Planisphere by John Ashbery
(Ecco, New York, 2009)
JUDGMENTS OF TIMING
Harold Bloom says “the severe judgments of time” are gonna like Ashbery best. Who they are he doesn’t say, but I’ll bet the they is him and Helen Vendler, so maybe we don’t need to care. Those judgments are delivered, after being shaped and packaged, by “revered literary critics” like Helen and our pal Hal. Time itself is something else, but they seem to get the right to usurp its right to its own judgment and to put their reasoning behind it. That’s where we go wrong. A revered poet like John Ashbery is almost taunting them in books like Planisphere. Word by word, phrase by phrase, enigma by enigma, this book teases the faculties of critics as if it were written for them when it is actually probably most likely written against them.
Each poem in the book is an anti-poem in ways that might have befuddled Nicamor Parra because they are anti- by going too far into rather than by trying to stand aside from poetic approaches. This book uses conversational tone with a mixed diction of grand and quotidian wording to evoke the aura of the poetic without falling into it. It is camp that way. To get a sense of this, take the book in hand and try randomly dropping into its flow of its 100 poems ordered alphabetically by their odd titles. If you land where I did, we see poetic techniques openly mocked in the appropriately named “FX,” while the next two poems flash novelistic diction and a sense of story at us. The next two after that mock line-break innovations like strokes of the word-brush, all differently shaped and placed next to each other all over the page. RS, eat your heart out. “Is it just me or” evokes the full mixture of dictions in one lyric. “The Later Me” fucks with logic. “The Logistics” uses the word “fucking” itself. “Lost Sonnet” is like a lost casting where found diction gets filled in. “I wasn’t pretending to say much,” a sentence in “Magnetic Flowers,” is the ironic motto of this book (55).
There’s a funny aura of obscurity that shows up in poems and titles here, all the while working with phrases as familiar as old movies. We can see it in image-phrases like “fun the day we took our gun out” and “it plops the question just like that.” There are also things that may seem unfamiliar but play into our familiarities. I didn’t get the title “Pernilla” until I googled that name and got the New Yorker publication of the Ashbery poem itself along with a few references to actresses and models from Sweden with some very sexy pictures. I thought it was from Li’l Abner or something. Titles, Ashbery once told Dick Cavett, sit in a drawer at home waiting because he thinks of them faster than he can write poems. Planisphere just might be the catch-up plan. Its poems gather and join the kind of fragments that might seem to be slips of paper in a drawer drawn together rather randomly, though they make some kind of sense through our urge to have them do so. This is Lakoff & Johnson’s “parsimony principle” at work in poems that are far from parsimonious.
These poems act as antidotal opposite to their year’s Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout’s Versed. They are anti-laconic; their “economy” of phrasing is profligate. They spill. The titles of these books tell their difference. “Versed” is a benzodiazapine used to keep kids from remembering the traumatic experience of surgeries anyway. A “planisphere” is “a star chart analog computing instrument in the form of two adjustable disks that rotate on a common pivot,” according to Wikipedia. The two-sidedness of Ashbery’s work is its function. Armantrout also keeps simple reading at bay but by terseness. Planisphere makes sure to say too much most of the time. The title poem says of a train ride, “it had meant to be sublime, but hell was / what it more specifically resembled.” With new images popping up and being tacked on, the poems often resembled train rides through a spook house. That poem goes on:
to hold the course and take two of everything. That way
if we make journey’s end before the tracks expire
we’ll have been found living in it—the deep magenta
sunset I mean.
We give ourselves into a “we” with a poet easily enough, but Ashbery here takes his old indefinite pronoun move further out than ever before, even far enough to get baffling here. In a short ostensibly terse poem called “Poem,” the holes are so big that great wholes get let in. Who is the “us” when this poem says “Let us use your shoes / as they have almost demonstrated”? And that “they”? Each line in this “Poem” shifts the whole weight onward, and the poem is short enough that we can see the whole bag of tricks at once. It starts :
The sun travels all day,
and then falls down
All these people are running around.
