Conjunctions:49 A Writers’ Aviary

Only in the Light of Lost Words Can We Imagine Our Rewards (Some Trees, 1956)
Some Trees, John Ashbery’s first regularly published collection, contains numerous poems that explore how the artistic consciousness relates to the world in which it finds itself and what that consciousness makes of the world it is given. In his examinations of how it feels to think, and of how thought and feeling interact with the world to make art, Ashbery is an heir of Wallace Stevens, whom he has called, along with early Auden and Laura Riding, one of “the writers who most formed my language as a poet.” 

     As I reread the book’s title poem, it seems to me in many ways a response to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” In both poems, an object or group of objects in the material world, arbitrarily chosen and yet significant because of that choice, is the occasion for a meditation on how to live in that world, how to make one’s way through a world not of one’s making. In Stevens’s poem, one “must” have a winter’s mind, the mind of a man made of snow (which is to say, a man who is not a man at all), to look out on the winter landscape and perceive no misery there, in the sound of the wind and the leaves in the wind. But what does “must” mean? That one should have such a mind, that one should turn such a colder eye upon the world, declining to invest it with feeling and meaning? Or that only an actual snow man, “nothing himself,” at one with his wintry landscape (indeed, a feature of that landscape), could so see the world, perceiving “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Given how much of something the poem presents us (nothing is nothing to see), asks us to behold, I would settle on the latter point of view. 

     “Some Trees” presents a friendlier landscape, although an equally contingent one. These are, after all, only “some” trees: there is no guarantee that any other trees will offer such muted epiphanies, or even that these trees would do so on a different morning. “These are amazing.” These and no other trees? Or would any group of trees so amaze, if looked at properly? (I am reminded that for William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention, and anything could be­come a poem if paid the right sort of attention.) These trees are amaz­ing in part because they are in relation, “each / Joining a neighbor.” As Nietzsche wrote, before there can be one, there must be two: that everything connects is a never-ceasing source of wonder. And these mute trees speak, their “still performance” a silent analogue of speech. In his sonnet “Correspondences,” another poem about relation, Baudelaire wrote that nature is a living temple from whose pillars confused words issue forth. Are not these trees, some trees at least, such pillars in nature’s temple? 

     And we have arranged to meet by accident (a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé has reminded us) far from the world and yet wholly within it, agreeing with its speaking picture, its silent discourse. As far from the world as agreeing with it is very close indeed, though never fully there (can we ever be fully there, fully present?), on this morning that seems full of possibility, as beginnings always seem to be. And suddenly we are “what the trees try // to tell us we are,” though the poem never tells us what that is (to do so might shut down possibility), or even who “we” are. The poem is intimate (every reader is invited to be part of this “we,” like these trees, each joining its neighbor) and yet distant, from the world, from any reader (who is this we of whom we are not only invited but assumed to be part?). The trees, after all, are together yet apart: rooted in place, they cannot move any closer to one another or, for that matter, any further apart. 

     But these trees mean something, or so that is what they try to tell us, whoever we are. But how do we know what they are trying to tell us, or that they are trying to tell us anything? It is in this way that the poem responds to “The Snow Man”: it is, after all, “a winter morning,” and the days are “Placed in a puzzling light” not unlike Stevens’s “distant glitter // Of the January sun,” cold light in which one sees “the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough” in that distant glitter. More trees seen in winter light, some trees and not other trees (pine trees, junipers, spruces). The trees in Ashbery’s winter morning are probably bare too, perhaps also crusted with snow, shagged with ice. And maybe it is morning in Stevens’s poem, the sun not rising far above the horizon all day. 

     We behold some trees and they mean to us, we hear some wind and it means to us. We are not snow men. In Stevens’s poem, what we see is the burden the bare trees bear, but also the beauty of that burden: cold pastoral. What we hear in the wind’s sound, in the sound of the leaves the wind carries and drops, carries and drops, is misery. One must have a mind of winter not to hear it, and who has such a mind? Not the speaker of this poem. In Ashbery’s, we see those trees and somehow hear them too. They mean, but what they mean is the possibility of joy: “soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Not now, and not certainly, but we may, and we may soon. (This seems a bright and sunny winter morning, cold but invigorating.) The words that issue from nature’s pillars are after all confused, but that’s to be expected when speech has become a still performance, or rather, when it is as though a still performance were speech, as though speech had become such a tableau vivant. 

