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John Ashbery – Quick Question

John Ashbery, Quick Question (Carcanet: Manchester; Ecco, New York, 2012. Paperback, 88pp, £9.95.)
 
Reviewed by Stephen Ross
 
 
Cover of John Ashbery - Quick QuestionsSince turning 60, John Ashbery has published thirteen books of poems, three prose collections, and book-length translations of Reverdy and Rimbaud (with volumes of selected French prose and poetry translations on the way), and has twice exhibited collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Along with the challenges posed by this great productivity, the difficulty of assimilating ‘late Ashbery’ has been compounded by what many see as the increasingly comic and nonsensical tenor of his poetry over the past quarter century, a shift which has delighted many readers and worked to discourage the kinds of serious critical advances routinely directed at his earlier and middle periods. A handful of good articles have been written on the subject, notably by Roger Gilbert and Luke Carson, while John Emil Vincent’s John Ashbery and You (2007) shows persuasively how we might read the later work book-by-book. But Vincent only takes us up to Where Shall I Wander (2005) and mostly demurs from commenting on the late period’s global drift. The fact is, though, Ashbery has been so prolific it’s beginning to make sense to talk about his late periods.   
 
Reviewers, whether praising or otherwise, tend to agree that the later Ashbery is both sillier and sadder than the earlier Ashberys and that there is perhaps too much of him. Yet, as Quick Question affirms, there is merit in arguing against this consensus narrative of tragicomic excess. For if we date the onset of Ashbery’s late period to around 1987 (the year he published April Galleons), we will have to conclude that over the last quarter century he has written some of his most moving and lasting work—and, as a corollary, some of his funniest. To read him this way means to hold the reins of aesthetic judgment a bit looser than we might be accustomed to doing with other poets, but as he has always taught us to do. Take ‘How To Continue,’ the coda to Hotel Lautréamont (1992), an adult nursery rhyme that pushes against its own naïve form toward an inexpressible bittersweetness. Or the sudden, plainspoken yearning in the final lines of ‘Your Name Here.’ Or ‘The Ice Storm’ and its prescient allegory of climate change. Or ‘Tuesday Evening,’ a tour-de-force of overheated rhyming. Or the irreducible weirdness of Girls on the Run. Or the epic fart joke toward the end of Flow Chart (a bathos that would have destroyed Three Poems). Or the pared down reverie of ‘Homeless Heart,’ from the latest collection. The rich strangeness of Ashbery’s later work has not been given its due.
 
The late poetry is a joyous echo chamber of departing guests, diamond rubble, brewing storms, Americana, doggerel, ad jargon, and… someone should compile a list of all the lists that critics have made to illustrate Ashbery’s wild eclecticism. It would be an Ashbery poem. In the late poetry, things are always blowing up, floating away, crashing down, and encroaching menacingly, yet the damage they cause is never permanent. ‘As though walking on stilts people blew up in amazement / like pieces of trash a wind desultorily lifts,/ then returns for no visible reason’ we read, unfazed, in ‘The Bicameral Eyeball,’ from Quick Question. If we sacrifice variety among Ashbery’s later poems for variety within them, as Stephen Burt argues in his review of Notes from the Air, it must be added that this is because the late work conducts an extended conversation with itself about its own capacity to be born anew. ‘Is it possible that spring could be / once more approaching?’ begins the first poem in Planisphere (2009). ‘Can we begin again?’ asks the last poem in Quick Question.
 
Michael Robbins casts Ashbery as the ‘Duracell Bunny of American poetry’ in his review of Planisphere, but a more generous critic would observe the simple poignancy of his durability. How wonderful it is to continue reading new poems by him, like ‘Homeless Heart’: 
 
When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart? Caught in a hinge, or secreted behind drywall, like your nameless predecessors now that they have been given names? Best not to dwell on our situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing. Like a sideboard covered with decanters and fruit. As a box kite is to a kite. The inside of stumbling. The way to breath. The caricature on the blackboard.
 
The first sentence: another Ashberyan string of clichés, of homely language hallowed by use. There is something unspeakably sad about finally settling in after a long journey—everyone knows this feeling, when, as Ashbery so perfectly puts it, ‘the being of it takes possession.’ It is harsh to think of death, if that’s what ‘finishing the work…the finished work’ means, as the start of a rental tenancy. ‘Where are you now, homeless heart?’ is perhaps this book’s life-and-death ‘quick question.’ It could have been lifted from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and in typical Ashbery fashion it gets oddly literalized. Secreted behind drywall, yes, but how could this telltale heart be caught in a hinge? The home metaphor changes again in the fifth sentence, another series of ‘deeply refreshing’ clichés playing with rhetorical variations on the notion of dwelling. Then two similes featuring unfamiliar familiar objects, and two concepts which we cannot visualize but which clinch the poem’s emotional unease: ‘The inside of stumbling. The way to breath.’ And, finally, the tragic joy of seeing one’s last self-portrait: ‘the caricature on the blackboard.’ Can we begin again?
 
15 March 2014