Running into capitalism: John Ashbery's 'Girls on the Run'
If we push the uncritical romantic views of the outsider artist aside, it’s difficult not to read Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal as embodying the dynamics of an abuse narrative. His epic uses multiple mediums: newspaper clippings, stenciled drawings, watercolor paintings, and narrative fiction to depict a child slave rebellion against their Glandelinian overlords. The heroines of Darger’s allegory of Christian martyrdom are the Vivian girls, rendered by the author in a range of disturbing, one-dimensional fashions: the girls are shown, by turns, adventuring through idyllic, Edwardian landscapes, and falling prey to the grotesqueries of absolute violence, hanged in a field or strangled. Notable is that Darger often draws male genitalia on the little girls, a fact overlooked by many as mere curiosity. John Ashbery encountered Darger’s work in the 1990s and this encounter inspired the corresponding long poem, Girls on the Run. In Darger’s simplistic world, the girls are unquestionably moral and good and the author gives them no room to deviate from their characterization, which feels particularly misogynistic. Joan Retallack states, “the Vivian girls are nothing if not good sports as they accomplish their missions with earnest athleticism,” but how would we know? Their role in the social is fixed in Darger’s newsreel-like obsession; their purpose is to fight their masters as well as to suffer violence at their master’s hands, at their author’s whim, devoid of authentic feeling or interiority.
I chose to write about Girls on the Run because, for one, there appears to be a lack of polemical scholarship on the book and when I asked a few literature scholars about it, they seemed to agree that the book is particularly difficult. What I would like to argue in this talk is that Ashbery’s book is about the affective, textual, emotional, and psychological frames of childhood. Feelings of instability, indeterminacy, and flux, which are often linked to John Ashbery’s poetic oeuvre, are heightened within this framework because childhood is a time of growth and development, where the mind itself is neither fixed nor certain. I would like to further claim that Ashbery’s unique use of texts associated with childhood provides templates for his characters to learn how to feel and react, to play games, and test out ideas against such uncertainty. Lastly, though Ashbery is not often regarded as a directly political poet, this book helps us to understand a textual system of thought in its more nascent, chaotic state, one that points to a larger field of social and political terror solidified outside of the text.
Normative emotional codes, the etymology of feeling, are constructed in the child’s early encounters with not only family (and other more obvious forms of the social) but also in texts. For Ashbery, the importance of comic strips, cartoons, and children’s books is well-documented. In a 1980 interview, reprinted recently in the Bennington Review, Ashbery comments, “cartoon characters appear in quite a lot of my poems and, of course, my first literary experience was comic strips. In a way, it may have been my strongest one.” What’s surprising about Girls on the Run is that emotional states are elicited through what we would normally think of as the constraining structures of mass culture, the clichéd language of feeling lifted straight from comic books. However, in Ashbery this language to some degree liberates the characters to explore, freely associate, and develop in their world.
The children in Girls on the Run are often fleeing from an amorphous threat, one that parallels the ominous feeling of danger in Darger’s text; yet in Ashbery, instead of one-dimensional explicit violence, we are trapped in diffuse structural violence, entangled in the ghostly echoes of what we have all, as a collective, heard before, for this language has been imprinted deep in the past, buried in the texts of the unconscious: “What if someone called back to you / from a distance? What would you sound like? What would you think? Does anyone care any more about it’s being night?” Lauren Berlant reads Ashbery’s work as “haunted that its knowledge is a repetition of something it can’t quite remember.” The uncanny no doubt applies to Girls on the Run: “Why beat about the bush? One of us knows the truth, and she isn’t telling.” Through these textual mirrors, literal and remembered, from the vantage point of children as well as from the perspective of the grown poet looking back on childhood, Ashbery creates his emotional and affective matrix, at once whimsical, frightening, and “heightened with a sense of / mysterious confusion.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Judy said.
They’re getting closer, I can’t stand it.
“I am no longer your serf,
and if I was, I wouldn’t do your bidding. That is enough, sir.”
“Now that’s funny, he was here just a moment ago.
I thought I saw him going up and out.”
“And if they don’t want to play
according to our rules, what then? “Why then,
we’ll come up with something …”
“Shuffle, you miser!”
“Hold it, I have an idea,” Fred groaned. “Now some of you, five at least, must go over in that little shack. I’ll follow with the tidal waves, and we will see what happens next.”
At the core of this array of quotations, its various voices and registers, lies the interplay of rule-making and rule-breaking, pointing to the social order through the use of our culture’s recycled language of feeling. The ominous threat here as well as elsewhere in Girls on the Run is the internalization of ideology itself. It cannot be escaped.
Unlike the Darger figure, who acts like an overlord to the girls he creates, Ashbery is much more hands off, willing to let his characters behave and react in a dizzying variety of ways. His characters are neither symbolic nor allegorical pawns in an epic narrative; there’s a certain way in which Ashbery’s indeterminacy and casualness work to free Darger’s Vivian girls from the rigid logic of their previous overdetermined state. Thus, the book moves in the direction of a more feminist critique of domination. Free to feel and free to dream, the girls are allowed to sleep “amid the rocks”:
It was agreed for that day they would separate into two groups,
the lovers and the learners side by side with the vexed and disinherited.
If only his plan had worked better —
but we must learn to read, “and that ain’t easy,” Trevor summarized.
Oh for a pen, for a blotter,
for a more regulated environment. Tired, the girls lay down to sleep
amid the rocks.
It was just play, they dreamed,
tomorrow will be another day, and different.
