I’m a regular fountain of tears today, and the way I’m going it’s likely I will end up dissolved in a gooey pool of them. As the years go by there’s always more and more to cry about. Not so as a man in my twenties. I put a stern, sometimes angry face in front of the world. Nothing could make me cry, most of the time anyway, not books, movies, music, and not even people. Then one day while reading the Gospel of John, King James Version, the tears came. Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to the disciples, Thomas had touched the flesh and just as the reality sunk in they were told the man of flesh would be leaving them. I felt their plight. What are we going to do? Jesus tells them to be of good cheer. He tells them, “I will not leave you comfortless”. And the hot tears came. They rolled down the face of this nonbeliever.
As readers we couldn’t care less for what makes a writer cry. Don’t tell us, we feel, rather make us cry. Do it through the power of your language. The reason for this, it seems to me, is that we tend to cry for ourselves, and do not like to be reminded of it. It’s as if we have not progressed beyond infancy. And yet it’s true, we cry for ourselves, even in the face of the suffering of a loved one: we cry out of the sheer frustration of helplessness. And what if we should lose them? With regard to the Gospel of John, reading it brought back the childhood faith I had treasured and then lost. The disciples would have a comforter, not poor nonbeliever me.
And so with a handful of Ashbery poems. I do not know what made John, the man who wrote them, cry. He has said in interviews that Ashbery is the one who writes the poems and John is the one who sits at home, a little bit lonely and jealous because Ashbery is the one everybody is interested in. It is Ashbery who tells us in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that the “secret” of Parmigianino’s portrait is, “too plain. The pity of it smarts, makes hot tears spurt”. He tells us this at the beginning of the poem, when we are dry-eyed, then goes on to show us why. By the time we get to, “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand” they shoot out before we even realized they had lain in waiting. At least that is what happened to me. I sobbed and my tears surprised me. Or had Ashbery surprised me? I beseech you! Almost Biblical language. After the cool meditation that had preceded, as cogent as any art criticism I had ever read, yet more concise and far more beautiful, this emotional outburst. The absurd irrationality of it. For that is the one thing that could never happen. The artist was dead, the painting done, a fact, without which, incidentally, there’d be no poem. The nerve of Parmigianino, to bare the “secret” of his soul, when we have our own to sequester. He outed us. And that is what we cry for.
And now that we know there won’t be another Ashbery poem we can say that while Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is unmistakably Ashbery, it is unique in his oeuvre. He had never been quite this explicit, neither before nor after. Whole chunks of it really do read like a beautiful form of art criticism and it demands to be read with the portrait in front of one for the duration. His poetry abounds with extreme contrasts but I don’t know of one as shocking as the cool meditation butting up against that, “I beseech you” near the end. It still shocks me when I read it, the tears still come.
John lived a long life. He died peacefully at his beautiful home with the one he loved. As Ashbery he enjoyed honors and accolades. As artists’ lives go, his was charmed. Yet when he died I curled into a ball and wept, for me, because a world without John Ashbery in it was too much for me to bear. For over twenty-five years he has been the brightest art star in the sky for me, a beacon on this tortured land and a buoy in this wild sea. There won’t be another Ashbery poem, and I cry for me.