A poem by John Tranter
Hasn’t the charisma leaked away from the café crowd, and that other
Authority, the Salon des Refusés? I have forgotten much of
That old sack of enthusiasms and snake-oil recipes, the way
You have forgotten your own childhood, since
You woke up just in time to watch the adults disappear
From the world they had bequeathed us. It seems the scenery all around
Is hilly and unfarmable. Being brilliant has been reckoned
Into a procedure by some old guy, with a motto that is
More fitness, less flab. I hanker to go back to the land.
This means ruin to the culture-watchers. But the basic
Principle of my ambition is to be one excessively distracted
Entity at the mercy of the lurid, blurred and half-perceived
Motions of the Martians at the Halloween Hop. Fake? They sure are.
Summer is called Humidor here, the month of damp draughts.
The tale of my attempt to farm stubborn soil leaked from
Untruth to legend, my unlikely phase of boy-scout honesty being
Before I came to the big city. Here behind the tiny horological waterfall
Drums amplify the fun, but only at nightfall, then just for a moment
Of horrible error as I clutch the wrong person’s hand. That was true,
Only I said it wrong. Ugh. Now watch my serpentine
Gesture as I withdraw my hand, only to replace it with a congruent
Message that attempts to excuse this tactless fact,
Tearing at the sky over Twenty-second Street, but
The sky leans nonchalantly against the coop — I mean “co-op” — about
As graceful as a cowboy leaning on a chicken co-op — I mean “coop” — who either
Has an anger management problem or is under the influence of a form of
Some anxiety that eats at him. I’m not the fly-away
Marrying kind, nor a grumpy bachelor with a broken heart whose pieces
Are seen scattered over the range. That begs for an independent
Yet symbolic judgment from the Judge now alighting from the caboose, whose arrival
Whether timely, to the tick of a caesium atom, or tardy, has to be
Seen to be believed, like
The face of a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear. As
Nostrils give away suppressed anger by flaring, so an argument
That is over leaves traces — nervous twitch, grimace. It
Is impossible to hide my feelings, I guess. Look ahead,
That effervescent persona and its emotional lurches and rocketings
Affected so much, and its magnum opus that was called
By another name is now the old school-teacher’s chief creed and belief,
Or something very like it, gleaming in the rain. Hold up that light.
Has it shone on the tenebrous backyards yet? Or yet admitted that
It is unable to illuminate the wasteland of wet barbecues, so much
Of its fuel has flared and lit up the landscape … this project, I admit that
It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment. Now, are
The reply and the echo done with? I asked a redundant question, and
That answer suffocated it, as a firmly pressed pillow
Has choked a banker, but no one knows whodunnit. That whole thing
Of returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes until
The last blueprint is found and seems just right: perhaps this is
Peace — a crowded peace — under the hot sun.
That we are afraid of it — inhabiting a reputation, the whole thing
About establishing who you genuinely were — are — I’ll admit. There
You hope your opus will be taken for legerdemain, but your effort sinks
Deeper into the mulch of history, while I adjust the mask that
Just fits more loosely every decade, and then I add up the little
That memory leaves me, a kind of pittance, the totality
Mustered and gathered … a look of boredom in a young person’s eyes,
And all those hopes and struggles are quite lost.
Accents and dialects distort them, once again.
To have escaped from a tangle of difficulties, from
Nothing but obstructions, into a glowing absence
And then to take a deep breath and plunge into
Those crowded riverine cities, greedy for contact with ghosts that are
Precisely what we want them to be, our plans furthered,
Seeing alphabet soup spell out the aleatory message and the time,
Casting caution to the winds and the weather — sorry, welter
Of neighbors, barking dogs, traffic cops in a dreadful confusion.
And permit me … no, commit me, please, while the cops are standing
Around chewing the fat, and pray that these
Moments miss you like a whistling arrow. Thunk! The old tapir tapered
Into the bar: a Scotsman, an Italian, and a capybara — I’ve heard it. But
Wasn’t the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?