     We have not invented such loveliness (the loveliness of hope, the beauty of potential), and we are glad not to have. It is something beyond us, an outside that confirms and consoles us. It surrounds us, a comfort but also a constraint: contra Schopenhauer, the world is not all will and idea. As Stevens writes in his “Adagia,” “All of our ideas come from the natural world: Trees = umbrellas.” Or at least some trees do, a shelter from the rain or even from the snow. 

     The silence is already filled with noises (the noise of the wind, per­haps, of a few leaves in the wind, some leaves). The world around us, this little piece of it, this place in which we have arranged to find ourselves, to meet one another and our world by chance, is “A canvas on which emerges / A chorus of smiles” (the synesthesia is, I think, deliberate, the speech of a still performance, some trees’ soundless urgings). It is “a winter morning, / Placed in puzzling light”: we can experience but never wholly understand the world; the light discloses but does not explain. And it is moving: we are moved, whoever we are this morning, but the world is moving too, life is all motion. “Minute by minute they change,” writes Yeats; and Stevens reminds us that the blackbird whirling in the autumn winds (so close to winter, yet so far) is just a small part of the pantomime. The days are reticent, at least our days are reticent—or rather, our days have put on such reticence (the reticence that tells us so much once we choose to really listen, so much we have not invented but we have definitely interpreted). We may soon touch, love, explain (all these things that trees can’t do, not some trees, not any trees), but when we don’t know, or even if these things will happen at all. Right here, right now, these implications, innuendos, inflections of morning light seem sufficient: “These accents seem their own defense.” What else can be expected of the world but hints? That the world should speak at all, however reticently, in however puzzling a winter morning light, is enough, is amazing indeed. 

     Poems call to poems. The sestina “A Painter” takes up the imagery, tone, and themes of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” presenting us with a male painter (or rather, a painter manqué) as distinct from a female singer, but also with the same question that Stevens addresses in a letter, “whether a poem about a natural object is roused by the natural object or whether the natural object is clothed with its poetic characteristics by the poet.” The two poems appear to arrive at different answers to this perpetual question of poetry, of art itself, but they are not so far apart as they at first appear, both lingering by the seashore as they do. 

     In Stevens’s poem, the unnamed woman sang “beyond the genius of the sea.” The water was not fully shaped by her imagination or her voice, but the motion of its waves and tides, pattern calling to pattern (like those trees telling us what we might do, what we might be), “Made constant cry..., / That was not ours although we understood,” and part of what we understood is that this voice is “Inhuman, of the veritable [that is, true] ocean.” “The sea was not a mask,” not a projection of human desires and fears, a screen of human meaning. “No more was she.” She was a woman walking by the ocean, singing what she heard, which was both the sea and her own voice. “But it was she and not the sea we heard.” She was, as Stevens writes, “the maker of the song she sang.” The sea was her locale. But still we heard “the dark voices of the sea,” and more than that, her voice and more than that, our own voices and more than that. The sounds of water and wind were “meaningless plungings” out of which we made and make meaning. Her song she made out of the sounds she heard, made us see and hear the world more acutely, made a world for us: “And when she sang, the sea … became the self that was her song.” At least for her: “there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” And yet she made the world for us as well. When the singing ended, the lights of the anchored fishing boats “Mastered the night and portioned out the sea … / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” Like the pillars of nature’s temple, the sea speaks words that the maker orders, words of the sea and words of the sky, “And of ourselves and of our origins, / In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” 

     In Ashbery’s “The Painter,” a man, unnamed as well, sits “between the sea and the buildings,” between nature and culture, painting the sea’s portrait. Or rather, waiting for such a portrait to paint itself. The poem’s repeating end words indicate its concerns quite clearly: “portrait,” “subject,” “canvas,” “brush,” “prayer,” and “buildings.” We are in the realm of the relations among representation, the making subject, that subject’s subject matter, his medium and materials, his hopes, and the concrete manifestations of his cultural context, which both restrain and make possible. 

     The painter expects the sea, limbless and eyeless though it is, to seize a brush and “Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.” Having planted himself between nature and artifice, he expects nature to produce its own art, until those on the other end of the spectrum, the people who live in the buildings, remind him that art is not life. “Try using the brush / As a means to an end.” The sea is too vast a subject, too unwilling to subject itself to a painter’s moods or prayers. But he wants “nature, not art, [to] usurp the canvas.” Attempting to take their advice, he paints his wife, but makes her “vast, like ruined buildings,” like the sea, “As if, forgetting itself, the portrait / Had expressed itself without a brush.” A good try, at least: there is something on the canvas, however boundless. “Slightly encouraged,” he tries again, dipping his brush into the sea as if for a benediction. He no longer expects the sea to paint its own portrait; now his soul will do so, wrecking the canvas (Picasso called his pictures “a sum of destructions,” and such a demolition of what is can often be crucial to the creation of what might be). The sea is his subject once again, but it will never subject itself to him. The task is too large; he is crucified by his subject, “Too exhausted even to lift his brush,” and mocked by other artists more securely ensconced in the realm of culture, the land of artifice. The sea will never sit for a portrait. His painting is only a self-portrait, or so others declare, and it is blank (he seems to have no self of his own): “Finally all indications of a subject / Began to fade, leaving the canvas / Perfectly white. He put down the brush.” Unlike Stevens’s singer by the side of the sea, he does not seem to realize that his portrait of the sea must be his own and made by him. 

