Two Poems of John Ashbery
Number 70, Fall 2006
I. “The Binomial Theorem”
The opening states the problem out of Wilder and Beckett as a rebuke to tiresome critics.
Tragic, in these times of culture, to be divided
by a shortfall that is already riven in two.
Among other things, this refers to the second poem and its formulation of another problem.
And now, the ideal recipient of these thirty lines in six neat strophes of five lines each is obliquely addressed.
The abstemious think otherwise, keep to themselves
in happy rituals whose ultimate purpose
gets blotted out by new trends in passionate landscapery.
This, too, foreshadows the next, but the tendency is toward identification with the garden rather than its tillage. Mallarmé now enters directly.
Are we better for it? I ask you. Subway chiming,
ghost pilgrims flowing through revolving doors.
All change reassures the nattering classes.
They can have what they want as long as nobody
much takes an interest in it. The
dim flood restores us to our senses. What time is it?
Or was it? Would you say those figures are accurate?
Did a dream publish you as you turned in sleep
to that other accessory, who waited so long
that the life drained out of his circumstance?
And now, at last, he has come to the point, on this level, halfway through the poem, he can now address the forward impulse.
Imagine that you can have this time any way it comes
easily, that a doctor wrote you a prescription
for savage joy and they say they can fill it
if you’ll wait a moment. What springs to mind?
Do you turn and walk out of the drugstore, intent
on the bus that stops at the corner of 23rd Street
and after an eternity pulls up with a hiss
just as the red light is changing to green?
You are out of breath and silly from running.
Someone standing near the door is doing a survey
of transit users. There’s time to compose a strict
etiquette unfolding from the fan club to the sea. Hark!
It’s unattainable. All the way home we argued about whether
refunds would be made in cash or against future purchases.
Mallarmé again. The poet has been thumbing a literary magazine, evidently.
It’s the only way, you said. We’ll end up wanting these, anyway.
That is, making do or doing without.
Two great expatriates, Brecht and Nabokov, the one on his “appeal to posterity like weeping on your own grave”, the other’s visit to a museum.
The false dawn had been implicated, its circularity
seen as a rebuke to honest folks, a third largest city
of the brain.
The jokiest of all poets, it will be observed.
Others were quick to join
the fray. It wasn’t our fault that so many
Eliot’s and Dante’s “so many”.
appeared specious in the waning light of February:
I.e., dead of winter.
Who, indeed, would they appeal to?
Again, at the middle of the poem, Ashbery faces facts.
There were no precedents for its apparent soundness,
not yesterday’s dribs and drabs, the remnants
of someone else’s feast, I’d wager.
Kitsch, in short.
And what if
a lot of them come back and decide to settle down
with their parents, enraptured with home cooking
all of a sudden?
Fellini’s Intervista has a variant of this scene, a visit to Anita.
Will they make the cut?
And what’s out there for us on another
putative fine day? Oversubtlety? Our own quodlibets?
This is a genteel way of speaking, with the ruckus and verbiage all around that certifies our endeavor.