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

1 August 2017

The stability of the ‘fountain’ and its ‘previsions’ as figurative devices, however, are drawn immediately into question. ‘Clepsydra’ will not let such things rest easily and be suddenly explainable as a network of symbols that can be unfolded to locate some paraphrasable meaning. The speaker asks whether the ‘fountain’ and ‘previsions’’ ‘permanence (is) merely a function of | The assurance with which it’s understood,’ which ultimately conditions the ‘result’ of their functioning: what they actually mean to a poem that inherently refuses such representative icons, even as it continues to try to slip them in, lending the reader a false hope that there may be further objective meaning below its busy surface. Again Rivers and Mountains operates via the contradictory and unstable relations of its elements. It is the argument between time as imperturbably ongoing and the desire of the consciousness to momentarily freeze it to find a sense of wholeness in its staggering moment-by-moment overlapping stream. The ‘fountain’ promises a partial explanation of the poem’s ‘timeless elasticity,’ yet it quickly negates not just the ‘permanence’ of its ‘function’ – that which would ensure constant renewal in the text – but the matter of what has even been stated in the poem, beginning again with another ‘but’ to add more consideration to a poem already heavily weighed down by its concessional corrections:

                                                  But there was no statement
At the beginning. There was only a breathless waste,
A dumb cry shaping everything in projected
After-effects orphaned by playing the part intended for them, 
Though one must not forget that the nature of this
Emptiness, these previsions,
Was that it could only happen here, on this page held
Too close to be legible, sprouting erasures, except that they
Ended everything in the transparent sphere of what was
Intended only a moment ago, spiralling further out, its 
Gesture finally dissolving in the weather. 
                    (Collected 142)

‘Clepsydra’ becomes, again, intensely self-reflective, asking questions of what it means to include objects like ‘fountains’ and ‘previsions’ into the text. It is a ‘dumb cry,’ a paradoxical voiceless voice that ensures what is written, or said, may not ever necessarily be heard even as it shapes ‘everything in projected | After-effects.’ It is the echo of what was likely never there in the first place. There are still occurrences and presences in the shadows of absence – and there can only be absence if there is at first a presence. But, as the speaker notes, it is still all ‘emptiness,’ even the refuelling ‘previsions,’ which can ‘only happen here, on this page held | Too close to be legible’: the speaker is referring to the poem’s self-contained reality that, even should the reader attempt a close reading, will evade meaning, ‘sprouting erasures’ to continue to negate any of its stability. It refuses to give up on at least the idea of something being there, pointing instead to its transparency, rather than its various ‘erasures.’ Even these considerations, emerging on the hump of the concessional clause, ‘except,’ will eventually be dissolved by, and into, the shaping forces of the ‘weather’ – ‘hasn’t the sky?’ indeed. ‘Clepsydra’ comments on its need to be difficult to keep the reader guessing and maintain the argument. There can be no resolution, just further consideration eventually dispersing and ‘dissolving’ in the ‘weather’ currents of the poem; its ‘imaginary feeling | Which still protected its events and pauses’ (Collected 142) – the poem attempts to concretise its moments with the false assurances of its internal imagination, bringing the reality of these very moments to question.

The dominant ‘feeling’ of ‘Clepsydra,’ then, is of ‘emptiness.’ However, this does not presuppose that the poem is without significance; that it is made somehow too shallow in the void it attempts to establish beyond its surface:

And a feeling, again, of emptiness, but of richness in the way
The whole thing is organized, on what a miraculous scale,
Really what is meant by a human level, with the figures of the giants
Not too much bigger than the men who have come to petition them:
A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life, of distant life in this case.
                    (Collected 143)

The ‘moment,’ empty though it seems to be, is self-sufficient, freely giving ‘itself’ alongside the methods of ‘keeping it’: it is immediate, referring obliquely to the initial ‘moment | Of utterance’ – the work’s open-ended communicative endeavour – that drives the poem. This establishes the ‘richness’ of ‘Clepsydra’: how the ‘whole thing is organized’ along a shifting, subjective ‘scale’ to whomever reads, maybe absorbs, it, even as this ‘scale’ is instantly probed by the speaker, equated, problematically and simultaneously, with ‘humans’ and ‘giants.’ Neither perspective assumes any greater importance than the other; rather, each establishes the possibility of a different and new perspective. Yet, this is of course true to the self-admitted complications of the poem, striving to enact a sense of time passing by, dragging in its wake ‘tears and laughter which | Are a sign of life,’ even if it is ‘distant,’ heard as an echo in the poem’s ‘dark passages.’ ‘Clepsydra’ is flexible and always attempting to grow as it moves on, evading ‘turning to dust’ in its lively attempt to draw the reader in to assist in its continual, self-sufficient movement. Accordingly, the stability of this ‘moment’ is undone and opened to a different consideration:

And yet, as always happens, there would come a moment when
Acts no longer sufficed and the calm
Of this true progression hardened into shreds
Of another kind of calm, returning to the conclusion, its premises
Undertaken before any formal agreement had been reached, hence
A writ that was the shadow of the colossal reason behind all this
Like a second, rigid body behind the one you know is yours.
                     (Collected 143)

The parameters of the moment, of the various moments in ‘Clepsydra,’ assume their non-truth – that is, their fleeting nature where they are both true in the immediate present and ‘non-absent’ as they slide into the past. The ‘calm’ of the rich ‘emptiness’ of before is replaced by ‘another kind of calm’: an unsettling stillness that looks back to the ‘reply that prompted the question’ as it skips ahead to, presumably, ‘the conclusion’ of the poem; a ‘conclusion’ that is ‘returned to’ as if it has already been reached and surpassed. The ‘writ,’ then, left mysterious and without identity – indeed, merged bewilderingly into a ‘second, rigid body’ – provides the ‘colossal reason’ for the poem’s existence, for the wandering, correcting musings of the speaker. The presence of this ‘colossal reason’ provokes an anxiety in ‘Clepsydra,’ for the speaker fears such definitional meaning being attached to the work, and its sudden demand of attention vainly blots ‘the contract’ – the ‘writ’ – that had ‘been freely drawn up and consented to as insurance | Against the very condition it was now so efficiently | Seeking to establish.’ It ironically both betrays the poem by ‘consenting’ to assert this ‘colossal reason,’ yet is also true to the self-cancellations and self-sufficiency of the poem itself which will render this moment as untrue in the present as any of the others already past in the poem. It falls to the reader and ‘Clepsydra,’ both addressed through the fluid second person, to protect the poem against this failure of the insurance: ‘Your acts | Are sentinels against this quiet | Invasion’ (Collected 144). With this guardianship, the sensation of ‘Clepsydra’ can be broken down to ‘a kind of very fine power or dust’ (Collected 143), easily scattered through the pages of the poem, which it had previously seemed to try and avoid for just a moment of still and whole reflection. Everything collapses in on itself – ‘hardened into shreds’ – as the moment attempts to stay past its welcome, as the ‘invasion’ is pushed back.

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