a part of neither, mountain nor river, a foreign visitor to a foreign land, where many of those I meet speak English as a foreign language. They know the words but not what they mean in use: it is an English without cultural context, a machine language version not programmed to recognize figures of speech, social tone, or local inflection. 

The distance is as deep as one of the Three Gorges upon which I slide, like a skater dreaming she is a waterfall. 

There is a method to his madness but also a madness to his method. 

Certain pervasive features in John Ashbery’s work make their first appearance, full-blown, in Rivers and Mountains, which was published in 1966, four years after The Tennis Court Oath and the same number of years before The Double Dream of Spring. (“The Meandering Yangtze” is a line from “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.”) In the poems of this collection, and especially “The Skaters,” Ashbery introduces a nonlinear associative logic that averts both exposition and disjunction. Ashbery’s aversion (after The Tennis Court Oath) to abrupt disjunction gives his collage-like work the feeling of continuously flowing voices, even though few of the features of traditional voice-centered lyrics are present in his work. The connection between any two lines or sentences in Ashbery has a contingent consecutiveness that registers transition but not discontinuity. However, the lack of logical or contingent connections between every other line opens the work to fractal patterning. “The Skaters” brushes against this approach by suggesting that the point of contact between the lines is a kind of “vanishing point.” In order to create a “third way” between the hypotaxis of conventional lyric and the parataxis of Pound and Olson (and his own “Europe” in The Tennis Court Oath), Ashbery places temporal conjunctions between discrepant collage elements, giving the spatial sensation of overlay and the temporal sensation of meandering thought. Skating is the adequate symbol of this compositional method. 

In the meantime, the Yangtze cruise-boat loudspeaker continuously blares a music soundtrack alternating with piercing tour-guide announcements, so that our view of the pristine wilderness of the gorges is overlaid with tour-guide chatter alternating with the Muzak. The loop includes “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again” from Footloose, “Auld Lang Syne,” and the theme song from Titanic

Not to be too heavy-handed (or ham-fisted or grandiose) about Ashbery’s aversion to the heavy hand, but … his wry references to system as idiom, incident, overlay operate in a minor key against the major chord of Big Systems and their teleological tyranny. 

In Rivers and Mountains the primary transition (or hinge) phrases are but, ever since, and, now, when, which, yet, so, or, so that, and so, and together we, and yet, still, near by, and now, nevertheless, but still, where was I?, sometimes, anyway, somewhere, also, and slowly, outside, only, now, therefore, because, as long as, nearly, in reality of course, that, if, for, in the meantime, outside, above, but to return, and what if, and, at the heart of it, meanwhile

And yet, one can also find some of these textual pivots in Some Trees. Not so A Worldly Country, Ashbery’s most recent book, where the rough edges of the transitions are smoothed over by a genial colloquiality; or it is like rocks at the beach sanded smooth by time, or old buttons on a cardigan? 

I can go anywhere and never leave the page. A river divides me from the other shore. Or I am on the other shore and the river divides me from myself. 

“And the voyage? It’s on! Listen, everybody, the ship is starting! We have just enough time to make it to the dock.” 

What if the poem wanders like a river, widens its ken, contracts, is sometimes deep and sometimes shallow, has its periodic rapids yet sometimes the current goes dead? 

The symbolic dissolves into the idiomatic. 

Consider a brief passage from “The Skaters,” first cast into a conventional lyric voice:
Sleepless, I dream of my father’s farm 
and of the pigs in their cages at dawn. 
I wake up and go out for a walk 
on the street of the Cathedral. 
I see so much snow 
but I am afraid that soon 
it will be littered 
with waste and ashes 
and my prayers will have no 
white sanctuary. 
& now deformed into a disjunctive mode:
pigs in cages / snow 
waste, ashes / towering cathedrals 
& now Ashbery
… The pigs in their cages // 
And so much snow, but it is to be littered with waste and ashes 
So that cathedrals may grow.
Suddenly, it must be 7 a.m., a loud alarm sounds, and the cruise boat docks. Once off the ship, we are put into bright orange life jackets and then herded into small boats to go up one of the river’s little gorges. A sign warns those over age fifty to be sure to travel with an able-bodied companion. At the end of the passage, we are directed to walk on a narrow floating plank of perhaps five hundred feet at which point we are issued hard hats and sent scurrying up a steep staircase into the mountains. All the while, the tour guides are barking on their portable megaphones and there is a faint whiff of Muzak from speakers lodged deep into the landscape. At the peak, we are directed to look at an acrobat riding a bicycle across a tightrope strung across the river, from mountain to mountain. I think of La Strada. The experience is less sublime than outward bound. 

