“Is Art Lighthearted?” asks Adorno in an essay entitled such. Ashbery fans, who have received his twentieth volume of poetry, Your Name Here, might produce a knowing smile. Long known as a master of the comic, Ashbery succeeded where Stevens failed: convincing multitudes that he could be a serious poet without receiving the damnations the likes of Kenner cast on Stevens. The age when “Auschwitz was possible and remains possible” as we have seen in Bosnia, in Rwanda, demanded him. For Adorno, it is “part of [art’s] very definition” to be lighthearted, to negate the seriousness which the world has cursed the subject which, and which art gives us in its freedom. It is part of its “demeanor.” Perhaps this is where Ashbery’s “greatness” most lies: he moves fast, as Olson prescribed, and palliates with an art which functions as a meta-art, commenting on art’s freedom; his “demeanor” is what art is in its very opposition to society; further, there is already truth-content in the attitude of his art to Adorno, as “truth” for him was the negation of society, progress towards a better world.
Ashbery has not lost his comic “demeanor” in Your Name Here, a book adding to his canon of lyrics since Flow-Chart. “Merrily We Live” begins
Sometimes the drums would actually let us play
between beats, and that was nice. Before closing time.
By then the clown’s anus
would get all chewed up by the donkey
that hated having a tail pinned on it,
which was perhaps understandable. The three-legged midgets
ran around, they enjoyed hearing us play so much,
and the saxophone had something to say
about all this, but only to itself.
One more example of Ashbery’s elusive comic demeanor will suffice – it is present in nearly every poem. From “The Underwriters:”
Sir Joshua Lipton drank this tea
and liked it well enough to start selling it
to a few buddies, from the deck of his yacht.
It spread around the world, became a global
kind of thing. Today everybody knows its story [...]
Ashbery seems the perpetual jester.
To Perloff in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, championing Ashbery after Bloom had raised his status in the 1970’s, Ashbery really “seemed” nothing. Here was the elusive Ashbery, who escaped meaning like Houdini walking out an open doorway. He was an artist of “obscurity.”
The quotes are not from Perloff but rather from Adorno. For in Adorno, lightheartedness is one part of a dialectic in art, the other being seriousness. For Adorno, while art’s “demeanor” in general (and in Ashbery in practice itself) was comic, content is a matter of seriousness. “A withering away of the alternative between lightheartedness and seriousness...is becoming evident in contemporary art,” Adorno recognized, recognized the relationship between the two “is subject to a historical dynamic.” “The only art now possible, is neither lighthearted nor serious... is cloaked in obscurity.” One begins to see why “the age demanded” an Ashbery.
Yes, the obscure, lighthearted Ashbery is also a serious one. The first poem of this collection is “This Room:”
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
The pace slows down for that famous Ashberyian climax of the final humanizing line, in this case both a note of erotic pathos and an address to the absent reader. Consider the beginning : the room is a dream of itself. We are alerted to Ashbery’s quasi surrealist influences in Roussel and Reverdy. The room, because it is dream, becomes the place for poetry, “the scene of writing” in Derrida’s phrase, from which Ashbery can address his reader, from which “something shimmers” yet is “hushed,” a description of Ashbery’s voice.
In fact, spaces function as the scenes in which writing occurs in this collection. “I’d like to push a raft down the beach/ wade into the water waist-deep, and get on it” writes Ashbery in “Rain on the Soup,” a trope for writing. “Dream Sequence (Untitled),” the dream again signaling the poem, contains the lines, “It wasn’t the hole in the landscape/ that gladdened us, it was the invitation to the weather/ to drop in anytime,” to poetry in the dream to enter. “Place” is mentioned in connection with art in “Caravaggio and his Followers,” where lines such as
[...] The song of the shrubbery
can’t drown out the mystery of what we are made of,
of how we go along, first interested by one thing and then another
until we come to a wide avenue [...]