I wonder what they do in real time.
In between come the lines about the demonstrating shoes and these:
From its inscrutable lap
a chicken with a wooden leg issues.
I have purposely put the couplets out of order to show how even within two lines, surprising shifts come. It’s a cartoonland of images but even more forceful in mocking what we might expect from our sense of grammar. If you enter a “we” with this guy, watch out. Ashbery will not give you the satisfaction of standing in some perception with him.
The poems go on turning tricks of the mind. “River of the Canoefish” makes sense if you let the fish be canoes and the whole scene be about riverside picnics and how they turn nature into something else. The poem simply sketches one of those places from an oblique angle and then ends with an appropriate thought: “Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not” (85). That one’s easy to read, laugh about, and move on from. But the next sneaks some heavy shit in at you. It starts with the title. I read it wrong, and got the sense that I was supposed to. It’s called “The Salve Merchant.” It could be just a small “joke’s on me” sort of thing if the play between “Salve” and “Slave” weren’t so telling. Some of the poems turn a little creepy, worse than the old Saturday afternoon horror flicks, really actually mixing sentimentalisms in a monstrous way. “Sons of the Desert” does this in at least two of its lines: “It was my first 3/4 length child (Fumed oak.)” takes a phrase from fashion and one from decorating and puts the sentimentalization of children dead center between them; the next line plays out a deictic that isn’t funny—“Look how funny her little arm is.” It’s “kind of gross” as we might have said when we junior high kids were watching those horror flicks, but it’s really more than that as it points to a cultural stance packed with creepiness like some John Zorn CD covers and Beattie’s novel The Children’s Book have in recent years. That poem ends with a bit out of a movie script about a lake that hides a crime or something “not fully understood” (98).
The next poem, “Spooks Run Wild,” clearly uses TV and filmic reference points, narrative bits recognizable in their sentimental cliché, to compose what verges on a collage but also a narrative of its own owing to small recurrent elements. This book might be seen through that poem as having an overall technique of such collagisme, but the glue here is the tendencies of our minds to work in this way. The note at the end of the book tells us that “They Knew What They Wanted” is actually “a collage of movie titles,” which appeared in the catalog of a show of Ashbery’s visual collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Dictions is what this book’s about. The poem “Sticker Shock” belies its title with a dreamy ending that is just how we think, delivered in everyday discursiveness. In other poems, there are orientalizing uses of haiku diction or that of fortune cookies. There anglicized accounts of high-class syntactical inversions. There are mythifying references to classic history or culture, too. It’s all American, though, modern as frozen pie and mixed up as television. Recognizable bits make this world just as they make collage. What makes this a great book is the apparent amusement with it all, all the while enacting a critique. “To lop off part of it is to look at it” says “This Listener” before going on to ask “Isn’t the truth always cheesy?” (117). These poems are, as good poems will be, loaded with our little truths and that must be what Bloom takes for the big T time will hold dear; bless his pointed little heart. Near the end of the book, “Uptick” gives us what the book has readied us for:
Therefore poetry dissolves in
brilliant moisture and reads us
A faint notion. Too many words,
It is the timing of these lines, their phrases in the poem timed to get the thought across and the poem within the book likewise, that has its effect on the patient and amusable reader. “Variation in the Key of C” says “poetry is seriously out of joint” (129). “Voice-Over” says “Thank you so much for letting me listen today” (132). Poetry usually seeks to be a voice that gets inside your head; here Ashbery gives us the many voices that are already in our cultured heads and slowly persistently brings them to bear on poetry itself. But that was there all along; its timing is a set-up like in any good film. If we circle back to the very first poem, “Alcove,” we can read it as an exercise in the great poetic tradition of odes to Spring. Except its attitude, its diction, its wordiness, its odd similes, and its ominous conclusion, all point to a clatter-trap world of thinking things over rather than an objectified beauty or truth. The epiphany here is in all the little attempts at insight that our phrasings of the world glimpse for us; Planisphere seems to pat us on our bottoms and say, Nice try.” That is all you know, and all you need to know.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.