Speaking of “leaving out”: one thing Ashbery leaves out of his work is the overheated, hyperbolic, charged-up, emotion-laden styles associated with the prophetic, confessional, “beat,” “projective,” and political poetry of his generation. His deflationary diction provides a powerful counterforce—a negative dialectic—to fighting fire with fire, anger with anger, outrage with outrage, suffering with expressed anguish, self-righteousness with self-righteousness. Moreover, Ashbery’s poetry is a (literally) breathtaking swerve away from the bombastic rhetorics of the years of his coming of age, during the Second War, of the apocalyptic thinking associated with the Extermination Process, of the H-bomb, and of the strident anti- and pro-communism / capitalism of the Cold War. In “The Skaters,” there is a wry comment about the “professional exile” who is used to taking in the news—this week’s revolution—as just one more spectacle in an endless series (“Here, have another—crime or revolution? take your pick”). The passage captures a postwar ennui and disaffection often associated, and sometimes condemned, in Ashbery’s dis-engagé verse. But the poetic logic of the passage is different: its (dys)engagements are a form of Emersonian aversion: the refusal to be baited by events packaged as commoditized news opens up a space not of confrontation and reaction formation but reflection, interiority, privacy, imagination. A space of freedom (Freiheit! as “The Skaters” insists, lapsing into a German too startling to be ironic). 

I’ve always understood David Lehman’s title The Last Avant-Garde, which focused on Ashbery and his most immediate poetic company, to mean last in the sense of the one before this one. For avant gardes are always and necessarily displaced floating flotillas, out on a nameless sea that everyone is always naming. Lehman makes the rhetorical mistake of advertising his subjects as apolitical, in the process mortally undermining Ashbery’s fundamentally political and ethical engagements and disengagements (his clinical value in Deleuze’s sense). The politics of Ashbery’s poetic form is its cutting edge. 

Even the tallest mountains have tops and the deepest rivers bottoms, but we will never know them because we are too much part of them. 

We? I hardly know you. Stay for a while. 

In “The New Spirit,” the first section of Three Poems, Ashbery notoriously remarks, “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” A keynote passage from “The Skaters” anticipates this formulation: 
… This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very importance of what’s novel 
Or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to call attention 
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention 
Isn’t the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not ready 
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not, 
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that 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, but still. 
Nevertheless these are fundamental absences, struggling to get up and be off 
In this ode to the hinges of elusive elision, the poet circumnavigates a case against explanation and “plain old-fashioned cause and effect,” while giving a nod to, if not autopoesis (the poem devouring itself), then to Lear’s tragic disavowal of Cordelia’s refusal to speak the “costly stuff of explanation”—“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” Like Cordelia, Ashbery does indeed speak again, but on poetry’s, not explanation’s, terms. This is a poem that knows how to make use of nothing. The passage is less ars poetica than ars abscondita

After a while, our boat stops at a thousand-year-old temple to the poet Qu Yuen, located very near the Three Gorges Dam. Long tapering candles of incense burn in front of a bronze statue of the poet, who committed suicide in 278 BC by drowning himself in the Miluo River, as a protest, so the story goes, against the cultural climate of his times. In the next few months, the monstrous dam, the great emblem of China’s relentless modernization, will totally flood the site. I’m asked if I will write a poem about my trip to China. Perhaps I will call it “The Poet Drowned.” 

You get the sense that you could start anywhere in “The Skaters” and move around in whatever direction. The stanzas are interchangeable because modular. The lines of the poem make endless figure eights. 

