Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When are we going to get together, John Ashbery?

I have been thinking about John Ashbery, because he was honored by President Obama yesterday, and I have been thinking about love poetry, since it's Valentine's Day. So, I pulled out Ashbery's book-length poem Flow Chart (1991), which has several sustained passages of straight-forward love poetry -- unusual for a poet who is seldom straightforward and seldom in the mood to sustain anything.

Reading my marginal notes over a Valentine's Day dinner with my daughter, I picked out this passage from part I of the VI-part Flow Chart. It takes awhile, in this bit I've typed in, before we get to the straightforward love poetry, but that's essential to give the flavor of Ashbery.


This mound of cold ashes that we call
for want of a better word the past wouldn't inflict the horizon
as it does here, calling attention to shapes
that resemble it and so liberating them into the bloodstream
of our collective memory: here a chicken coop, there a smokestack,
farther on an underground laboratory. These things then wouldn't
depress (or, as sometimes happens, exalt) one, and living would be just that:
a heavenly apothegm leading to a trance on earth. Yet one scolds
the horizon for having nothing better to offer. Did I order that?
And when the bill comes, tries to complain to the management
but at that point the jig, or whatever, is up. Yes I've seen many fine
young girls in my time take that path and wonder afterwards
what went wrong. I've seen children, taken from their homes
at too early an age, left to wander about like Little Nell,
not knowing that they were never obliged to do this thing. O
paradise, to lie in the hammock with one's book and drink,
not hearing the murmur of consternation as it moves progressively
up the decibel scale. Yet I see you are uncertain where to locate me:
here I am. And I've done more thinking about you than you perhaps realize,
yes, a sight more than you've done about me. Which reminds me:
when are we going to get together? I mean really -- not just for a
drink and a smoke, but really
invade each other's privacy in a significant way that will make sense
and later amends to both of us for having done so, for I am
short of the mark despite my bluster and my swaggering,
have no real home and no one to inhabit it except you
whom I am in danger of losing permanently as a bluefish slips off
the deck of a ship, as a tuna flounders, but say, you know all that.


Then he goes on like that for another 187 pages!

Flow Chart is dedicated "To David," that would be David Kermani, Ashbery's partner since 1970. It must be a central work in Ashbery's mind, as it certainly is in mind, since he apparently has named his legacy The Flow Chart Foundation.

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