Joel Ephraims Reviews Ashbery Mode Edited by Michael Farrell

By | 23 November 2020

A similar other-ing and expansion of self can also be realised through a continuous narrative voice. Take the following lines from Jacek Pakula’s ‘Elephant in a Colour’:

She is a meadow I lay down on her amongst an abyss of caves
When I am laying down underneath the pavement I am able to say: Sail
Not denied by anybody tables hang around and become entangled

Here, like in the space of dreams, the boundaries between inner and outer space are blurred. The ‘she’ of the poem is internalised as an inner landscape among inner landscapes. A place of comfortable surface overshadowed by dark depth. ‘The pavement’ manifests as a sublimating internal urban presence. As in Ashbery’s prose poem triptych Three Poems, the space of the poem feels both microcosmic and macrocosmic with its limited but dense array of references and its evoked vastnesses coiled with exfoliating potential.

Many of Ashbery’s poems, especially in his late books like Quick Question, Breezeway and Commotion of the Birds, can be read as counter-obfuscations to a double-speaking, disfunctional American democracy. Ashbery’s counter-obfuscation can best be understood though what John Shoptaw has identified as Ashbery’s ‘cryptology,’ in which ‘sonic, literal and associational modes’ are used to expose, parody or attack both overt and veiled play of power in language (Shoptaw 8). Cryptology is also used to this end by Jill Jones in her poem ‘View (Adelaide) Hills,’ which begins:

Surely there was life, once in those seams
and then it’s back to work again, more work
and the pollution attendant on it.
We entered, and presto!

And then it’s back to work again, more work.
One source said it was the tulips, against the nice.

Jones’s poem begins with a general and vague situation. Meanings are strategically revealed and altered with subsequent repetitions and tweaking of lines through a metonymic cryptology of sonic word play. For example, as the poem progresses it becomes clear that the dominant implication of ‘the pollution’ is that of slander and smear. The line ‘One source said it was the tulips, against the nice’ gives us one instance of this, but for further resonance we have to read further. Let’s jump two stanzas:

and a lesbian truth rise up
against the apricot lamé of the distance here.

‘Lamé’ is a French word from the 1920s meaning a fabric weaved with gold or silver thread. Within the poem’s context we cannot help but also read the English word ‘lame’. This sonic doubling ricochets back to the ‘seams’ of the first line. The sonic-double ‘seems’ is raised. ‘A lesbian truth’ gives us a context for the slander of the preceding line. Metonymically, the sonic-double of ‘tulips’, ‘two lips’ surfaces. Its collocation evokes the more usual ‘two pairs of lips’ which, flourished within the tight, repressive collocation of its line, enacts a language subterfuge. What would be a veiled or implicit discriminatory slur is transformed into a floral encapsulation of romance.

In Jones’s poem repressive discourse is undermined by a sophisticated strategy of cryptology. Repression is combated at the level of its discursive occurrence and divergent sexual identity is both demystified and affirmed.

All the poems in Ashbery Mode do not present the kind of sustained and effective application of the ones I have explored, but it is important to note that Michael Farrell introduces the anthology as more of an open house of influence and response. Poems like ‘Ninety Nine Rabbits’ by David Prater, ‘Late Night Reading’ by Ken Bolton, ‘Holy Week at Wye River’ by Jordie Albiston and ‘Ashen Homage to Ashbery’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe respond to Ashbery on a more elegiac level.

Poems like ‘History as Grammar’ by Peter Murphy, ‘A Larger More Diverse V ocab u lary’ by Patrick Jones, ‘Dear Superman’ by Mark Mahemoff, ‘Allotment #66’ by Laurie Duggan and ‘Paranoia of Minor Differences’ by Kate Lilley could be said to represent the spirit of Ashbery (and the New York School) more than his mode.

Some poems in the anthology grate, either being too formally disparate to Ashbery or unsuccessfully realising Ashbery’s formal dynamics.

Ali Alizadeh’s poem ‘The Poet’ places itself after Ashbery’s early poem ‘The Painter’. ‘The Painter’ employs an intricate and surprising tapestry of allegorical imagery to challenge Modernist approaches to art. ‘The Poet’ is a poem that uses the sestina form for oratorial emphasis. Placed in the context of a mode fertile with particulars, much of its declamation, however, lacks grounding, giving the poem an air of blanket gravitas. It argues the time-worn point that the current age is too dire for any art that does not address political issues directly on an ‘inaesthetic’ level. Ashbery’s modes of strategic aesthetic cut straight through this reductive dichotomy.

John Tranter’s poem ‘Electrical Disturbance: A Dramatic Interlude’ is the longest poem in the anthology at six pages. It presents an intriguing dialogic framing but creates a rather muddled experience, perhaps due to its leaning too far into the perspectives, particulars and situations of its given characters while attempting to maintain the wide, interjectory collective positioning of Ashbery’s shifting registers. It lacks the cumulative, luminal lucidity and fluidity of Ashbery’s extended entanglements.

The majority of poems in Ashbery Mode represent enlivening embodiments, habitations or applications. Other stand-out poems include the seven-stanza epic ‘A Group of Seven: Screens of Migration’ by Matthew Hall, which presents a postcolonial catharsis, using metonymy and a rich, specialized vocabulary to form an organic mineralisation in which both light and dark are precisely focused and in which time and being are embodied as a circulatory stratification; ‘Rat Chow’ by Chris Edwards, which reinvents Ashbery’s Flow Chart from the inside; James Stuart’s urban-ephemeral ‘The White Horse’ and ‘Images, the Outside World’; Gig Ryan’s surreal-visceral twisting of Australian Capitalism ‘Epitome of Variation’; Michelle Cahill’s dark-refracting technoscape ‘A Crystal Exegesis’; Nicholas Powell’s micro-intricate, wit-circuited ‘Omena’ and ‘All Night Short’; and Jeltje’s pedestrian, centipedal operetta ‘(After Fellini) Written in Café Olive, There’s.’

John Ashbery never stopped inventing for the over half a century that he wrote. Ashbery Mode shows that Australian poets have been with him for almost that whole massive time. The breadth of influence Ashbery Mode presents is substantial. Reading the anthology one gets the impression not so much of a collection of reflections as of a growing wave. The anthology is just the surface of that wave. The most interesting responses are to be found by diving deeper and are those still to come.

Works Cited

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. Manchester University Press, 2000.

Koethe, John. ‘The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry.’ Beyond Amazement New Essays On John Ashbery, edited by David Lehman, Cornell University Press, 1980.

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Harvard University Press, 1995.

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