It is happening again. Into the mawkish nature documentaries and faddish elliptical doldrums of American poetry, John Ashbery is sticking his clown nose.
For nearly a half-century Ashbery has been popping up every two or three years to remind poetry readers what the pure product sounds like. The last surviving member of the so-called New York School — really just a loose affiliation of friends; the others were Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Barbara Guest — the 85-year-old Ashbery has published at least 23 volumes of verse. Somewhere along the way, he became one of the most respected poets in the world. For a man whose oeuvre includes lines like "Blind dog expressed royalties … / comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip," this is no mean feat. He will apparently go on issuing new books until he drops dead, probably sometime after his 120th birthday. It's all right with me.
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This new book, "Quick Question," is a lot like the last new book, which was a lot like the one before, and so on. By my subjective estimation, the last book he wrote that seemed genuinely new was 1992's "Hotel Lautréamont." Lots of poets write the same book over and over, of course, especially as they age. Why complain about Ashbery's sameness when it's so unlikely?
In all my years as a pedestrian
serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me
thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels.
She merely arrived. Half-turning
in the demented twilight, one feels a
sour empathy with all that went before.
That, needless to say, was how we elaborated
ourselves staggering across tracts:
Somewhere in America there is a naked person.
These lucid sentences, with their marooned pronouns and mismatched adjectives, are classic Ashbery: The syntax seems to almost coax them into sense before snatching them back behind a veil, just as epileptics forget the revelations their fits bring on.
What is consistently parsable in late Ashbery are the melancholy specter of approaching death ("As I was saying it's a never-ending getting / closer if you will") and the persistence of humor in the demented twilight ("We serve two masters: haddock and bream"). Surrealism isn't the word for Ashbery's conjurations: His are the materials of the conscious mind, "the fatal tarnish of the everyday." What other poet his age is so alive to the kitsch ceramics of the vernacular? "Quick Question," indeed.
As usual, the daftness quotient would do Tex Avery proud: "Woman right behind you prompted celebrity / and aardvark/hosiery task force underneath"; "Serious eaters from here to Kankakee welcome / the disaggregation of religion into irreducible / chips, dot dot dot"; "That's a map of Paris on the fender, / if that's a fender"; "Wyoming / and West Virginia lead the country / in chewing tobacco consumption. / But you knew that." This register of genial nonsense seems to derive from James Tate, whose influence Ashbery has acknowledged (when you live long enough, writers you influenced influence you).
But Ashbery's lissome structures limit the jurisdiction of the aardvark/hosiery task force, and he often regains his lyrical composure to listen to, for instance, "the sighing of mice behind a grill" "while our time on the planet ambiguously finishes." A recurrent trope in Ashbery's poems is the wait for some event that will at last make sense of everything, lift the burthen of the mystery. But either the event is indefinitely postponed, or it happened while we weren't paying attention and we missed it. In 1975's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," "it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest / were happening in the sky / but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it." In "Three Poems" (1972), "The pure in heart rejoiced for they were sure now that something terrific was going to happen," but eventually "men went about their business as before." Now, in "Quick Question," "people were waiting for a sunset, / something to happen." It is an elegant trope: "So strange signs are going to appear. / Longtime he sat upon the porch."
In a brief prose poem entitled "Homeless Heart," he writes as poignantly as he ever has of this yearning for meaning, which is ever on the horizon, over the next rise, and connects it, as he often does, to his own never-quite-arrived-at end:
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?
"We live in a place / That is not our own," Wallace Stevens wrote, "and, much more, not ourselves." When Ashbery gets serious, it is often in response to such a hard truth. By the light of "the hoary corporate logo that defines / our monstrosity for some," he rejects the usual consolations as he prepares to be "return(ed) to sender": "Keep your ornaments, / if that's what they are."
After all these decades, John Ashbery remains our great singer of homelessness, our alienation in this rented house. "(F)orgive our trespasses," he asks someone, "for trespassing against us." Amen.
Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By John Ashbery, Ecco, 108 pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times