The fact that he “inhabited’ the smelly bear-skin … I feel that
Neither brave feats nor stories about them can cut it.
Did not a Dandy Dinmont yap? I deliberately stayed
This way, spiritually a hunchback, drooling and gaping at the stars
That promised ashes and diamonds and nourishing food all the way,
As though clambering inside an animal was simply the reverse
Of some method of becoming notorious. My cheating heart is known
Once its modus operandi is — among the cognoscenti — firmly established.
The look of a man is the man, Buffon said, and style a condition
Of those whose reputation is a handbag and whose blindness
Was being talked about even in Paris: a troubling myopia, so
That their left and right perceptual fields, red and green, slowly separated,
Only to hitch up again, like inspiration and perspiration. Go on, shout
And be heard. Is this anaglyph what I really want? My declamatory
Nature was made to seem just a yokel act. I must admit it is
Not without a certain eau-de-cologne charm, insinuated the farmer. And yet
An invisible dread prevents me making love to you among the previsions,
Then the post-visions that afflict me arrive, fits of
The assurance Baron Corvo had an excess of, a crowing assurance
Which tainted his career, under the blasts of air conditioning,
Whatever. There on the bank statement
At the beginning of the Age of Façadism was a catalogue of waste.
A dumb waiter brought me the tablets and a note about the projected
After-effects: they may amplify the symptoms instead of curing them,
Though Frederick Rolfe was never cured. This
Emptiness will do fine. Just pop it in a doggy bag, thanks. Did you say “previsions”?
Was that a mispronunciation? “Provisions,” maybe, held
Too close to the chest, a fake poker hand of fate. The fireworks, they
Ended with a fizzing Roman candle sound that frightened the guest who was
Intended to rescue Gertie McDowell from that dirty old man. It’s
Gesture that fills out the role, as water makes the weather.
It was stupid of me to harp on the sadness
Of that animal’s demise: I should forget about the feeling
Which resembles taxidermy at midnight on an empty highway.
A telescope brings us a soothing view of distant mountains
And all the mountain people. Who knows where they’re going?
Moving from crag to cave to avoid the night
There, which is really ghastly when it comes on.
Beside the darkness, each farmer carries his own personal
Landscape around inside his head, a “landscape” being
What surrounds your idea of yourself, it’s so
Honorably framed, but presented in a Potemkin-village spirit.
There was a vast electrical disturbance just outside the walls.
Each time it’s different, down through the centuries
For the sake of cultural improvements they repeat a dream that
Continually gives out a soft fluorescent glow, it was
Like standing on the prow of a moving ferry in the morning
With the spray bursting all around
And a feeling of nausea mixed with ecstasy washing over me. In a way
The whole experience was fake, except for the scale.
Really, what do Eskimos think of giants?
Not too much, I reckon. They say they like them.
A moment later they’re saying how needlessly big they are. But
Also they are likely to flatter them. A cloud of dust
Or whirling fragments resembling a mistral rises up ahead,
But no one understands it: the old verbal torrent
In new guise, transformed into a sheaf of falling leaves, which
Are gathered up, bound, and stuffed into a briefcase,
And it’s time for coffee and a Strega at Il Miglior Fabbro. When
Acts of killing fill nightmares and movies, only the calm
Of this bibulous routine can bring surcease. Then the shreds
Of another adventure assemble: a tour of the old college premises
Undertaken to the tune of the jig “From Rochester he came hence,
A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth.” Here, see this,
Like a pistol on a silver platter, it’s all yours
And it was mine once. Take it, go on. I kept it because
It had been handed down, and I had hoped it might be my insurance
Against the waves of devoted fans inefficiently
Seeking to take over the social scene and then the whole world.
The round platter, alas, has always been covered with dust,
So small it can hardly hold the pearl-handled revolver reclining on it.
