Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

John Ashbery, _Planisphere_

AS OFTEN HAPPENS to me, the arrival of a new book by a favorite writer was a pointed reminder that I had not yet read the previous one, so I plucked Planisphere from the shelves last week.

I may be missing something--in fact, it's near a dead certainty that I am missing something--but the volumes following Girls on the Run seem very much alike to me, each poem seeming as though it could as easily have come from, say, Your Name Here as from, say, A Worldly Country.

Not that Ashbery has anything left to prove; he's as entitled as he could possibly be to say, "OK, I've settled into my late manner, and if you don't like it, fuck off." And I do like it. The sound of Ashbery is the sound of contemporary American poetry; you hear his note everywhere, as you heard Eliot's everywhere in the poetry of the mid-20th century. The quick changes of register from erudite to demotic, the mid-sentence dislocations, the pronoun shifts that seem to bring in the stormclouds (or break them up), the nail-driven-home smack of those last lines that, on examination, turns out only to have deepened the mystery--no one does Ashbery like Ashbery.

the consequence of leaves
got thrown into a bath of lemon and eucalyptus

the day was raging crisp
heavily outlined

he had been in touch with old buildings

How does Ashbery make someone's being in touch with old buildings seems both inevitable and unfathomable?

Those are the last lines of the second of the two poems titled "Episode," which begins with part of a Browning line: "or what's a heaven for?"  Familiar or once-familiar lines wander through like deer in the backyard, often re-contextualized and re-purposed:

I remember I remember
the word "shovel"


So we'll go no more a-teething
For now.


The volume's title itself seems such an echo, the most memorable previous use of the word "planisphere" having occurred in Andrew Marvell's "Definition of Love," a beautiful love poem, though one about an uncrossable separation.  Perhaps emphasizing that the course of true love ne'er did run smooth, lines from Wyatt's "They Flee from Me" also appear-- twice, in fact, both times to stunning effect, in" Trespassing"('my love, how like you this?") and in "Working Overtime" (the last line, no less: "with naked foot stalking my chamber").

"Breathlike," which does double duty as inner-jacket-flap copy, seems an Ashberyean "Circus Animals' Desertion": "Just as the day could use another hour, / I need another idea." Judging from the 143 pages of Planisphere, he has a way to keep finding them.

"Therefore poetry dissolves in / brilliant moisture and reads us / to us," we read in one poem.  "Poetry is seriously out of joint," we read in the next. Palinode, or accident arising from Ashbery's having again printed the poems in alphabetical order of their titles? Forget it, Jake, it's Ashbery.

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