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

1 August 2017

As ‘Clepsydra’ edges to its closure – or, perhaps more appropriately, open ending – the speaker introduces in contrast to the feminine ‘her,’ who seems in constant development, a more static ‘he’:

It seemed he had been repeating the same stupid phrase
Over and again throughout his life; meanwhile
Infant destinies had suavely matured; there was
To be a meeting or collection of them that very evening.
He was out of it of course for having lain happily awake
On the tepid fringes of that field or whatever
Whose center was beginning to churn darkly, but even more for having
The progression of minutes by accepting them, as one accepts drops of rain
As they form a shower, and without worrying about the fine weather that will come after.
                    (Collected 145)

In the context of the arguments in ‘Clepsydra,’ the apparent failure of this ‘he’ is his waking acceptance of the sameness of existence in a poem that consistently rejects such an apprehensible stream of time, dwelling as it so frequently does in the irrational duration of a dream, never ‘repeating the same stupid phrase,’ but rather the bewildering terms of its almost impenetrable discussion. Around him, then, ‘Infant destinies’ mature ‘suavely,’ indicating how distant he is from the smooth development of ‘Clepsydra,’ enhanced further by the ‘meeting’ which he will not attend – a ‘collection’ from which he is isolated. His position is made unspecific and separate by his vague location, where he is, importantly, ‘happily,’ but perhaps also naively, ‘awake.’ This space, beginning as a ‘field,’ is opened up by the ambiguous conjunction ‘or,’ which establishes the field both as, and as not, ‘whatever’; a ‘whatever’ – or should it be ‘wherever’? – that shifts its stability, its ‘light,’ as its ‘center’ turns to a typically fluctuating dark. He, however, will never progress in this sudden transformation, for he just accepts ‘The progression of minutes’ that flow past him without ever grasping them – as one lets rain run off their bodies, only conscious of the moment itself, and not the ‘weather’ to follow or even the building of the clouds that predated the precipitation. He stands outside the argument of ‘Clepsydra,’ and thus does not belong, incapable of asking, ‘Why shouldn’t all climate and all music be equal | Without growing?’ (Collected 145) – because they must ‘grow’ lest they become stagnant and grind the world to an undesired halt. He is trapped in this very space, occupied by a speaker who knows the futility of the mysterious man’s desire to dwell only in the moment:

                                                    There should be an invariable balance of 
Contentment to hold everything in place, ministering
To stunted memories, helping them stand alone
And return into the world, without ever looking back at
What they might have become, even though in doing so they
Might just once have been the truth that, invisible
Still surrounds us like the air and is the dividing force
Between our slightest steps and the notes taken on them.
                    (Collected 145-46)

Should there be some contrivance to assist ‘stunted memories’ to slot into the ‘serpentine’ world and flow of time, they will still be subject to the possibility of succumbing to the poem’s ‘truth’ – or ‘invisible’ non-truth – of the memory invading the present, turning it into a kind of faux past. They are memories which could have grown out from their ‘stunted’ nature to become ‘like the air’: paradoxically all-enveloping and ‘dividing’ like the subjectivity of the truth it purports to be brandishing as secure. Yet, they are only ‘notes’: reminders of what was and is no longer. They remain ‘stunted’: there is no ‘balance | Of contentment,’ just the lingering sense of flux the man cannot grasp.

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