Obtuse yet beguiling, Australia appears among the fractured icons collaged by Barbara Guest in ‘Stupid Physical Pain’: ‘a mouse in Australia / leaf // curves / in radiant painless clear / quoted clouds like banisters’ (127). A similar surrealist impulse governs James Tate’s ‘My Private Tasmania’, a poem selected by Ashbery to perform at a memorial reading held in New York in 2016.
My Tasmania conceals beneath her raven-black apron hundreds of unknown species of wild pigs. It rocks in the wind at night and hums a beautiful melody. Even the birds can’t sleep and begin to sing extinct songs. (…) I stop circling, begin to laugh. My mother says, ‘Jimmy, please stop laughing, you’re frightening us.’ (Tate 125-6)
Tate rehearses a visual gag familiar to readers of Australian poetry; for a blunter rendition, see John Jenkins’ ‘Why I Like You’: ‘because of Tasmania, / the love-shaped island / between your thighs’ (42). This might make it easy to dismiss ‘My Private Tasmania’ as no more than an absurdist joke – laughter, cautions Charles Simic, mindful of Tate’s muted academic reception, is often mistaken for ‘a sign that one doesn’t take one’s art (…) seriously’ (12). Yet, hearing Ashbery’s voice crack and falter as he reads his late friend’s poem, one cannot fail to recognise the deep reservoir of feeling from which Tate’s fantasy flows.1
In Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature (2013), Paul Giles situates the New York School’s imagined visitations within a broader history of American literary relations with Australia. The central thread of Giles’s analysis has to do with how American writers have preserved and replicated the old European fantasy of the Antipodes – the idea that Australia exists on the underside of the globe and thus life here is topsy-turvy. For Giles, Ashbery’s ‘Poem for the New Year’ is an exemplary case of this inversion: ‘Do Pidgeon’s flutter?’, Ashbery ponders, implying Australian birds have wings of clay; ‘must I relearn my filing system’, he asks, anticipating the ‘loss of categories traditionally employed to impose order upon the world’ (Giles 401). Certainly, Giles’s rubric helps to make sense of the poem’s dreamlike imagery, which echoes much earlier European models, such as Richard Brome’s Jacobean drama The Antipodes (c. 1640): ‘the swans are black, the ravens white, and parrots teach their mistresses to talk’ (Gibson 5). Yet, Giles’s transpacific focus on the United States and Australia understates other important coordinates: the influence of French writing on the New York School of poets, for instance, and, in the case of Ashbery, the significant model provided by Roussel as a fellow antipodean traveller.
The Australian poet-critic Michael Farrell has quoted from this memorable description of Ashbery’s poetic practice: ‘(poetry is) like that television set over there. I don’t watch television much, but occasionally I turn it on and, sure enough, something is going on, and that’s that for that moment’ (Hickman 158). Key to this analogy is not the absence of television in Ashbery’s life, but the idea that television – like poetry – is a household appliance that is always ready to be turned on and enjoyed. Here, poetry is not a rarefied discourse – ‘the best words in the best order’, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have it (56) – but is instead an ever-present transmission that one can tune into. For Farrell, a fellow practitioner, this broadcast poetics was ‘liberating’: ‘In Ashbery’s hands,’ he writes, ‘tone (…) can be switched on and off, only to be turned on again for another poem. (Ashbery’s) control of tone seems to allow him to say anything’ (6). ‘The mind (is) like a TV, there’s always something on,’ Farrell writes, ventriloquising Ashbery to evoke a Cartesian picture of consciousness in which the imagination acts as a sanctuary from the external world (9).
Ashbery’s mental television brings to mind the ‘sumptuous automobile roulette’, a luxury car Roussel had built shortly after he returned from Australia. Taking to its extreme the logic of travel without sightseeing – the faux explorateur – Roussel commissioned a thirty-foot campervan with an inbuilt kitchen, loungeroom and bath. Driving with shutters that could be opened or closed, Roussel described the roulette as less a car than ‘a land-yacht’: ‘It’s very pleasant (…) I can be alone’ (Ford 171). Like Ashbery’s mental television, the automobile roulette establishes a complex relationship between real and imaginary space: the mind’s antennae may pick up external signals and sounds, but it is only once they have flashed across the poet’s mental screen, been examined within the cloister of consciousness, that literature begins.
- A recording of Ashbery’s reading is preserved online at PennSound. ↩