By John Ashbery
To review a collection by a poet whose stated aim is "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about" is no easy feat. Then again, neither is reading a collection like Planisphere . At least that latter endeavor is worth the effort; we'll see about the former.
Six of the poems in this collection originally appeared in a recent issue of The Paris Review, the cover of which featured one of Ashbery's visual collages, depicting disparate elements such as a Chutes & Ladders grid, a watch face, a man's lower half, and a bouquet of flowers. The ninety-nine poems in Planisphere, ordered alphabetically by title, present similarly cryptic juxtapositions that evade easy interpretations. Procuring meaning from an Ashbery poem is sometimes like trying to see the images in those Magic Eye patterns; you can't make anything out until you relax and let the "organized chaos" (a term Ashbery is fond of) emerge. By the same token, the density, discontinuity, and esoteric elusiveness/allusiveness of the pieces can cause the same sort of headaches for some readers that often resulted from trying to see those hidden unicorns and dolphins at the mall kiosk.
Now 81, the last of the "New York School" poets, Ashbery is predictably prone to reflection and preoccupied with mortality. Throughout these new works, he seems especially concerned with the passing of time, with history and his place within it ("Ah, but we live in a peculiar era"). Of the last century, the one during which Harold Bloom called Ashbery "America's greatest living poet," he writes: "Like a dance, it completed itself / and ran out. Hey, it was just here! // So it is with the things that were more or less / dear to us and are now enfolded in the dream / of their happening." And this is where form follows function. Time is both a theme and a convention to be toyed with ("Time got left out of the equation.") A long life's accrual of ephemeral phrases, fragments of overheard conversations, borrowed colloquialisms, history book trivia, movie dialogue, endless and disjointed tangents of thought-like the vintage postcards used in his visual collage work-form a linguistic scrapbook arsenal that spans and reflects time the way a mind full of memories tries futilely to contain a life's worth of experience and knowledge. These themes come to the fore in poems like the first of two titled "Episode": "...hand on / the stick shift headed into a billboard / labeled Tomorrow, the adventures of new music, melismas shrouding the past and passing days." In "Sticker Shock," we even get a taste of sentimentality:
Besides (did I mention it?), I'm tired
This day's a wrap. Others will happen along,
maybe fall in love with one. But that's another story.
We'll find a new wand, horizons will be bright
and anxious. A friend will give us
what we're owed and then something extra,
something we couldn't have imagined,
a space like a dream.
But if nostalgia is wallowing in the past, then Ashbery clearly makes a point of avoiding that sort of reminiscing—he hardly ever settles on one image for more than a couple lines. Glimmers of memories are bisected by seemingly random tangents, diverted by flights of imagination.
Several poems play with a conflation of familial matters and broader historical conflicts (e.g. "The Decembrists"). It becomes nearly impossible to disentangle the completely personal references from the cultural contexts that don't so much frame or anchor these pieces as they push against them. Sometimes it's as though Ashbery's mind is on the fritz, skipping involuntarily from one memory to another, one association to the next, like one of those high-speed montages in movies when someone's life is flashing before his eyes. Of course, the logical extension of a fixation on mortality is a frantic focus on memory. There are moments when Planisphere reads like what I imagine it largely is: a man at the far end of a long life letting his mind roam freely amidst a vast catalog of experiences and associations. If this sounds like a challenging and not altogether accessible venture, it often is. But to mistake the meandering obscurity for meaninglessness would be a shame.
In many of the poems, words are strung together and sequenced into lines that skirt meaning then abandon it like a bat darting across the night sky with no discernible design. However, like the bat and its unfamiliar logic, Ashbery follows his flights of fancy toward unseen prizes. Throughout Planisphere, he appears well aware of the challenge the poems present; he even seems to poke fun at himself at times ("This is getting complicated, like always"). In "Variation in the Key of C," he writes, "Poetry is seriously out of joint." Words and phrases become unhinged from meaning, divorced from the accessible contexts and relations we come to expect of communicative language. In an interview published in The Believer in February, Ashbery said, "I don't think poetry should be inaccessible, but I also don't think it should be easy to access either, because much of the fun comes from struggling with it." He also talks about "div[ing] in and find[ing] yourself swimming eventually." Well, I was doggy-paddling most of the way through Planisphere, but the fun was well worth the struggle. The payoff is in lines that glisten with a sense of playful wonder that always seems to be lurking in the margins. "The Seventh Chihuahua" ends with this surprisingly tender pair of lines: "Did I say the stars will take care of us? I know // it sounds funny, but that's the way it is."
Several poems don't so much hint at themes and narratives as bump into or careen past them. Ashbery is as always an intimidating polymath; you won't completely understand these poems without a broad knowledge of 16th century Franco-Flemish composers, 19th century Russian revolts, Parisian geography, and botany. Some poems ("The Tower of London") even read like peculiar Wikipedia entries, the fragmented chaos of information overload having found a purveyor in Ashbery long before the internet even existed. The point, then, one hopes, is not simply the conveyance of meaning. Language in Ashbery's hands has purposes beyond conventional communication.
For all these reasons, emotions are sometimes difficult to glean under the layers of obfuscating wordplay. It is as though the underlying sentiments only begrudgingly succumb to language—to simple sequences of words and familiar rules of grammar. However, the confusion and shrouded meaning are hardly signs of cold intellectualism or senility. In fact, it is with a still vibrant (heck, hyperactive!) vision that Ashbery crafts his linguistic collages, holding up a convex mirror to an increasingly fragmented and fractured culture. It's no surprise that Ashbery says it best himself in "Some Silly Thing": "The truth is nobody knows what is happening anymore."