occur. “The song” is a trope for art occurring in space. In “Frogs and Gospels,” we are told, “He carried me from the room in which people are sitting/ They always think they know better, even as they confess/ their ignorance blindly[...]”: the room is place for confessional. In a heartache “a frantic lagoon/drags the truth from the bathroom, where it has been hiding.” The demeanor is still comic. The seriousness of writing as occurring in space is consistent. “Now we’ll have some/electricity in this place” Ashbery writes in “Redeemed Area,” an “area” redeemed by the “electricity” of art. In “De Senectute”“There is true worth strapped away” in “the chapel’s round window:” poetry in place. “[...] take me anywhere from any place” demands Ashbery in “Beverly of Graustark”, suggesting his aleatory method. “Cinema Verite” notes films occur “in [a] roomful of people.” “Something more three-dimensional must be breathed/ into action” Ashbery writes in “Nobody is Going Anywhere”: poetry is not mere activity, but a dimensionalizedactivity. In “Slumberer” — one is reminded of surrealism and the indication of writing again — “We live in the old soup of the tragic-comic,” in that dialectic of seriousness and lightheartedness is the dimensionality.
And what sorts of spaces are these but utopias? First one must register Ashbery’s anti-Idealism, his antipathy toward the idea becoming metonymical litotes for such.
We should all be so lucky as to get hit by the meteor
of an idea once in our lives. It would save us a lot of hand-wringing
and bells tolling in the undersea cathedral,
a noise to drive one mad, past the brink of human decency.
Please don’t tell me it all adds up in the end.
I’m sick of that one.
Ashbery evades straight-out discourse, is “sick” of it, when he does turn to it, he parodies it. This stands in for an anti-Idealism whose alternative is a radical materialism: in the spaces from which writing centers Ashbery offers a new vision of the world, one in which reification, the (over)determination of the object by social and economic forces, is overcome and natural value restored. Reification, Said noted, happens in the absence of time, and to the spatial dimension of Ashbery’s world is added the temporal dimension, so that one is offered a world beyond that of the commodity.
This could not happen without Ashbery’s consciousness of history as time, antidote to the mythicness of reification. Many of his poems seem to be memories – was not Mnemosyne the mother of the muses? Further, he is always temporally conscious. “Several hours must have passed while I stood there,” writes a waiting persona in “A Linnet.” There is consciousness of time of year, of “Winter,” in “Implicit Fog,” of “April or May,” in “Industrial Collage,” of “December,” in “Invasive Procedures,” of “autumn” in “Toy Symphony,” of “spring” in “De Senectute.” “Today’s busy horizon” is not independent of history in “Dream Sequence (Untitled).” Consciousness of the future has its place: “The time for standing to one side is near now, very near,” concludes “Caravaggio and His Followers,” and the “Day after tomorrow” appears in “Who Knows What Constitutes a Life.” “Redeemed Area” introduces a time of day: “7 A.M,” as does “The Old House in the Country:” “7:19.” Ashbery is aware that “I could have told you that some time ago,” that poetry itself is historisized outside its own historisization. Such temporal consciousness is the true coup de grace of history as time and the space of poetry.
Ashbery’s poetry, as emanating from space, further dimensionalized by history time, then lifts from the world the spell of reification, through Ashbery’s radical imagery, wherein the utopian character of Ashbery’s place of poetry becomes revealed. Not quite surrealist, but surreally influenced, Ashbery subverts the commodity by dialectically taking on the commodity form and twisting it, or add nature itself: at times one feels like one is in a wildlife preserve. Images include “The oval portrait/ of a dog” in “This Room,” a Benjaminesque collectible which encompasses both the brolagesque and animalistic object. “The clown’s anus [...] chewed up by the donkey” of “Merrily We Live” similarly encompasses the brolagesque and the natural.
“In Beethoven Street I handed you a Melon,” Ashbery writes in “Invasive Procedures:” the natural and the brolagesque, the ultimate escape from the commodity are fused. “The lemon in hot pursuit” surfaces in “Full Tilt.” “Who is there to count the endless waterfowl, water ouzels/ beavers with otters on their backs?” asks Ashbery in “The File on Thelma Jordan:” lighthearted Ashbery speaks on, but there is a full seriousness in a construction of utopia of noncommodified objects at work in the poetry. “I must go see how the lemmings are doing,” interjects the persona in “Two For the Road.” “The Point is his concern [...] for the loaf/ of bread that turns in the night sky over Stockholm” in “The Gods of Fairness:” Ashbery is continuously handling brolage through the natural. Even his non-natural objects escape reification: “my tricycle...or the light switch” of “Here We Go Looby.” There are combinations: something is “faxed by a squid one day last March” in “And Again, March is Almost Here.” Ashbery establishes space as the trope for poetry, temporalizes it so as to banish reification and offer a utopia of nature.
