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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Harriet Zinnes reviews

Chinese Whispers, by John Ashbery

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

This piece is 570 words or about two printed pages long.

It may all be a tangle, a bit like hearing the solo clarinetist’s final notes in the contemporary British composer Brian Ferneybough’s ‘La Chute d’Icare.’ It is certainly not like reading the popular Billy Collins whose readership will never be that of Ashbery’s. It is walking in the dark with feet moving slowly over a strange terrain and always arriving, arriving at a suddenly lit-up embankment and seeing night, a ‘monotony of stars and/ other instances.’ So often there is the juxtaposition of the insignificant, the hardly- needing-to-be mentioned along with the noting of the large, even with the sublime. Yes, a ‘monotony of stars and/ other matters.’
      Many of the poems included in Chinese Whispers have been published, so that not only are many of the poems familiar but the title itself makes sense since the phrase relates to the British game where whispers are passed along to the players until the original meaning has entirely disappeared.  Many readers will think the title extremely appropriate for an Ashbery poem where incoherence seemingly is its very structure. The poem ‘A Sweet Place,’ for example, begins: ‘How happy are the girls on the cocoa tin,/ as though there could be nothing in the world but chocolate!/ As though to confirm this,/ a wall stood nearby,/ displaying gold medals from various expositions.’ Although there is rarely logic from one line to the next, there is always a sense of time that is contemporary. The language used is colloquial and the references despite their irrelevance are contemporary. What other poet will remark as if it were the most natural of references in a poem that ‘By and large conduits/ of reduced gauge carry the fiber optics better’ and then go on to write as if it followed quite naturally that
‘It was quite/ cozy in the Midwest.’
      The poet’s references may seem easily identifiable and, as I suggested, the language used chiefly familiar and conversational, yet his poetics is highly sophisticated. Is it because he seems so accessible (though of course he is not) that this is true? In this particular volume, the reason may be that suddenly the poet is aware of aging, and over and over again because as he says with his characteristic contradictions and surprises, ‘I care too much not to leave it all.’ And one must ‘get on with it, we don’t have all night.’ It is quite wonderful to read too the ordinary lament: ‘Go figure,’ And in the poem called ‘Heavenly Days,’ the poet writes: ‘Well what is the fucking point? It’s that you were here,/ earlier, and took too long to get here.’
      In this volume, the poet occasionally will use rhyme but with some complexity as in the poem ‘Real Time’ where he repeats rhyme words or rhyme itself in first and last lines in a three-line stanza. And here shows the strength of his metaphors where he turns romantic images into the mundanely strong. Characteristically his phrases always sound so inevitable, and when the poet echoes famous lines he seems always to want to turn the elegance down. He writes, for example, ‘between sleep and rubbish is the remembrance.’
      There is no doubt that there is a sense of fatigue in this volume but if age is troubling the poet, he certainly makes good poetic use of it.

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