     “Le livre est sur la table” is also in dialogue with “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Knowing that beauty exists only by reason of absence or oddity, “deprivation or logic / Or strange position,” in this poem, “We can only imagine a world in which a woman / Walks and wears her hair and knows / All that she does not know.” Which is to say either that in a world in which “beauty, resonance, integrity” are so difficult of access that our only recourse is to imagine this woman who knows what she does not know (itself a notion with a double sense), or that such a world of knowing unknownness can only be imagined, being so far from our own. This woman might well be walking by the sea, singing the sea, before she goes into the house, “from which the wailing starts,” a kind of song after all, however mournful and cacophonous. And then there is a young man placing a birdhouse “Against the blue sea”: “He walks away and it remains,” a token of human presence and also a liminal object between the natural and artificial, man-made but housing natural creatures. Meanwhile, other men appear who live in other kinds of boxes: “The sea protects them like a wall.” But a wall against what? A woman appears again, or the representation of a woman, a line drawing worshipped by the gods, “in the shadow of the sea / Which goes on writing.” While Stevens’s woman sings the sea in singing herself, this sea writes itself. “Did all secrets vanish when / The woman left?” can ask either whether all secrets have disappeared in her absence or whether all secrets have been revealed in that absence. I suspect it asks both at once: there are indeed collisions, of land and water, of mind and world, of art and nature, “communications on the shore.” The book is on the table, and we are reading it. 

     “The Instruction Manual”: how mundane, how earthbound, yet how necessary if one is in need of instruction. And when is one not in need of instruction, if not on the uses of a new metal then perhaps on the uses of one’s own mettle, new or old, or even where such mettle might be found? One place it might be found is in the imagination, which as Stevens points out discloses but does not invent. Someone is always in need of instruction somewhere, and someone else must provide that instruction, write that manual. But he would rather look out the window at the people walking up and down the streets with an inner peace he knows they possess because they are not him, because they are so far away from him, because they are not tasked with the task of instruction. He begins to dream, he rests his elbows on the desk, and leans a little out the window, and he sees a city indeed, not the unnamed city in which he is busily not writing an instruction manual, but “dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers! / City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!” But, “under the press of having to write the instruction manual,” he sees it now, or fancies he does, the public square with a band playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on the elaborate little bandstand, the flower girls in their rose-and-striped dresses, the women in green in little white booths serving green and yellow fruit. In poet and critic Catherine Imbriglio’s fine phrase, the speaker is “a sort of voyeur in the land of his own imagination.” 

     Poetry is an art of “as if,” a way of “what if,” and “The Instruction Manual” presents us with a vivid picture of what has not been seen at all, of what exists only in the imagination of the speaker, who does not (or not yet, not in this poem) write the manual of the title, but does indeed write something, a manual of sorts, this guide to a Guadalajara of the mind, or at least of one mind. It is as if we too have been to Guadalajara in our minds. What if we had been to Guadalajara? Here are some things we might have seen. More broadly, here are some things one might see when one looks with the mind’s eye. 

The poem is indeed an instruction manual: in those moments of vacant labor, in those moments when the world is too much with us, near or far, we can take refuge in the mind, can travel anywhere in the globe while still chained to our desks. The poem will show us how to imagine this other place in greater detail than we have ever noticed anything more immediately around us, certainly than we have seen or cared to see the office where the instruction manual still waits to be written, its potential author having traveled elsewhere.

     Though by the poem’s end, his journey’s end, he must turn his attention away from the Guadalajara he has written for us and back to the instruction manual that was his motive for imagining this mental Guadalajara in the first place—“What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do”—the speaker (the maker, the poet) has at least earned himself a respite from what is, and has taken us on a trip to a place we have never been and never will go again, since it is not Guadalajara we have visited, but rather “Guadalajara.” 

Reginald Shepherd (1963–2008) is the author of five books of poetry including Fata MorganaOtherhoodand Some Are Drowning (all University of Pittsburgh).