Thereafter it should be passed on to other worthies, noted by
The comfort of strangers they fail to offer you, or me, even.
Like the wily coyote, I’m no sleep-abed; I tried all
The most difficult forms, even threnodies ending with the words
“After all” or “Never mind!” And in my fine eye-rolling frenzy I almost
Exaggerated my métier into an obligation. This,
It seemed, was the way to build the future. But it was
Not likely to allow me to escape the whirligig of voracious time.
After all, tempus fugit however we might chase it. Indeed,
All kinds of regret sprinkled my breakfast as the slant angle of
The day lit up the diner and the light began to increase
So that I was dazzled, then I heard a loud thump, dull, heavy,
Like a polar bear falling over, and the hunter saying something
Not quite obscene, but close enough. Criminy! The way
Things fade away, le temps perdu seems to be the point
Of this rodomontade. Does a traditional verse form simply provide
A protected place for the poet to plead the case for his vital
Concern for la vie littéraire, or is it a carapace, a palace?
And you can meditate there all summer long.
It was a little insight I had, one of the world’s smallest.
Distant requests annoy me. The Poetry Club may be ultra-sensitive
But its supine and self-serving acquiescence
To the demands of those creeps … okay, that’s in the past
And it belongs there and I promised not to whine. But oh, how
The past haunts me, its vapid fashions, the rigmaroles … they wish
But also harangue, that’s why I resent them, the ones I talk with.
And in this way my paean to non-discovery
In brittle yet oracular verse persuades us, but nevertheless
The map you provided was helpful in leading us beyond
Madness to something better: squatting in Circe’s mansion. Only
You desire us to fail — just there, perhaps, where your verbal acts
Are sentinels warning us of the slow-moving, quiet
Invasion of middle America by pod people over many years.
Be quiet — hush! — they are nearby, whispering the poem itself
In a parody of oratory. I’ll explain more plainly: the map
Of the literary world is a pantomime, and its longueurs have become
Prolongations of our prevarications on bad weather days, and also
Fine days where things seem okay but are not, those dull events
We shall banish from the Ideal Republic. Who called? No, I am
Not speaking to that shit: he just wants to be
Opposite me at the literary lunch. He got some fame recently, only
To be thrust into obscurity soon, I hope. It seems broader,
The sum total, a canal reflecting its own anagram, but will it ever
Become legible? Hidden behind a screen of rocks
And foliage, the creep quickly inhales the distant
Ether and faints, thank goodness, and what I own
I see before me shining like a dagger. Meanwhile
I am only me, a faithful shadow of my real self, and
Private doubts evaporate between the Spring and the Fall
And even this is seasonal, and I thank you
For being so patient, you could have made some other
Voluntary or involuntary gesture like sneezing to prove your
Maturity or you could have hung and dangled from the branches
Of a tree to attract my attention a step or two away from them.
It intensifies my desire to know you, a gesture like that, to
Form an opinion of your feints, apparitions and mode of locomotion.
In this way I control the crowded avenue to the Palace of Fame, the one
Leading to a rowboat mounted in a park where I perch and think to
Myself and then jot it down, being careful to leave a blank space
That is the secret indication of Mallarmé’s abyss, a.k.a. “The Unknown.”
Eating ragwort is morally better than gobbling a quail tagine; the difference
Can never be explained to the obtuse. At this distance
It seemed impossible to reach the reader, Valéry murmured, then said the phrase
“Over and over” to himself, again and again. Meanwhile
Infant mortality was declining as aspirin consumption increased. There was
To be a meeting about aspirin and other drugs later that evening,
He was told. He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake
On the tepid waters of café society. Go to the meeting, don’t go, whatever.
“Whose centre wobbles must fail,” the Latin motto says, and having
The progression of the equinox too much in mind brings rain
As they form a phalanx of epigones, those who come after.
