Reading Reports

John Ashbery

[This event took place on Thursday, May 14, 2009.]

On a warm wet evening, John Ashbery once again embraced his poetic roots and generously read in the sanctuary of St. Marks as part of a triathlon of events held to raise some very much-needed cash for the Poetry Project. (Reader, are you a member? If not, stop reading and immediately click “Become a Member Now.”)

After thanking Charles North for “the super introduction every word of which is true,” Mr. Ashbery read first from A Worldly Country, before sharing yet more of the apparently ceaseless flow of new work, which is about to be bottled again, this time into a volume called Planosphere.

Of Planosphere more later, but of The Worldly Country as presented on Thursday we heard primarily from that side of Ashbery that produces works that read most like “poems.”  The title piece, which Ashbery said “rhymes sort of, except for one line that I was very surprised to find doesn’t” seemed to be a re-working of Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” filled as it is with clocks and squares and china closets.  In this version, however, “Time” has become “time,” and the “drift of appalling snow” has been transliterated to a “great ungluing.”  As a real live “poem,” it searches, of course, for its “ending,” and as an Ashbery poem, it does so with a sort of anti-ponderous ponderousness: “And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea/we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.”

He then read “Hungry Again,” in which God makes an appearance once more, something that kept happening during the evening.  This was followed by the funny, tender “Phantoum,” one line of which — “The purple emu laid another egg” — was inspired by a book of mistranslations from the French (“le peuple ému répondi” having been hilariously waylaid from its original meaning of “the aroused people responded”).  In this seemingly autobiographical poem containing squawking auks and dissolving albatrosses, grape children try to “cope in a mushroom world,” until one “excused himself. Europe was calling.”

“It’s really very American in spite of the whole time spent in Paris thing,” Eileen Myles said to me after the reading.  “Very Americana even,” I said, thinking not only of the poem “Antiques Roadshow,” which began with the line “There is a tremendous interest in dog-related items” (or was this just a comment?), but also of the overall “delightfully-demented-America” quality of the Ashberean language universe.  “Very iPhone,” Eileen added.

This comment still has me pondering as I try to resurrect the rest of the evening in my mind.  As Ashbery read extensively from Planosphere in that characteristic manner that I’ve always thought of as an equalizing “evenness,” one poem began to merge with the next and the titles took on the quality of charming, but unnecessary pauses.  After a while the sensation was of floating in a vast ocean of language flotsam and cultural debris jetsam, with, on this particular occasion, a splash of God, or maybe it’s the God-esque, added now and then.  In the end, the experience (mistranslated through my own erratic and fragmenting listening capabilities) might be rendered something as follows:

Almighty droop
like unto
not having access to air conditioning

so peaceful on my palate
journey, trains, 1861
analgesics & potagers
rabbits in their plankton dispensary

Poetry dissolves in moisture and reads us to ourselves
love me anyway, he said
Spring being a mindless business where strangers come home to breathe

I dreamt of married couples having sex
a rut made by the first wheel
wandering through centuries

“always it was available to itself”

They were living in America ___________
[select one: deliriously, fictitiously, pandemically,
as tissue paper to a comb]

woe betide us

obnoxious smell
rubber cement growing tacky


One was encouraged into intimacy
the day we took our gum out

deft music
mustard Coke

A man comes to the end of a drive

What about the cheese?

Standing ovation.

Thank you John Ashbery, pomposity-smasher, lyric lie detector, great impish dignitary.  Live long and prosper!

-Evelyn Reilly