The poem came about through my interest in a single word: packet.
About a week ago I discovered one of my favorite writers—Michael Brodsky—has been writing a blog going by the description “thought packets”. I tried to explain the thrill of this discovery to a musician friend who had not heard of Brodsky. I said it would be like discovering Yo Yo Ma had decided to write a blog, sharing thoughts on his process and the larger world of the arts (Brodsky is an expert on film and is well schooled in philosophy and the visual arts). Not just anybody, but Yo Yo Ma (I consider Michael Brodsky to be on a level with Anne Carson, John Ashbery, Thomas Pynchon and Chris Tysh). My friend said, “Who’s Yo Yo Ma?”
Maybe I have the wrong friends. Anyway, thought packets. Brodsky has written about his take on Manny Farber’s concept of termite art (opposed to elephant art) and it’s based on the process of thought packets. Remembering he had used the term in his novel, ***, I’ve been rereading it.
Meanwhile the poet/mockingbird part of my brain seized the word “packet” like a sucking stone and wouldn’t let go. Unsurprisingly, a line from my favorite living poet came to mind. The first sentence of Ashbery’s book, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror—“As one put drunk into the packet-boat”—is lifted from Andrew Marvell’s poem, Tom May’s Death. Now, as it’s hardly possible to mention drunkenness and boats in the same sentence without thinking of Rimbaud, I had to read The Drunken Boat too.
So now all of these things—radiating, as it were, out of the word “packets”—had come into a single orbit and I couldn’t help but notice the note one hears struck in each one, different as they are, which one might characterize as interstitial space: neither day nor night, but twilight; neither child nor adult, but the play of imagination; neither knowledge nor ignorance, but the lucid unknown.
Marvell introduces the note in the first few lines of Tom May’s Death. May is put drunk into a packet-boat and in his stupor gazes about wide-eyed, equally restored and disoriented by what he sees this side of Elysium, “Signs by which still he found and lost his way.”
Rimbaud, of course, first becomes the drunken boat itself with an enthusiastic echo of Baudelaire’s exhortation to be drunken but comes to regret it, wistful for the child on dry land making boat and river into playthings. But Rimbaud as poet never escapes the interstitial space of The Drunken Boat.
Ashbery has the benefit of this history, has lived, “tried each thing”, and does not shirk the mature tone of the adult. Still, one cannot miss his privileging the night, not just in this poem, but many others (by the way, I have lifted the phrase “back to the night that bore us” from his poem, From Estuaries, From Casinos). It would be hasty to equate Ashbery’s night with Elysium, but the narrator of As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat is on this side of it just as surely as Tom May is on this side of Elysium in the lines quoted. Caught between summer and night, in this poem and so many others, Ashbery has established himself as the poet of interstitial space.
Home base for this particular thought packet is Brodsky’s novel, ***, in which Stu Pott (sounding suspiciously like “Stir[the]Pot”) in a semi-juvenile state of young manhood finds himself (or the reader finds him) in interstitial space with regard to the whole world of ***. Because he is neither in nor out of this world (or because he is both in and out of it), he is the quantum underlying the *** world, writer and reader included (Stu Pott is a new recruit for a company that produces something called “***” but “***” is also the name of the novel and how it is being produced). Which only means that the fictional *** existed before Stu Pott did, but *** in its fullest dimensional capacities could not exist without Stu Pott.
Which brings me to Manny Farber. I can’t fully embrace his beef with Cézanne. I wonder what he said about Philip Guston?
And the word “packets” never even made it into the poem.