Contrasts—gray and light, dullness and color, interior and exterior, map and landscape, foreboding and acquiescence, rocks and water, movement and stillness–fill the twelve poems of Rivers and Mountains, displayed in odd and sometimes disturbing pairs and phrases: useless love; tender & insouciant; desire starching a petal; rainbow of tears; fruitless sunlight; sedate & skittish; cries & colors; useless verbs; monkish & frivolous; useless mystery, etc. By the time we get to The Ecclesiast we are familiar with the pattern; opposites are heaped together in line after line:
across the sunlight darkness is taking root anew/ In intense activity. You shall never have seen it just this way/ And that is to be your one reward.
This sounds a bit like an announcement from on high to the ecclesiast. The movement of these poems has the feel of an intense and at times tortuous seeking. If the Word at approximate midpoint of the book is that the seeker will just have to accept that his one “blessing in disguise” is that he will never hold a single vision for all time, but that every day will bring its own, then we might expect the second half of the book to offer some insight into what it means to accept this condition for living. It does, but we don’t have an easy time of it getting there. In fact the more the seeker has accepted his condition—that just as a person seems to gain some purchase on a quasi-holistic view, night or the weather will always intervene to shift the parts and change the equation—the more determined he seems to explicate this condition. Or not to explicate it, or even quite to describe it, but to convey its truth in repeated acts of poetic performance. We get to Clepsydra, the long penultimate poem, a path based on the structured flow of water, the justification for which is its own movement, in images and mental somersaults of almost unbearable beauty. But that is not enough for the poet. He must write The Skaters.
The first stanza of The Skaters is a bitch.
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.
Thank god we get the cushion of a space, within which sits the line:
Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.
After that first stanza, that bitch of an entry into a long poem, we need that space, that distraction. Ashbery has summed up the pain of the seeker. He may have accepted his condition, but he doesn’t sound very happy with it. And so he tries a new metaphor:
The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything….
That flying scarf has almost distracted us from what the poet is doing: creating the performance in poetry of the condition described above. We get lots of skating, lots of figure 8’s, lots of going back and forth, and lots and lots of snow, “so much snow…. littered with waste and ashes so that cathedrals may grow….” snow accumulating like so many words and so much stuff, “So error is plaited into desires not yet born” and labels get attached to the whole shebang, and surely we don’t want to put it all in our poem, “So the floor sags…. and the whole house of cards comes dinning down” but what to leave out, ah, what to leave out?
But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, am not at all ready to,
This leaving out business….
And here, finally, we see a way out, for this is Ashbery’s idea of a joke, and aren’t we beginning to have a little fun now? He never seems to enjoy himself so much as when he goes on at length, whipping up that poetic froth. No explanations and no answers then, rather a poetic performance that goes in circles. And maybe you have to be a little bit childlike to throw on your mittens and skates and truly enjoy the pleasure of circles. The movement of The Skaters, its shape and its rhythm are its meaning, if it has to have any beyond the pleasure of its performance—a performance enacted by the reader in a meditative hour or two, just enough time to quicken the blood, then inside for a cup of hot chocolate.
A Personal Story
Poetry is not explanation, it does not provide meaning or justification for life, and it’s certainly not religion. Those who look to poetry for these things are either, in my opinion, fooling themselves, or else falsely propping up a useless kind of language, mystery or love. What poetry can do is make life in this fucked up world bearable, for moments at a time, by substituting the countless abuses to and of language heaped on us every day with linguistic beauty and mental healing. Poetry is a salve for the brain. And it can teach us to face those Orwellian monsters like the paper dragons they so often are. We do not have to let them damage our lives. But that’s the key. If we believe them then they have power. A poetry like that of John Ashbery’s is valuable in the way that ancient sophistry is valuable. It teaches us all the intricacies of the rhetorical tricks that are used to abuse us. Because we are experts now, we know when we are being manipulated, and sometimes we can even turn it around—not that we want to manipulate anyone, but that we have the power to stop it from damaging our lives.
I was not happy when I first came to live in the Tampa Bay area. I sometimes wondered if I was making a disastrous mistake, whether I had set myself on a path from which I would not be able to turn, was making my bed of mediocrity, cutting off all possibility of flowering, and I even wondered if I would ever be happy again. I was working a miserable job, and my companion couldn’t find work, her anxiety resulting in heart palpitations. I’d get off the bus from work and come home to our apartment where I’d find a simple but wholesome meal waiting. Fried catfish was a good economical dish. I didn’t want to share how low I was feeling with my love, because I thought she was feeling worse. I remember these first months as very quiet, and just the two of us.
Wherever I have gone in this world I have taken these things with me: a very old scarred trunk full of notebooks and manuscripts and a few boxes of books. One of the books I had with me at this time was Rivers and Mountains. And the poem These Lacustrine Cities seemed to have been written especially for me.
I won’t exaggerate, what got me through those months was my love and the catfish. But These Lacustrine Cities helped me, no doubt about it. I’d come home and read that poem every day. It helped me see not only beauty in my situation, but hope. And I survived. You know, we have the most beautiful double rainbows here….