Why don’t they just get used to that? They can’t be equal
Without coming before, and that’s impossible. The cup of
Contentment will never touch their lips. Ministering
To stunted talents is my fate; each day I tread that lonesome trail alone
And return at nightfall bereft and grinding my teeth at
What they dish out: similes as appliqué aperçus. They
Might as well hand in embroidery. The Force, puissant yet invisible,
Still surrounds us. Yet there is also a Dark Force
Between the cruel mandates of history and them.
It is because the greatness of art is like a snobbish relative
That we shall never agree on a strategy, and
Entertainment washes over us, leaving us ethically incomplete.
Former East German border guards know too well that that
Closes off an awful lot of options. The Moment
Of Death is dallying on Ninth Avenue, as yet uncertain of
Its intentions. I’ll just leaf through the paper until
You wake up. I’m not planning to go anywhere. You know, it
Wasn’t a small thing, to turn your back on Europe. The walls
Are turning into their own murals. Please don’t speak
Of time within the hearing of that tiny hydraulic clock you
Invented, it can be self-centered and jealous, and has now
Grown furious. Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel
Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly, saying that this
Existence is temporary, that you may lodge and idle here
Only so long as you don’t irritate the gods. Someone’s
Purpose niggles at you. Then the sunbeams flood in at acute
Angles and frighten the other diners. I thought, then,
Of having whatever I wanted, but it seemed that a distant
Image of you chided me. My admiration is a test
Of how you might accept it: gracefully, or boorishly, or not.
You hesitate, don’t you? I hate that. Please accept this
Wooden gesture, and you’re right, the over-decorated representation
Returns whence it came, though it was easily said, and simply meant,
With nothing ulterior about it: a simple entendre. I’d like to alight
With you from the caboose on a hot dry day in a wonderful town. You
Must help the Judge measure the exact length of the shadow of
Your well-wrought urn in the center of the square — it is still intact;
Appreciation gives it the shine and the shadow — but just now somebody
Is phoning to arrange for drinks — will you join me? — later this evening.
“The Anaglyph” initially resulted from a commission from the Toronto magazine The Modern Review to write an essay of any type on John Ashbery’s 1967 long poem “Clepsydra.” In response Tranter took the first word or two and also the last word or two of each line from John Ashbery’s poem, and wrote material of my own to fill each line out.
A clepsydra is a water-driven clock, invented in Ancient Greece. An anaglyph is a drawn or photographic image, usually printed in red and bluish-green ink, that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image; that is, an image consisting of two superimposed and differently-colored views of the same scene.
This piece is about fourteen printed pages long. It was first published in The Modern Review 2, no. 4 (June 2007), and was read by Vincent Broqua at the international conference “Ashbery in Paris,” 11–13 March 2010 at the Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Charles V, 10 rue Charles V, 75004 Paris.
See also End Notes and General Notes below.
John Ashbery’s apartment building (photo by John Tranter).
1. lines 23–25: the sky over Twenty-second Street, but / The sky leans nonchalantly against the coop ― I mean “co-op” ― about / As graceful as a cowboy leaning on a chicken co-op ― I mean “coop”] John Ashbery’s apartment is in a building that bears a large sign advertising “COOPS”, or cooperatively owned apartments. The vertical alignment of the word “coops” does not allow for hyphens. See the note to “Ninth Avenue” below.
2. Line 91: The assurance Baron Corvo had an excess of, a crowing assurance] The eccentric writer Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913) adopted the pseudonym “Baron Corvo” (along with several others). The Corvidae are a family of birds including crows, ravens and jays; corvine: crow-like.
3. Line 114: presented in a Potemkin-Village spirit] Potemkin-Village, a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition. 1935–40; after Prince Potëmkin. “Catherine’s [the Great’s] tour of the south in 1787 was a triumph for Potëmkin, for he disguised all the weak points of his administration ― hence the apocryphal tale of his erecting artificial villages to be seen by the empress in passing” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe edition 2004 CD ROM).
