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

1 August 2017

‘It is because everything is relative’ that ‘Clepsydra’ cannot bind itself to a narrative from which meaning can be wrought. Such narratives only serve to stabilise the action of the text and give definitional weight to the things within it by something that essentially limits it from without. The sense of Synthetic Cubism throughout Rivers and Mountains and in ‘Clepsydra’ works towards internalising the poetries’ objects to examine their various relations, which, in turn, assists in creating a Surreal reality. And although the collage practice in ‘The Skaters’ – and suggestively in the literary allusions or echoes throughout the book – allow a tension to develop between the external world and the world of the poem, the focus lies in how the work defamiliarises and takes ownership of these elements. ‘Clepsydra,’ in its very circularity leading to its intense inward gaze, is the apex of this practice in Rivers and Mountains. ‘Truth’ is at the level of the autonomous text and the reader who engages it lets it take them through its flowing machinations. It is no longer about reshaping and reconsidering art or poetry, but about projecting a sensation of life as poetry. Reading it ‘Is not a question, then, | Of having lived in vain,’ but rather experiencing a sensation of ‘living’ itself – there is no past tense, just the moment itself with all that impinges on it:

                                                  What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact 
                    (Collected 146)

The poem becomes the ‘distant | Image of you’: the poet, reader and poem itself. How ‘you see yourself,’ then, becomes a matter of how ‘Clepsydra’ presents itself and how it is approached. Its notion of ‘truth’ exists in this open appeal, in laying itself bare. It may wryly refer to itself as a ‘Wooden and external representation,’ but even in this static self-identification, it can still ‘echo’ meaning, while simultaneously allowing for the terms of this meaning and representation to be altered – ‘ex-possibilities become present fact.’ The last two lines then hint at exactly the notion of change and the place of time in this insistent alteration: ‘while morning is still and before the body | Is changed by the faces of evening’ (Collected 146). Light and dark mingle one last time, exposing how they too are subject to the movement of time – from ‘morning’ till ‘evening’ and all the moments in between. The written work, the poem, recognises the ‘truth’ of Hegel’s ‘Thing Itself’ – ‘everything which … maintains the model, the essence, and the spiritual truth’ of the work (Blanchot 308) – and this is the ultimate achievement of the self-realising work of writing aware of its negation and ‘death’: the recognition of reality – of self – in the work of creating and receiving a text. In the work’s disappearance it achieves its truth as the individuals who encounter the text merge with the work and bring it to self-consciousness. ‘Clepsydra’ looks ahead to the postmodern abstraction of Three Poems in its elimination of any ‘truth’ of the stable object subjected to Cubist synthesis and Surrealist negation. Only the experience of poetry, Ashbery’s ideal subject, remains.

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