Time to get going

John Ashbery (107pp, £9.99, Carcanet)

Given the chance, I leapt at reviewing Ashbery. It's useful to list the poets you get pure pleasure from reading. Of the contemporary, Ashbery is definitely one: I can relax, make no conscious effort at understanding, and just thrill at the shifting registers, the hilariously dead-pan mix of corniness, beauty, banality and (most effectively) nagging unease.

One is reading a master at what he does - someone who has seemingly cracked the eternal riddle of making experimental writing enjoyable to read, and then reread. Especially in his prose poems, he gets the mix of surreal and hyperreal just right - by the perfectly timed undercutting of the poetic, through a brilliantly restless use of phasing and trajectory:

   They don't say please in heaven. All business is carried out in the
   pre-noon hours, leaving time for naps and reflection. This is the kind
   of life I was supposed to lead. What happened? you ask. Cutie pie
   went bye bye. Once the hypnotic hour of twelve has struck you are
   like any other paying  guest, waiting for that intoxicating smell of
   burgers to waft up the stairway.

     (from 'Be Careful What You Wish For')

Here we have so many characteristic Ashbery 'tropes': the deft switch to dialogue and clichŽ; the pacy sentence structure; the delightful use of fast food (pies seem to be another favourite of his) and the anxious sense of checking out/moving home - but always in a languid world of unsatisfactory luxury (undercut with the touchingly mundane 'smell of burgers'.

What does any of it mean? All of the above, I suppose.

But, sooner or later - not least in a review - there ought to be a reckoning of that 'what he does'. Is it enough? Can it sustain the claims made for it? Is it just an endless repetition of the same trick, with individual poems increasingly difficult to distinguish, perhaps even boring?

Of course, that reckoning can never be conclusive - and can even be an irrelevance.  After all, Carol Ann Duffy's entire body of work probably stands up to critical analysis far more successfully than a Sherlock Holmes story (or the wonderful graphic novel, The Road to Perdition)
. Yet only a maniac would honestly prefer reading her to the latter.

And in any case, better to repeat something wonderful than 'evolve and exfoliate' (said of a certain Northern Irish Poyeeeeet) yet stay earnestly dull. 

But - to risk a shocking banality - it is possible to be brilliant at something which is, whilst entertaining and perhaps even a joy - utterly pointless. Fart lighting, dwarf throwing and Gloucestershire cheese rolling are obvious examples. Haiku writing and poems about paintings aren't far behind.

Certainly, Ashbery has to be at the absolute top of his game, for his work to stay interesting.  The collections in the mid-2000s seemed to do this - especially my favourite Where Shall I Wander
, with its prose poem masterpiece 'Coma Berenices'.

So, it has to be said that Breezeway
takes its time to get going. The first few poems made very little impression on me. It wasn't until 'The Pie District' (see what I mean about pies - is Ashbery a Wigan fan?) that these lines lodged with me:

   I saw the daughter of his king and illustrator
   Mrs. Walter H. Browne, streaking past the hedges
   sparkling with dew, just as if it were another time.
   Lizzie! Lizzie Browne!, I stammered. But she took
   no notice of me, or the hundred or so other guests
   gathered on the lawn to salute spring.
   This is
   And yet, I managed to gasp,
   I'll have more of it for breakfast.
   Two things that went up and never
   came back. I don't understand.
   That must have been about drinking,
   feline intrigue. Can I go to my doctor now?

So much of the best Ashbery work is about being chased, or witnessing madcap 'scrapes'. He has a very English love of silly names, almost an Evelyn Waugh type mastery for them. But here it's impossible to ignore the nagging worry, allied with an almost nausea from the repetition of luxury. There is a savagery, somewhere - it's coming, and he knows it.

And some of his poems have that sense of a decadent culture, awaiting its denouement and half in love with what will destroy it. This one - my favourite from the collection - gave me an odd recall, of Cavafy's famous poem Waiting for the Barbarians

   Once in a while a message arrives here
   from friends we haven't seem in some time.
   Family members try to reach us
   to ask about old questions. Finally, each of us
   has some concern or other. 

   I can hear the signs breaking up.
   To have half-lived in a balloon to Fresno
   solves it, at least for now. DifferentÉ
   at home. After we've been in town a few days
   and may have moved, anywhere but within easy reach,
   this is kissing's only surface. Midday suction.
   It's savoury - let's devour.
   or do something about it, rusty at the bottom
   before we came to this past.

   It was a moment, what can I say.

    (from 'Domane Dopodamani')
         (trans: Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow)

All great poets are supposed to leave you with a haunting image, of themselves. Supposedly, Shelley's is of him in a wonderful boat, sailing downriver and out to sea.

Ashbery's would be of an urbane, quizzical East Coast American, surrounded by luxury: chilled white wine; delicious sea food; polished wooden interiors; gorgeous art on the walls. And vaguely disgusted by it all.

Perhaps he needs a trip to Wigan!

     © Paul Sutton 2015