4. Line 115: a vast electrical disturbance] The phrase comes from an early line of John Ashbery’s: “My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance” (Some Trees, Corinth, 20) and is used again in “Electrical Disturbance: A dramatic interlude.”
5. 131: coffee and a Strega] Strega (Italian: witch ) is a liqueur. In Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died”:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday […]
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue […]
6. Line 131: Il Miglior Fabbro] Not in fact a New York café, bar or restaurant, though perhaps it should be. This phrase was T. S. Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land to Pound: “the better maker” or “the finer craftsman,” which is what Dante calls Arnaut Danièl, an Occitan troubadour of the twelfth century and the inventor of the difficult sestina poem form, a favorite of Ashbery’s.
7. Line 143: the pearl-handled revolver] A radio play device: a common name for any clumsy explanatory dialogue. In an archetypal radio play, to identify the villain to the radio audience, who are “blind,” and where the type of gun the villain is holding is vital in identifying the real murderer, typical dialogue ran thus: “Carruthers, you swine, put down that pearl-handled revolver!”]
8. Line 151: Not likely to allow me to escape the whirligig of voracious time.] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, act 5, scene 1:
Clown: … And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
9. Line 186: a canal reflecting its own anagram] Psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a theory of the “mirror stage” of ego development. Reflections and mirrors are of course symbolic of the central process this poem enacts. Canal is an anagram of Lacan, whose name appears in another mirror later in the thesis.
10. Line 197: a step or two away from them] Frank O’Hara again. His 1956 poem “A Step Away From Them” contains the lines:
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. […] First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them? […]
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
11. Line 200: Leading to a rowboat mounted in a park] From John Forbes, “Monkey’s Pride”:
I’ll be employed on a rowing boat
mounted in a park,
the one the avenues lead to
because society has elected me / to decorate
its falling apart with a useless panache […]
12. Line 208: Infant mortality was declining as aspirin consumption increased.] Though the two trends are not directly related, each is a product of scientific advances occurring over the same period:
In 1897, scientists at the drug and dye firm Bayer began investigating acetylsalicylic acid as a less-irritating replacement for standard common salicylate medicines. By 1899, Bayer had dubbed this drug “Aspirin” and was selling it around the world. Aspirin’s popularity grew over the first half of the twentieth century, spurred by its effectiveness in the wake of Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and aspirin’s profitability led to fierce competition and the proliferation of aspirin brands and products. (Wikipedia)
Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a precipitous decline in infant mortality was observed in the United States. Economic growth, improved nutrition, new sanitary measures, and advances in knowledge about infant care all contributed to this decline in infant mortality. (Kwang-SunLee, “Infant Mortality Decline in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: The Role of Market Milk,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 50, no. 4 [Autumn 2007]: 585–602)
13. Line 229: Ninth Avenue] John Ashbery’s New York apartment abuts Ninth Avenue. See the note to “Twenty-second Street,” above.
14. Line 232: to turn your back on Europe] As a young man, John Ashbery lived in Europe for a decade from 1955 to 1965 ― indeed, one of his poems is titled “Europe,” though it is mainly about the eponymous Paris metro stop and its neighborhood ― then returned to live in the United States. “Clepsydra” was “one of the last poems Ashbery wrote while he was in France. The poem was composed in the Spring of 1965 …” (Shoptaw, 83). The unusual number of French phrases and names in “The Anaglyph” also suggest this French connection: Salon des Refusés, Buffon, Paris, eau-de-cologne, la vie littéraire, longeurs, Mallarmé’s abyss, Valéry, appliqué aperçus, puissant, les temps perdu, simple entendre.
