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Larry Sawyer reviews

The Vermont Notebook
by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard

Granary Books/ Z Press, ISBN 1-887123-59-8

This review is 1,000 words
or about 3 printed pages long

The Perils of Just Aimlessly Sitting

Although parts of this book were originally published in Kenward Elmslie’s ZZ Magazine and first published in book form by Black Sparrow Press, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to find this collaboration waiting in the mailbox in a fine new volume published by Granary Books. Joe Brainard passed from this life May 25, 1994, but he will be remembered always for his writing and visual art, infused as it is with a refreshing almost naïve wisdom, which is a contradiction in terms made possible by Brainard’s deft touch. John Ashbery’s name is familiar to art aficionados as a poet, critic, essayist and wizard, having won too many literary awards to count.

This mélange of Ashbery’s writing and Brainard’s drawings makes total sense, not simply because of their reputations as members of the first and second generation of New York School poets respectively, but because the common ground found here as Ashbery responds to Brainard’s art is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.

Ashbery has a real knack for creating extraordinary situations out of the commonplace. Every reader of contemporary poetry knows this, although some have said he goes too far when jumping the fence of meaning. That Ashbery’s statements are more prosaic (on the surface) in this book is what makes the marriage of the images and text here so darn likable. Brainard’s ink drawings are clever in their simplicity and yet multi-variate in their ordinariness too. He seems to revel in celebrating the stuff that accumulates around our lives. It is positively comforting viewing his art, and it is just this detail that makes his art Pop.

Brainard’s subtle contribution to this book consists of contributing the verso side of every spread with drawings that seem very commonplace indeed. Images include well-rendered depictions of country roads, a nude torso, balls, jacks, playing cards, a men’s room door, a coffee pot, a dandelion and so forth.

Ashbery’s having a good time here too. For Ashbery to look at a pen-and-ink drawing of a shirt by Joe Brainard and write

“His sideburns. Problem about them. He liked them. They made him feel good. But nobody else did.”
(p. 49)

delights this reader and I’ll tell you why. This indeed is a match made in cartoon heaven. For Ashbery to insert a line like

“Little nuts, big nuts”
(p. 49)

and then plunge right back into the “narrative” without explaining anything about these little and big nuts is maddening in a very entertaining way. I’m glad Ashbery and Brainard neglected whatever it was they were supposed to be doing so they could compose this book. It’s a “page turner” and you can’t help but smile when confronted with

“Think spring. We do. Slow down.”
(p. 57)

This collaboration turns inward and meditates on uncertainties although Brainard’s art is representational and Ashbery’s wry wit is borderline silly. Ashbery deftly turns corners, however, precisely when the silliness could have become somewhat too daft and his pronouncements possess a maddening inverse logic that genuinely charms. I say the content turns inward because inanimate objects are alive to Ashbery and he regularly anthropomorphizes the pants off his subjects. Brainard’s art seems to ground Ashbery’s writing somewhat, but ultimately the viewer is transformed by the interplay betwixt the two.

The book begins with an extreme landscape view and the writing and art proceed to focus-in on the particulars. First we get the months, then lists of different categories of things like clubs, cities, newspaper publishers, types of card games, housing developments and so forth. Next, confronted by lists of Ashbery’s and Brainard’s friends we are situated, finally, in a psychological space that allows the fireworks of the following pages to somehow seem just right in their illogicality.

Thus, we see that crossing the mind of these two (or more precisely Ashbery) are ...

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Eugene MacCarthy, Louis Untermeyer, Theodore Holmes, Joel Oppenheimer, Gilbert Sorrentino, Aram Saroyan, Scott Burton, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Rod McKuen, Bruce Gilmour, Carolyn Kizer, Russell Edson, Hugh Seidman, Charles Simic, Bill Zavatsky...”
(p. 23)

Then we have what I reckon might possibly be one of the few statements Ashbery has made in his poetry that might be considered overtly political, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the tone of the book in general.

America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large “chain” stores with their big friendly ads and so-called “discount” prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and the public declarations of concern for the poor and elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.
(p. 59)

It’s impossible, however, to really decipher whether the aforementioned is merely a response to Brainard’s art on the facing page (a pen-and-ink drawing of a washer and dryer), an offhand and somewhat obvious journal entry (as the title of the book would have the reader assume), or a genuine swipe at the powers that be. It’s possible too, of course, that this particular selection is an amalgam of all three.

One of the more endearing qualities of this collaboration, the literary and artistic details of the lives of Ashbery and Brainard aside, is the fact that it is so open-ended. Its fragmentation and spontaneity provide a real refreshing glimpse into Americana that pleases on an intellectual, as well as kitschy level. This is glamorous, yet homespun, postcard fun from two important artists who don’t mind having a good time while doing it. Ashbery’s insouciance and Brainard’s Americana translate into an experience that is as fresh and clear as a Saturday by the lake.

Larry Sawyer is the editor of
Recent work has appeared in Van Gogh’s Ear, Versal, Exquisite Corpse, Skanky Possum, and elswhere.

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