BOOK REVIEW / Verse for adult swimmers: Lachlan Mackinnnon salutes a fine American poet, John Ashbery
Saturday 23 July 1994
JOHN ASHBERY's insidious, perplexing poetic voice has gradually become the dominant one in cur rent American poetry, and his influence is increasingly visible on this side of the Atlantic. I have carried the review copy of his new book around with me for weeks, until it is now as battered as an old favourite, but I remain as puzzled as when I first looked into it, though convinced that it is the work of a very good poet indeed.
One poem that does offer some toehold to comprehension is 'Spring Cries' (see below). It opens with a generalised note of catastrophe, private or public, which might also simply refer to winter. The 'She' who begs us to stay is unnamed, but represents the allure of staying put, a temptation denied us at the start of the second stanza. By virtue of having free will, making 'decisions', we are 'expelled' into the future like Adam and Eve. The future is one of a wild spring, 'raving' energy, one whose repetitions - perhaps seasonal recurrences - sap the soil itself.
The poem offers an account of a state of the soul. The poetic method - clear statements alternating with potentially allegorical figures and personifications - is characteristic of the book as a whole, and develops aspects of Ashbery's earlier work. Now, the poet takes a surprising turn, but one derived from modernist precedent. Critics have noticed how earlier 20th-century poetry shows an increasing preponderance of definite rather than indefinite articles, which is a way of suggesting that the objects named in poems are particular rather than general. The rhetorical effect is one of implied authority. 'Across the marsh': we are suddenly in a definite place, where 'some' insignificant bird swoops and retires. 'The bight' to which people return recalls Elizabeth Bishop's poem of that title, with its celebration of 'awful but cheerful' diverse human activity. That the swimmers are 'adult' shows that a maturity has been achieved; that they are 'swimmers' brings to mind the importance in much of Ashbery's work of the idea of putting out to sea.
I have read the poem in a more loosely associative way than is always wise because this is how it seems to ask to be read. It expresses a feeling of troubled new beginnings in a way I find moving and memorable. However, 'Spring Cries' is among the easier poems in a book in which Ashbery confronts his own mortality. 'My own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken', he ends the first poem, with a surprising echo of Robert Lowell.
The range of tones throughout the book is remarkable. There is a knowing allusive humour, as in the opening line of the delightful 'The Decline of the West', 'O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find]' More often, though, there are startling similes, as in 'Like a Sentence', where summer removes spring 'like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment / while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine'. The acute social note here of 'lady' is touchingly individual to the poet.
Ashbery's central subject, the nature and value of the imagination, is a crucial one. In his creation of highly mandarin work in a voice which is startlingly and ravishingly contemporary, he has done something with few parallels. This very difficult book gives great pleasure, once we accept that the intellect may find its gratifications tantalisingly deferred.
Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to stay: 'Stay,
just for a minute, can't you?'
We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn't
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations
exhaust the soil. Across the marsh
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them.
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