15. Line 251: Your well wrought urn] Ashbery’s oeuvre; the reference is to both the noted critical study of poems by Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Eliot, The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, and to John Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which ends: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Tranter and poet David Brooks introduced John Ashbery’s reading at the University of Sydney in September 1992. (The reading was held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday 16 September 1992 in Room N395, Woolley Building, University of Sydney.) One of the poems Ashbery read was the double sestina from his book Flow Chart. In his preamble to the poem Ashbery revealed that his double sestina uses the end-words of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s double sestina “The Complaint of Lisa” (1870). Sestinas are of course based on a string of repeated and rearranged end-words, not on rhyme or on any particular metrical shape. Extend the idea to other kinds of poems, borrowing the last word or two of each line, and you have the process or form that Tranter has called “terminals.”
He has written many poems in this mode, taking end-words from Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden, Barbara Guest, John Keats, Frank O’Hara, Banjo Paterson and others. The US poet, editor and critic Brian Henry has studied and summarized this technique of Tranter’s in a paper published in Antipodes magazine in 2004; his paper is reprinted on the Internet here. Henry mentions and quotes from the Ashbery sestina. He looks at ten of Tranter’s poems and discusses each different kind and example of borrowing in detail.
Brian Henry says, inter alia:
With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created a new form similar to the sestina but far more flexible in its emphasis on end-words: the terminal. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length, and the number of terminals possible in the English language is limited only by the number of poems in the English language. The form has infinite potential. Unrestricted to 39 lines as in the sestina, not limited to 14 or 19 rhyming lines as with the sonnet and the villanelle, not expected to repeat itself like the pantoum and the villanelle, and not tethered to any rhyme scheme or syllable count like the ballad, terza rima, heroic couplet, alexandrine, sapphics, or ottava rima, the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility. […]
… the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise. Because Tranter overwrites ― and in the process simultaneously effaces and preserves ― his source poem while retaining the anchoring points of the source poem, his terminals are both conservative and destructive. (Henry 32)
A year or two ago (circa 2006) the magazine The Modern Review, based in Toronto, Canada, sent Tranter a request: “We are attempting to assemble a group of critically interested writers/readers to respond to John Ashbery’s poem ‘Clepsydra,’ by means of a critical essay, poem, personal response, etc. The author is in complete control of response type, content, and length.” (“The Anaglyph” was first published in The Modern Review 2, no. 4, [June 2007].)
Ashbery’s “Clepsydra” is a complicated piece of writing. Its title seems to have little connection with the poem: a clepsydra is an ancient device for measuring time by the regulated flow of water or mercury through a small aperture. [1640–50; < L < Gk klepsýdra, equiv. to kleps- (klep-, s. of kléptein to steal, conceal + -s- formative in derivation) + hydra, deriv. of hýdr water Random House Unabridged Electronic Dictionary]). The poem is also long: 253 lines long, to be precise: nearly nine pages. It was first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains.
Other critics have dealt with “Clepsydra” by tracing various influences in it. Annette Gilson, for example, uncovers evidence of the influence of Emily Dickinson:
In one of her most frequently cited circumference poems, “The Poets light but Lamps ―” (Poems 883), Dickinson describes the influence that poets have on later readers as a kind of “vital Light” that ensures that the poets’ “Circumference” will be preserved. Both of Ashbery’s references to circumference reflect this Dickinsonian luminance, explicitly linking an image of light to a spatial circumference figure (2). In this way “Clepsydra” registers the dimension of Dickinsonian circumference that suggests that the “vital Light” of a prior poet continues to exist, even after she is dead, by lighting the “Lamps” of later poets. (1998)
Tranter’s “response” to the poem was quite different. With Mr. Ashbery’s permission he set out to dismantle and rebuild it.
He took the last word of two of each line from “Clepsydra,” as with his earlier experiments with “terminals,” and also the first word or two from each line. Thus each line of Tranter’s reworked poem had its beginning and ending given to him; his task was to replace the meat in the sandwich, as it were.
So “The Anaglyph” is a reinvented, perhaps flawed, or perhaps improved, version of that master poem, which is here reduced to the status of ancestor, model, maquette, or template.
“The Anaglyph” is partly about its own process ― that is, the deconstructing and reconstructing of a poem. It is also about Tranter’s relationship as a developing poet with John Ashbery and with Ashbery’s poetry.
