For a long time, I had trouble reading John Ashbery. I came into poetry with earnest seriousness, and I wanted poems to have meaning.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve realized that Ashbery’s poems do have meaning â€“ sometimes as many as a dozen meanings per poem. What his poems don’t have is the kind of transparent narrative that one finds in the work of, say, Sharon Olds or Maxine Kumin or Donald Hall.
Rather than rewarding a close reading, Ashbery’s poems reward a slant-reading in which one comes at the text from an angle, letting the words play across one’s mind like insects on a pond. Trying to take the poems at face value can lead to a headache; letting them in from the side allows the brain to make connections between seemingly disparate things. Seen at a slant, Your Name Here is a delicious tapestry of non-sequiturs, woven with threads of wit and melancholy.
The book’s first poem was the first one I fell in love with, and it may still be my favorite in the collection:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Although “This Room” is short, it pulls me through a range of emotions. With Ashbery, I leap from seeing that there is something at the core of a dream/life that is unspoken (or unspeakable) to a line about quail that makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. And then, at the end of the poem, my laughter turns sad as the narrator wonders aloud why he speaks.
In “Terminal,” Ashbery speaks again to a nameless addressee.
Didn’t you get my card?
We none of us, you see, knew we were coming
until the bus was actually pulling out of the terminal.
I gazed a little sadly at the rubber of my shoes’
soles, finding it wanting.
On the first reading, I was convinced that the poem’s title refers to the bus terminal in line three. The second time through, I became just as convinced that it means “terminal” in the sense of “a terminal patient” â€“ that the poem is about aging and death. We’re all terminal, Ashbery seems to be saying, and we don’t know we are dying until we are already on our way.
Sometimes the “you” in these poems seems specific, as in “Strange Occupations.”
Once after school, hobbling from place to place,
I remember you liked the dry kind of cookies
with only a little sugar to flavor them.
I remember that you liked Wheatena.
You were the only person I knew who did.
Don’t you remember how we used to fish for kelp?
Got to the town with the relaxed, suburban name,
remembering how trees were green there,
greener than a sudden embarrassed lawn in April.
How we would like to live there,
and not in a different life, either. We sweltered
along in our union suits, past signs marked “Answer”
and “Repent,” and tried both, and other things.
The poem gives the sense of an elegy, the way the narrator chronicles details and events, as if speaking to someone who has lost his memory or is gone. “We used to crawl to so many events together: a symphony/ of hogs in a lilac tree, and other, possibly more splendid/ things until the eyelid withdrew,” he writes, later in the same poem.
The descriptions of the unnamed past evoke mythic time, when possibilities were limitless. But something has changed; in the now of the poem Ashbery pleads, “Oh, help us someone!/ Put out the night and the fire, whose backdraft/ is even now humming her old song of antipathies.”
“Now another one who said it is gone,” begins “Variations on ‘La Folia,'” another apparent elegy. We don’t know who is gone, but his absence is evident in Ashbery’s refusal to address or explain who he is or what he said. Only the poem’s close becomes elegaic again:
We should all be so lucky as to get hit by the meteor
of an idea once in our lives. It would save a lot of hand-wringing
and bells tolling in the undersea cathedral,
a noise to drive one mad, past the brink of human decency.
Please don’t tell me it all adds up in the end.
I’m sick of that one.
Despite the seemingly random images that fill the poem’s interior â€“ “My dog, green pussy, came along with my bowl of grape-nuts” â€“ I can’t help reading it as a meditation on mortality.
Elsewhere, though, whimsy wins out over existentialism. In “The Gods of Fairness,” Ashbery writes:
The failure to see God is not a problem
God has a problem with. Sure, he could see us
if he had a hankering to do so, but that’s
not the point. The point is his concern
for us and for biscuits.
We just gave up then and there, some of us dying, others walking
wearily but contentedly away. God had had his little joke,
but who was to say it wasn’t ours?
Life’s a joke, he seems to be saying, but how do we know on whom the joke is played? Maybe the joke’s on us, but we still have to laugh.
Aging, death, dreams, the existence or non-existence of God: Ashbery returns to these themes, poem after poem, slipping them alongside images of a million other things. “These things are like dreams/ of things that are real,” he writes, in “Who Knows what Constitutes A Life,” taking me back to the book’s first page.
As if to answer the question posed in that poem’s title, “Life is a Dream” gives us: “It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things/ definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,/ for instance, that glides/ so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.” Life, being a dream, can be anything â€“ but security isn’t part of what life is.
One thing life certainly includes, for the narrator of this book, is romance:
STANZAS BEFORE TIME
Quietly as if it could be
otherwise, the ocean turns
and slinks back into her panties.
Reefs must know something of this,
and all the incurious red fish
that float ditsily in schools,
wondering which school is best.
I’d take you for a drive
in my flivver, Miss Ocean, honest, if I could.
It’s not like any other love poem I know, but I can’t help loving the wistful tone and the description of the ocean slipping into her underclothes.
The book’s title poem is its last, showing us a narrator questioning the relationship between his world and the world at large. “But how can I be in this bar and also be a recluse?” it begins.
In the bar, in life, cheerful people crowd in, sing the French national anthem and swig from a communal jug. We overhear snippets of unconnected conversation. And then the end of the poem is, again, eschatological:
…one by one people were swept away
calling endearing things to each other, using pet names.
‘Achilles, meet Angus.’ Then it all happened so quickly I
guess I never knew where we were going, where the pavement
was taking us.
Things got real quiet in the oubliette.
I was still reading Jean-Christophe. I’ll never finish the darn thing.
Now is the time for you to go out into the light
and congratulate whoever is left in our city. People who survived
the eclipse. But I was totally taken with you, always have been.
Light a candle in my wreath, I’ll be yours forever and will kiss you.
None of us can finish what we are reading when the end-times come, whether they’re personal or universal.
I like the way Ashbery closes with an exhortation. Looking at this poem, looking at the book, I make a mental connection between the book’s title and the large number of poems addressed to an unknown “you.” Maybe it’s the reader who completes these poems.
If that’s so, then it’s fair for me to do what I have done: taken a cross-section and made it read the way I want it to. I could have chosen completely different poems for this review, in which case the book might have seemed to be about pets, or about cities, or about winter, instead of about aging and death and God.
Maybe each review of Your Name Here will be different as each reviewer takes the book at a slightly different slant. If that’s true, then our readings of the book are more about us than about Ashbery â€“ which means the title’s even more perfect than I knew.