Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

John Ashbery, _Quick Question_

A NEW DYLAN album drops soon, I hear, and I have already ordered mine--and you can be assured I will be nearly that prompt whenever the next Ashbery volume ambles down the pike. I mention his Bobness in this context because it recently struck me that 21st century Dylan is a bit like 21st century Ashbery: both have found in their later phase a vein that they can keep working apparently ad infinitum with satisfying results.

Dylan can take almost any assortment of old blues riffs and/or Carter Family strums, weave in ragged fragmentary narratives in which nothing is revealed, end each verse with a repeated line that somehow gains in weight with every repoetition, add several instances of his particular brand of non sequitur, and bang, we have a new Dylan album. Maybe not another Blonde on Blonde or Blood on  the Tracks, but still, you know, worth repeated listening: Love and Theft, Modern Times,  Together through Life, and Tempest are all solidly listenable and well as the years go by.

Ashbery's recent volumes similarly rely on an identifiable repertoire of knuckleballs, sinkers, and of-speed pitches. You know they're coming, but they still goose you.

There's the dropped-in colloquial term, like "gunk" ("Unlike the Camelopard") or "no-brainer" ("The Allegations"), sometimes with the whiff of a distant era, like "gimcrack" ("Double Whoopee") or "glommed" ("The Queen's Apron").

There are the teeterings on contradiction, with the concluding phrase turning against the grain of the first part of the sentence: "The check was duly deposited / in the wrong bank" ("The Allegations"), "The municipality lacks water, except for the sea" ("Laughing Creek"), "Best not to dwell on the situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refereshing" ("Homeless Heart").

There are the unfulfillable imperatives--"Give us silly, damaged things / felony cruisers, and hours after the moon" ("Laughing Creek"), "You who are always right about everything, come fight us" ("Auburn-tinted Fences").

There are the clich├ęs: "had a pretty good run" ("Northeast Building"), "the full bill of goods" ("The Cost of Sleep"), familiar faces made suddenly strange by appearing in a context containing sentences like "We wove closer to the abyss, a maze of sunflowers, / The dauphin said to take our time" ("Elective Infinities").

There are the questions. There are the personal pronouns, "we," "you," "she," "they," that are not about to let themselves be pinned down to an antecedent. There are the inexplicable juxtapositions.

It's the same old bag of tricks--"Why do these templates trail me the way they do?" ("Unfit to Stand Trial")--but somehow the magic still happens. Let them trail you the way they do, Mr. Ashbery; we love those templates. We won't be getting another As We Know or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror any more than we will be getting another Blonde on Blonde, but the old masters remain masters.

No comments: