John Ashbery’s new collection, dedicated to his partner, David Kermani, draws its exotic title — “Planisphere” — from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” in which two perfect lovers have been kept apart by the goddess Fate, since their perfection would be her ruin:
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
A three-dimensional globe is flattened to two dimensions, and the distant poles at last can touch. Such an image fits Ashbery’s surreal imagination, with its arresting leaps and resistant incoherence.
Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more. Ashbery’s own mental inventory is a comic one, the contents of a trading ship straight out of the pages of a colonizer’s journal:
It is still being loaded by natives with cone-shaped
hats on their heads. Here come the transistors,
bananas, durian (a fruit said to have a noxious smell),
baby bottles, photocopiers, and souvenirs,
such glorious ones! Nothing useful except key-chains,
lockets to be furnished, a ball to stuff with life.
Like many of Ashbery’s descriptions, this one becomes allegorical in the end, as the composer/artist acquires, besides his ironically exclamatory “glorious” souvenirs, aids to artistry: a chain for keys (music? metrics?), a locket for pictures of beloved people, a mini-globe (Stevens’s “Planet on the Table”) to “stuff with life.” Whitman too, as comic and appetitive as Ashbery, imagined himself as the terrestrial globe, “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” But the accumulation of a lifetime’s printed poems can also cause eventual revulsion: the “River of the Canoefish” is charming when the first canoefish is spotted, followed by another. But today the sight can hardly be borne, the fish have so overpopulated the river of life:
Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.
Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.
Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted. Even after the received idea has been overturned (say, by a war), the agents of cliché immediately try to restore it:
About fourteen passengers working overtime
by the end of the war restored challenged idées reçues,
set things to rights.
The poet persistently undermines that restoration of the status quo in order to render the mind once again “new, tender, quick,” as George Herbert said.
Ashbery also juggles the infinite possibilities of genre, his mind running through many exhausted topics at once, trying for one that still has life in it:
Why what a lovely day/street/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! I think so.
Some of the games “prove out” exhilaratingly for the reader, some are perhaps too private, some too abstruse, some too silly (there are a couple of Steinish collages that don’t earn their keep, one of them made from the titles of movies). But when the Ashberian associative complex works (as in the cases cited above) the mind is delighted by its unexpectedness. Conversation is nearly always the pretext, as in the poet’s shorthand summary of life in old age: “This is how my days, / my nights are spent, in a crowded vacuum / overlooking last year’s sinkhole.” Depending as I do on the poets to tell me — even via comic despair — what each decade of life feels like, I laughed with gratitude at the “crowded vacuum” of one’s 80s as a point of vantage, and grimly took in the melancholy shrug of “last year’s sinkhole.” “Where is Rumpelstiltskin when we need him?” Ashbery asks, and then himself spins the straw of experience into the gold of a page.
Ashbery, the master of sinuous syntax (see his “Three Poems” or “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”) has performed surgery on his poems here, often bringing them into the wry epigrammatic domain of Dickinson:
I made a joke about how
it doesn’t dovetail: time,
one minute running out
faster than the one in front
it catches up to.
That way, I said,
there can be no waste.
Waste is virtually eliminated.
But several poems, notably “Planisphere” and “Pernilla,” belong to Ashbery’s ambitious longer lyric mode. I quote, for readers longing for the lyric Ashbery, the conclusion of the love poem “Alcove,” which opens this volume with a wondering joy at the return of spring and ends with a vista of love, despite its inevitable separateness, surviving the worst days of old age:
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.
In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”
There are self-elegies here: I feel a pang hearing Ashbery say, “Time to shut down colored alphabets’ / flutter in the fresh breeze of autumn.” His “small museum / of tints” has provided ambiguous prophecies, curdled recollections, menacing prospects, emergencies, landscapes and puzzles; it has no less provided memories of youth, intimacies of love, the comedy of the ephemeral, the transhistorical speech of painting, and the literary in its quoted quintessence. The poet’s last look here is a “glimpse of / the books in the carrel, sweet in their stamped bindings”; one of these days, the carrel will hold his “Collected Poems.”
PLANISPHERE: New Poems
By John Ashbery
Helen Vendler’s Mellon Lectures, “Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill,” will be published next spring.