The word “blazon” gives us a clue to one of the poem’s effects (“Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel / Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly … ” lines 236–7). In the essay on John Ashbery in his remarkable study of forty-one US poets, Alone With America, Richard Howard points out that Ashbery often buries a small “blazon” in his poems, and quotes André Gide:
I like discovering in a work of art … transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work … Thus in certain paintings … a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs … the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the centre of the first, en abyme. (19–20)
That is, inside the poem is a reduced diagram of the poem itself, “a tiny mirror for the plot, or maybe narrative,” as Tranter writes, referring to just this device, in his poem “The Alphabet Murders,” written over thirty years ago. The buried presence of Ashbery’s poem ― that is, the line-beginnings and line-endings from it ― haunts “The Anaglyph’ as a kind of fragmented and half-buried blazon.
The title of the poem itself, “The Anaglyph,” is embodied in some of the poem’s “business,” for example in the line “their left and right perceptual fields, red and green” (84). This hints at the anaglyph’s dependence on binocular vision. An anaglyph is an image usually drawn or printed in red and bluish-green ink that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image. As such, an anaglyph is a binary image consisting of two superimposed and differently-colored views of the same scene, each perceived from a slightly different viewpoint.
“The Anaglyph” is similar to Ashbery’s original poem “Clepsydra,” having the same number of lines and the same line beginnings and line endings, yet it has been written by a different author at a different time in a different society, colored differently and seen from a slightly different point of view, and one which has one more layer of knowledge than the original. When Ashbery began work on “Clepsydra” in the 1960s, nothing like it had existed before. When “The Anaglyph” was begun, its progenitor had been modifying the ideal order of the literary landscape, to use Eliot’s phrase, for three decades. “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.” (Eliot, Tradition, 47–48) “The Anaglyph” depends on the earlier poem, and perceives the world partly through and from that poem’s viewpoint.
On the first page Ashbery’s poem is displaced, codified and rationalised. The title of Ashbery’s poem, “Clepsydra,” refers to an ancient Greek water-clock, which appears disguised twice in “The Anaglyph”:
Here behind the tiny horological waterfall
Drums amplify the fun, but only at nightfall, then just for a moment
Of horrible error as I clutch the wrong person’s hand. (17–19)
Later in the poem, “that tiny hydraulic clock” (234).
The mention of Proust’s great novel (“The way / Things fade away, les temps perdu seems to be the point / Of this rodomontade” 157–9) reminds us that the scents and flavors of his remembered life soaked into Proust’s writing. Over many years these changed from private, evanescent memories into private handwriting fixed on paper, then to corrected proofs, the text of which was reified into public print, and eventually entirely replaced Proust’s own actual life, as this poem seeks to replace its progenitor.
Favorite themes of Ashbery’s are also glancingly referred to: old schoolteachers, for example (“the old school-teacher’s chief act of belief” 39) and his use of ornate words harvested from the dictionary: “Those crowded riverine cities” (63) reminds us of Ashbery’s title “Those Lacustrine Cities” ― that is, cities built beside or on a lake. The phrase “ashes and diamonds and nourishing food” (77) obliquely refers to the title of the 1958 Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Ashbery had the nickname “Ashes” bestowed on him in that decade by his poet friends Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. In the movie, a poem by the nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid is quoted:
So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.
— Wikipedia: Ashes and Diamonds (film)
Ashbery himself, as the maimed father-figure, makes a brief appearance to protest what has happened to his poem: “From Rochester he came hence, / A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth” (135–6). Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York State, in 1927.
A fake anaglyph from a photo of John Ashbery and James Schuyler in Rochester, NY, circa 1967.