To borrow a scenario from Adorno’s essay on Beckett, Ashbery the poet would hardly make the “star political witness” say Baraka might. His testimony might include, “Oh yes, Jean and I were startled by the ducks in the mansion the other night.” Yet, included in his utopian spatialiazation of poetry is a humanzing erotic pathos. Shoptaw has written of Ashbery’s “homotextuality,” of the tendency of his poems to address homosexual erotic others. Jacques Debrot has recently suggested that such homotextuality has increased in Ashbery’s late work. This progression is certainly in evidence in Your Name Here, and, as the subject is determined by society, this should be of no surprise, considering the growing momentum of the gay liberation movement.
Such an increased homotextuality has allowed for some of the most moving erotic poetry of Ashbery’s career. If Proust’s Albertine was all to female, the beloved of “Has To Be Somewhere” is clearly male. “Guys (the one with dicks)” are those “with whom you spent the night in silken sheets” in “Railroaded:” Ashbery is more homotextually overt then has ever been. Hence results such as the moving “Why do I tell you these things?/ You are not even here” that begins the collection. Indeed many of his climaxes are erotic in tone, such as “Now it’s your turn to say something about the wall/ in the garden. It can be anything” in terminal. These can be heartbreakingly beautiful. “Please come back. I liked you so much./ Thistles, dandelions, what do we care?” concludes “Weekend.” Ashbery even repeats a line in two poems: “Oh, I love you so much in such a little time:” how much an “Oh” can do. The book, allegory of art’s nature, utopian vision, ends with the line, “Light a candle in my wreath, I’ll be yours forever and will kiss you.”
Of Michael Palmer one can state much, but one cannot state that he lacks a conscience. Moreover, his politics meet his poetics tangentially. “In the case of Vietnam what is reference?” he mused during the war, during his formative years as a language poet, like many of his peers questioning referentiality, learning his lesson from government obfuscation of reality in Vietnam. Of a more recent war, The Gulf War, he has written
we never say the word desert
nor does the sand pass through the fingers
of this hand we forget
Critique – the “hand” refers to the media celebrated war machine -- walks hand in hand with theoretical interests: silence, the problem of the sign.
As is evident in his latest book, Promises of Glass,Palmer has not lost his indignation. Consider “I Do Not:”
I do not know English.
I do not know English, and therefore I can have nothing to
say about this latest war, flowering through a night-
scape in the evening sky
I do not know English and therefore, when hungry, can do no
more than point repeatedly to my mouth. (97)
Palmer critiques the hegemonizing effect of globalization celebrated by Neoliberalism, whereby linguistic standardization dehumanizes and excludes. The issue is one of speech, which he does through art for the disenfranchised, whom he endows with humanity:
and I cannot report that this rose has twenty-four petals,
one slightly cancred.
cannot tell how I dismantled it myself at this desk.
cannot ask the name of this rose. (98)
The frustration of the disenfranchised is a part of the world Palmer wants to transcend in Promises.The first of the book’s seven sections, “The White Notebook” begins with a memorial for the dead: “that many will have gone, unnoticed, under” (9). Godard notes in JLG/JLGthat the thinking mind resembles writing in a blank notebook, and it is important to note here both the level of artifice and the organicism in filling the notebook: “A language of rhythm and breath,” says Palmer, before he reveals “I met her there at the crossroads” (10). The erotic other is introduced into the world of the dead: dialectics are being established, between death and eros, nature and culture.
And poetry? “I was born on the street know as Glass” (13) writes Palmer in his “Autobiography 3,” part of a series of poems, a form he learned from his teacher, Duncan. Glass becomes a trope for poetry, and its source, at once. In the same poem, “an irregular heart” advises Palmer to “attend to each detail of the future-past.” (14) “We buried/the future of the past” (29) writes Palmer in “Autobiography 9,” suggesting human waste of opportunity, yet of some potential to be released. The future past emerges in the books title poem, the seventeenth autobiography, with the lines
as she recites
will be will have been
as she recites
the new book the new life (42)
there will be will have been
the book made of book
and how it speaks –
reeds, moist earth, myosotis
the promises of leaves
and the promises of glass (42)
Here the function of poetry, or its source, is revealed, paralleled to the promises of nature, it promises a harmony with nature, an understanding of nature and culture, a vision articulated by The Frankfurt School. Poetry is forward looking, progressive: writes Palmer:
we do not say we partly sing
back to the whir
and the whistling of things (70)
The “whir/And the whistling of things.” One asks what Palmer makes of the world as is. There is erotic fulfillment -- “We shared one shadow./In the heat she tasted of salt” – as well as disillusionment with eros as limit:
but if you want her, just take her
in exchange for yourself.