Like poetry (but not all poetry) politics is a form of counterfactual thinking — an imagining of the world different to what it is. So too is child’s play, as Winnicott and so many others have noted. Both are forms of empowerment in situations where one ordinarily feels disempowered, “vexed and disinherited.” The irony that courses through these lines is that the children long for a “more regulated environment,” even desire a pen and blotter. The school house is an ideological state apparatus, but they’re not at school. They don’t know what to do with their freedom. Sound familiar? With a sly sense of humor, Ashbery’s character Trevor yearns for the kind of environment that stifles play, that reigns it in, but at the same time leads to quiet rebellion, dreams and daydreams, archetypal girls lying down to sleep amid the rocks. Play is not merely fun, but burdensome and tiring, because it is brought into tension with the pressure not to play, school being the place where “all the thought got combed out.”
How does child’s play point to the greater social order of the text? For one, children use counterfactual thinking when they play, creating worlds of make believe in order to discover different possibilities and then test those theories against their environment. Ashbery shows us that this process is full of danger, doom ringing with “half realized fantasies.” Chris Nealon interprets play in Ashbery as surplus against a backdrop of catastrophe. For adults, play is often solitary, but for children, play must be read somewhat differently because it is not just simply a way to pass the time — it’s how the social order is formed. It is formed against a climate that is “military,” where Ashbery’s anxious characters turn to something larger than themselves to quell that anxiety, in this case, the sun:
We aren’t easily intimidated.
And yet we are always frightened,
frightened that this will come to pass
and we all unable to do anything about it, in case it ever does.
So we appeal to you, sun, on this broad day.
You were ever a helpmate in times of great churning, and fatigue.
You make us forget how serious we are
and we dance in the lightning of your rhythm like demented souls
on a hospital spree. If only,
when the horse crawls up your back, you had known to make more
But the climate is military, and yet one can’t see too far ahead.
The children who long for a “more regulated environment” now turn to the sun for a potential source of order. But this structural option dissolves quickly because the “climate is military” and “one can’t see too far ahead.” Thus, the characters are cut off as if by smoke on a battlefield.
Play takes on a much more ominous tone in the following passage which at once deals with the difficulty of growing up and therefore inching closer to the militarized environment, perhaps the inevitably of becoming a part of it:
When it was all over, a sheep emerged from inside the house.
A cheer went up, for it was recognized that these are lousy times
to be living in, yet we do live in them:
We are the case.
and seven times seven ages later it would still be the truth in appearances,
Festive, eternal, misconstrued. Does anyone still want to play?
The children cheer the surreal moment of the sheep that emerge “from inside the house,” but they also recognize that “these are lousy times to be living in,” which reiterates the sense that the larger social order outside of the text is one created through militancy and terror. I interpret this passage as alluding to the American military-industrial complex. In a moment of reflexive understanding, the children see themselves as they are: they “are the case” and they will be the case “seven times seven ages later” when they become adults. Their social order and the social order outside childhood appear to collapse at this moment in the recognition of what they will become, part of the larger social order, the adult world, “the times” which are “festive, eternal,” and “misconstrued.” Centering the complexity of play, growth, and development, not to mention the social order, is the provocative question: “Does anyone still want to play?” One can imagine a child saying this to his or her friends after all the kids want to stop playing and everyone is tired. The line can also be read as a child who tries to get his or her friends to begin to play. Finally, it can be read as Ashbery himself, with an adult understanding of the difficulty and challenges of play, after knowing what he knows about the militant world asking does “anyone still want to play?” which suggests the weariness and disheartening nature of growing into and becoming part of the “misconstrued” matrix of the larger social body.
The presence of the political in Ashbery is not negligible, and those who would say so are not reading his work very carefully. These are indeed lousy times to be living in:
We so enjoyed having salt to sprinkle on the meat,
until it seemed none of us could be a worker or a welfare recipient.
cashing in on the laughs in the alley,
Melinda strums a thighbone guitar, the rest are off in the distance.
Daytime drowsiness, dizziness, headache, nausea, stomach upset,
vomiting, diarrhea, lightheadedness, muscle
aches, and dry mouth may occur
so long as we are in unreasoning variation to one another,
which might be repaired by dawn’s unsealing the tips
of tall buildings, so they sway to and fro,
in time with the maker’s rhythm. He had a plan
but it was too late to use it.
In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. For the first time since the 1930s, the poor would be cut off from public assistance if they did not find work, effectively transferring wealth from the public sector to the corporate. This wealth transfer was fueled by a politics of racism and sexism. It’s unsurprising that in this world of narrowing options, being a worker is just as impossible as being a welfare recipient. This has to be read within the greater political context of neoliberalism in the 1990s. Enjoyment is relegated to a dash of salt. Jammed into the passage appears to be a list of side effects from medication. These are the side effects of living in a capitalist system where people are replaceable. If the “tall buildings” are taken to be the fortresses of American capital, walling ordinary Americans out from prosperity, then it makes sense that “unsealing the tips” could be a possible avenue of liberation. These symbols of capitalist wealth, naturalized with their environment, “sway to and fro, / in time with the maker’s rhythm” as if the buildings are continuous with nature and god.
16. Christopher Nealon, “John Ashbery’s Optional Apocalypse,” The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 73–106. See also Roger Gilbert’s essay “Ludic Eloquence,” which highlights the presence of “local moments of intense affect” in Girls on the Run, and marks a “shifting calibration between modes” of saying and playing throughout Ashbery’s later works.