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Michael Robbins Reviews John Ashbery’s New Book, Quick Question

By Harriet Staff

Michael Robbins has reviewed John Ashbery’s new book, Quick Question, for the Chicago Tribune. It’s “a lot like the last new book,” Robbins writes. Well:

Lots of poets write the same book over and over, of course, especially as they age. Why complain about Ashbery’s sameness when it’s so unlikely?

In all my years as a pedestrian

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serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me

thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels.

She merely arrived. Half-turning

in the demented twilight, one feels a

sour empathy with all that went before.

That, needless to say, was how we elaborated

ourselves staggering across tracts:

Somewhere in America there is a naked person. These lucid sentences, with their marooned pronouns and mismatched adjectives, are classic Ashbery: The syntax seems to almost coax them into sense before snatching them back behind a veil, just as epileptics forget the revelations their fits bring on.

What is consistently parsable in late Ashbery are the melancholy specter of approaching death (“As I was saying it’s a never-ending getting / closer if you will”) and the persistence of humor in the demented twilight (“We serve two masters: haddock and bream”). Surrealism isn’t the word for Ashbery’s conjurations: His are the materials of the conscious mind, “the fatal tarnish of the everyday.” What other poet his age is so alive to the kitsch ceramics of the vernacular? “Quick Question,” indeed.

As usual, the daftness quotient would do Tex Avery proud: “Woman right behind you prompted celebrity / and aardvark/hosiery task force underneath”; “Serious eaters from here to Kankakee welcome / the disaggregation of religion into irreducible / chips, dot dot dot”; “That’s a map of Paris on the fender, / if that’s a fender”; “Wyoming / and West Virginia lead the country / in chewing tobacco consumption. / But you knew that.” This register of genial nonsense seems to derive from James Tate, whose influence Ashbery has acknowledged (when you live long enough, writers you influenced influence you).

But Ashbery’s lissome structures limit the jurisdiction of the aardvark/hosiery task force, and he often regains his lyrical composure to listen to, for instance, “the sighing of mice behind a grill” “while our time on the planet ambiguously finishes.” A recurrent trope in Ashbery’s poems is the wait for some event that will at last make sense of everything, lift the burthen of the mystery. But either the event is indefinitely postponed, or it happened while we weren’t paying attention and we missed it. In 1975’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” “it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest / were happening in the sky / but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it.” In “Three Poems” (1972), “The pure in heart rejoiced for they were sure now that something terrific was going to happen,” but eventually “men went about their business as before.” Now, in “Quick Question,” “people were waiting for a sunset, / something to happen.” It is an elegant trope: “So strange signs are going to appear. / Longtime he sat upon the porch.”

Read the full review here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, December 10th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.