why else The Body Exchange
sinaloa at South Paradise
in the shadow of the glistening thighs
and breasts of the Pussycat Triple X
where all biographies come to an end? (90)
Sexuality seems corrupted by free-market mentality, its fulfillment frustrated by social pathology in “Coil,” doubtless as allusion to the way of “this mortal coil.”
Borrowing the phrase “In the Dark” from Duncan, Palmer writes “34.I describe this as if it were before me it is before me in the dark...38.By in the dark I mean: before the war meaning in the dark...39. Our onetime world is in the dark.” (79) in “In an X.” Stendhal defined beauty as the promise of happiness and it seems as if Palmer has taken his title from this statement. Glass, like language, derives from nature (the human being an animal), yet has an artificiality. It is the transparency of vision which must precede a poetry which is necessarily opaque, artifice: “You can step into this river twice/unlike the river of life.” Palmer consistently insists on the artificiality derived from the natural, understanding the role of culture and its source, to which it must harken back like a prodigal son even as it flees it.
The ultimate fallacy for Palmer is philosophy. If writing for Palmer is “a force of resistance and critique,” as he has said, the philosopher has betrayed it, and Palmer devotes an entire section to a lost philosopher. For Palmer, “The poet’s stutter and the philosopher’s” (9) are both equivalent and diametrically opposed. The poet is the true thinker, the philosopher, the poet to be, if she or he grasps language, which in fact is realized in the book when Palmer gives the philosopher speech. The dichotomy is a false one, philosophy being a perversion of language in denial of its relationship to nature mistaking itself for nature.
Palmer’s language leaps as a tour-de-force between modes to realize his vision of poetry as a promise of the “will have been” that tense that is the ultimate of hope. He understands fully Williams’s insistence that the poem is a machine: many of the poems here are numbered, or refer to themselves as in self-contained systems. Palmer goes so far as to mention a fictive book of his, “My Life as a Futurist,” (101) aligning himself with those who most celebrated the mechanical in art.Such a stance indicates Palmer’s understanding of artifice paralleling nature, that language is a second nature, not a first nature, sand fused into glass.
Two deployments worth mentioning, and to which Palmer has adhered throughout his career are the absurd and the visionary. Tan Lin has written of Palmer, “The poems appear to make perfect sense. Thus they make no sense.” But perhaps the opposites is true: Palmer can make no sense, writing, say, “Are you bearing an alphabet/among the rats in your hold” and make sense by endowing us with language, with a “counter-logic of poetry” that is “a critique of sense” he has said, the sense of an imperfect world which poetry is both part of, reaching toward an asymptote of transcendence in the idea of beauty as Benjaminian revelation. This critique of sense culminates in a proactive visionary stance:
from your window you cold see
a stone suspended in air
and on it an ancient city (34)
The politics of vision confirm Palmer’s utopian gesture: to construct the impossible points to a political realignment of the possibility of the future, of Palmer’s dead that surround him in “The White Notebook,” the dead, alive in history, “ ‘earth that moves beneath earth’” the past to be vindicated in the future, where human relations are unimpeded by alienation, without the random “shut up” to “you in the third row” (90” of “Coil.” To mention the earlier Godard of Masculin Feminin, “Labor revives the Dead.” As Lin has said writing on Palmer, “The only perfect natural world is the one made by language.” Who else is the speaker of “I Do Not” but a victim of the naturalization of culture, vindicated by a poetic language that recognizes its artifice: the poem is an exhibit of the possibilities of poetry. Palmer brings to his work a construction of artifice for nature and culture understanding both its artificiality and its second naturality. As we read the Promises of Glass, we wonder whether they are being fulfilled before our senses, or articulated, or whether the two are the same.