‘a serpentine | Gesture’: The Synthetic Reconstruction of Ashbery’s Poetic Voice

By | 1 August 2017

This ‘shredding’ illustrates that, beyond the sonority of its voice, there is no singularity in ‘Clepsydra’: every drop of water through the aperture is different. It addresses both sides of its vague argument; compares time as both an elongated moment and a moment-by-moment proposition; and its speaker, though maintaining the same ‘serpentine’ voice, never quite seems to fully emerge from its mostly impersonal, practical, grammatical-heavy language. The second-person pronoun, ‘you,’ continually appears in the text as what seems like a form of semi-intimate address to the reader, yet increasingly seems to be referring to the text itself, and therefore the speaker. It acknowledges a consciousness achievable beyond singularity. Hegel writes that man

reduplicates himself, existing for himself because he thinks himself … bringing himself into his own consciousness so as to form an idea of himself … Man’s spiritual freedom consists in this reduplicating process of human consciousness, whereby all that exists is made explicit within him and all that is in him is realized without (34).

The significance and arrangement of the poem, existing ‘within’ and ‘without,’ ultimately, falls to both reader and poem – ‘if only | You desire to arrange it this way’ (Collected 144). This self-address, evident throughout Rivers and Mountains, is an attempt to engage with a world that can only be apprehended – and, then, never fully – in the imagination. ‘Clepsydra,’ then, confesses to nothing beyond the fact of its hesitant being. Its noticeably Cubistic approach emerges from exactly this fluctuating being in a variable, unsteady, incomprehensible world; while, in the Surreal sense, it attempts to join this world with the fictional reality of the text itself:

All kinds of things are possible in the widening angle of 
The day, as it comes to blush with pleasure and increase,
So that light sinks into itself, becomes dark and heavy
Like a surface stained with ink: there was something
Not quite good or correct about the way
Things were looking recently: hasn’t the point
Of all this new construction been to provide
A protected medium for the exchanges each felt of such vital
Concern, and wasn’t it now giving itself the airs of a palace?
And yet her hair had never been so long. 
                    (Collected 144)

It attempting to ensure and illustrate that ‘All kinds of things are possible’ in ‘Clepsydra,’ the speaker, as seen with Cubism, attempts to simultaneously show all sides of the poem’s elements, particularly as they reflect different notions of each other: its language, argument, self and even time are objectified in their insistent place in the work. Light, then, through an antonymic dissociation that often informs the progression of the poem, can quickly become ‘dark.’ The world rushes into ‘Clepsydra’ and, in a literal appropriation of it, is equated with ‘a surface stained with ink’: it becomes the poem, and the poem becomes the world as it assumes its reality. The speaker interrupts this reasoning to self-consciously query these assertions, which, far from succeeding, are ‘Not quite good or correct.’ The ‘construction’ of ‘Clepsydra,’ ‘new’ and given some vague purpose to be ‘A protected medium’ where it can, presumably, examine various ideas and reflect on time without divulging anything certain to sustain the argument, has gone too far in its grandiose eloquence and self-assertion, sarcastically, ironically even, noting how it has given itself ‘the airs of a palace.’

The immediate shift to an unidentified ‘her’ and ‘her hair’ attempts, it seems, to reground ‘Clepsydra’ in something more definite, even if the reader has no notion of who this woman is and what may be the significance of ‘her hair.’1 Later in ‘Clepsydra,’ the speaker equates ‘hair’ with the revealing ‘light’ of the poem, using ‘root’ to metonymically associate it with a ‘tree’: ‘and so keep its root in darkness until your | Maturity when your hair will actually be the branches | Of a tree with the light pouring through them’ (Collected 145). Now seemingly become a common symbol of nature or life, illumination emerges through hair: humanity grows to become a neutral part in the flow of nature. Important also is that the speaker returns again to the imprecise ‘you,’ as though asking the reader, the speaker and the poem, whether it is permissible for there to now be ‘a feeling of well-being.’ The poem’s continual movement would seem to resist that very ‘feeling’; yet it has similarly promised calm in the emptiness of its passing moments. Ultimately, the speaker simultaneously addresses the poem and the reader with a truism that informs the elongations of ‘Clepsydra’: ‘The past is yours, to keep invisible if you wish | But also to make absurd elaborations with | And in this way prolong your dance of non-discovery’ (Collected 144). The journey is the important factor – the flow of the poem – what is made of it is irrelevant: it is a self-cancelling ‘non-discovery.’ ‘I mean now something much broader’ the speaker appropriately intones as ‘Clepsydra’ opens itself further: ‘In this way any direction taken was the right one, | Leading first to you, and through you to | Myself that is beyond you and which is the same thing as space’ (Collected 145). All the ‘directions’ of ‘Clepsydra’ are simultaneously explored – its meaning unfolded to such expansiveness as to be essentially non-existent: the second person leads back to the first that instead of solidifying becomes ‘space’ – opening the poem up to the world and all the people who encounter it, which it is similarly trying to appropriate.

  1. Obliquely, Ashbery could be looking back to ‘Two Scenes’ in Some Trees, where he writes, ‘‘We see you in your hair, | Air resting around the tips of mountains’’ (Collected 3), which in the sense of becoming and the need to find a kind of ‘truth’ in the poem, could be read in some way as representative of the self. Moreover, he could be drawing on the myth of Samson. Indeed, the speaker quickly notes, despite the previous moment of criticism, that ‘It was a feeling of well-being, if you will,’ pointing, perhaps, to the strength that ‘hair’ grants in the Biblical story, along with the sense of self it imparts in ‘Two Scenes.’
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