In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe says that the long poem cannot exist and “The Skaters” shows why: it is composed of many small poems, call them discrete sensations, that are fused together. Ashbery, like Poe, is a poet of sensation rather than emotion, sensibility rather than big ideas. 

The only other Westerner on the boat, a man from Scotland, tells us he took the trip ten years ago, before the Chinese government flooded the gorges as part of a huge and ecologically disastrous hydroelectric project. Where before the line of the river slit through the sheer mountains like a knife slices through a tall chunk of thick butter, now the experience is more like a cruise on a lake. The new paths everywhere leave an echo of the older and deeper gorges. 

“The Skaters” samples a series of textures, never resting at any one locus. The continuous flow of discontinuous perceptions. Winding eddies. Confluence. Lateral thinking. The essential feature of parataxis is the absence of subordination; Ashbery’s is an associative parataxis, elements joined by perceptual, aesthetic, and philosophical connections and family resemblances. Constant but gradually shifting, asymmetrically kaleidoscopic; a stream of dissolving shots. 

“But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” 

It is as if these poems are part of me: not as if I wrote them, but as if they wrote me. 

In June, just before my trip to China, Ashbery and I read together at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, in the East Village. The young woman who hosted the event, perhaps nonplussed to say something about John, awkwardly announced that she could not “describe a poet before they are about to read because they will tell you who they are.” She then added that Ashbery had written some “thirty odd books of poetry.”—How odd, indeed, these books really are and how crucial that oddness, and specificity, has been for me as a poet. 

Oddness that stays odd.

Ashbery is an exemplary poet of privacy, of nondisclosure, of an other mind that stays an other mind. His poems reveal not universal human emotions but quirky passages and unexpectable associations. They provide not moments of identification but company along the way. 

But not for everyone. I still remember a September 6, 1981, Sunday, New York Times Book Review piece by Denis Donoghue that wrongly describes Ashbery, in Shadow Train, as “secretive”:
Even in one of the more available poems, “Or in My Throat”—though the title is opaque to me—Mr. Ashbery catches himself in the act of being sweet and gives sourness the last words: 

That’s why I quit and took up writing poetry instead. 
It’s clean, it’s relaxing, it doesn’t squirt juice all over 
Something you were certain of a minute ago and now your own face 
Is a stranger and no one can tell you it’s true. Hey, stupid! 
What’s opaque to the reviewer is not Ashbery’s syntactic or free-associative difficulty but the title’s reference to oral sex and how this in turn relates to the lines quoted; all of a sudden, the “opaque” becomes both explicit and outrageous. I’m not suggesting that “everyone” would catch the meaning of “Or in My Throat,” but then that’s the point. The lines of Ashbery that are cited make a wry comment on the situation … the situation of meaning and of the opaqueness of the New York Times toward poetry of the past quarter century. And the moral of that is: what’s opaque to one bursts out at another. That’s not, as this review and many others suggest, a problem for poetry; it’s the promise of poetry. 

But where was I? 

In the elevator in a hotel in Chongqing there is a sign for a special dish at the restaurant: Jellyfish with Jew’s Ear. At the restaurant, we see a large picture advertising afternoon tea, decorated with images of onion, sesame, and poppy-seed bagels. We point to the picture and ask for one. About a half hour later the waitress appears with a bowl of Cheerios. 

Around the bend is another bend

When I was first asked to write something on one of John Ashbery’s books for Conjunctions’ eightieth-birthday tribute, I suggested a commentary on an imaginary work of Ashbery’s for which I would make up all the quotes. But then I realized that maybe my books, in my mind, are just such imaginary works of Ashbery’s, from my own distorted perspective; volumes to which I have, without license, affixed my name. 

In Rivers and Mountains, John Ashbery crossed the Rubicon in American poetry. Actually he double crossed it. 

& then some. 

Meanwhile …

Charles Bernstein is the author of Topsy-Turvy and Pitch of Poetry (both University of Chicago Press). In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry. With Tracie Morris, Bernstein co-edited Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press).