Speaking of father-figures, the distancing yet ligaturing effect “The Anaglyph” seeks to enact between Tranter the translator and Ashbery the originator is addressed by Lacan:
Rather, the subject would now find himself alienated in a symbolic system which he shares with others. That system structures the human unconscious, and communication with the other can now be enacted through the shifting positions of signifiers in a system of symbolic exchange. The self is still an appropriated self, but what is appropriated is language as the other, and not an ideal but alienated image of an individual self. (In the resolution of the Oedipus complex, this would involve moving from a specular rivalry with the father, in which the child seeks to take the father’s place, to an assumption of the function of the father and, most fundamentally, of the symbolic father who, as Law, is that which makes possible all symbolic operations.) (Bersani, summarising Lacan, 115–16)
One final function of the poetic father is to license the son to take his place. It is worth noting that Tranter has stated that he asked Ashbery’s permission before embarking on this disfigurative exercise:
After wrestling with [“Clepsydra”] for a while, I felt that it needed demolishing and rebuilding, and ― with Mr. Ashbery’s permission ― that is what I did. (Feints 29)
Perhaps to empower Ashbery as the lawgiver, other elder poets are downgraded. The most common thematic reference in “The Anaglyph” is a series of references to bear hunting, the first of which is “a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear” (33). Poet Galway Kinnell was born in the same year as John Ashbery, and also lives in New York City. Daniel Schenker says
In one of his [Kinnell’s] best known poems, “The Bear,” an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter’s bait. When the hunter comes upon the bear’s carcass he eats voraciously of the animal’s flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it’s like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of new-born cubs.
Kinnell’s poem contains an explicit comparison between bear-killing and poem-making, where his Eskimo hunter ponders thus: “… the rest of my days I spend / wandering: wondering / what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?” A hard question to answer, for an aboriginal American, from inside the corpse of a dead bear.
This seems light-years away from Ashbery’s modus operandi, and in “The Anaglyph” the business with the dead bear is perhaps a “feint,” an example of what poetry is not, except in a willed personal myth drenched in contemporary bourgeois American nostalgie de la tundra.
In “The Anaglyph” there are eight further references to Mr Kinnell’s ill-fated bear: “inhabiting a reputation” (51), “the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?” (72), “the fact that he “inhabited” the smelly bear-skin …” (73), “clambering inside an animal” (78), “that animal’s demise” (105), “taxidermy at midnight” (106), “a polar bear falling over, and the hunter” (156), and a final dismissive if syntactically ambiguous aperçu: “He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake / On the tepid waters of café society” (210–11).
Other images deal with Ashbery’s poetry as an influence and refer more sensibly to the process of rewriting as redesign or rebuilding: “this project, I admit that / It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment.” (43–44) “returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes” (48), and “blueprint is found and seems just right” (49).
Not that “The Anaglyph” is loaded with a freight of too-serious literary endeavor: that would betray Ashbery as much as Tranter, and of course seriousness in itself has no literary value, nor has its cousin, sincerity. As Harold Bloom reminds us, Oscar Wilde remarked that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” See: Oscar Wilde: Gilbert, in The Critic as Artist, pt. 2, published in Intentions (1891). Though Bloom, too lazy or too confident to check his sources, expresses the concept as “Oscar Wilde sublimely remarked that ‘all bad poetry is sincere’” (Bloom, xix).
There are lighter moments, and many of them.
For example: “the fireworks, they / Ended with a fizzing Roman candle sound that frightened the guest who was / Intended to rescue Gertie McDowell from that dirty old man” (100–102). In 1918 the US Postal Authorities burned copies of the Little Review carrying the instalment of James Joyce’s Ulysses in which young Gertie McDowell exposes her drawers to the gaze of masturbating Leopold Bloom in the dusk while roman candles fizz and explode in the sky. Joyce’s passage parodies the style of women’s magazine stories of the time:
And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft! (Joyce, 477)
Exclaiming over roman candles must be a universal phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, in On The Road, published in 1957, and seemingly unaware of Ulysses, writes:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” (Kerouac, 8)
Edited by Pam Brown