Long Live Ashbery

John Ashbery – Commotion of the Birds (Carcanet)

John Ashbery is dead. His last book of poems seemed to sense its arrival. The coming of the not being. The nearness to the absence of even the negative. The use of three dots… the coming space of void. Céline used this motif and far too much has been made of it. That it breaks the master-signifier-phallus, that it turns his texts into pure play like jazz, it doesn’t and it does not have that function here either.

But Ashbery, not really impressionistic, but always very open, yet always also about something, seems to be shrugging his shoulders more than he asserts and more than usual here. Sometimes this is naughty ambivalence, ‘At Puke University, I’m glad he goes in there’ he writes, but sometimes it is beautiful blank ambivalence.

‘The Old Sofa’ is a wonderful skewering of cultural rites. It is almost anthropological, but the point of view an anthropologist reaches when she decides that playing cricket and performing the Yanomami rain song are for her and for her only at this moment just flat choices. What Robert Creeeley meant when he wrote that what you did was all that there ever was. Ashbery knew for a long time that this was The Truth. At the end he glows with the radiance of this Truth, the privilege of not giving a toss.

But to leave it there would be to do him a terrible disservice. ‘Friends… die down with me…’ ‘House passed away…’ he writes, and Creeley also explained to me in interview how his friends were going, how it was like a neighbourhood fire, coming closer each day, until one day, you knew it clearly, it would be your house and your turn:

‘Hello. I have to go in a little while. Well, maybe later. If at all.’ 

Ashbery had his turn and his absence is felt. But in these poems there is a cut glass clarity, even if the meanings are more feelings. They undermine the idea of Ashbery as a ‘difficult poet’, or maybe the times just caught up. The dense circularity of the New Criticism has been distilled into another substance. Take a deep drink and take it with you.

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