Review of Quick Question by John Ashbery
New York: Ecco, 2012. 128 pp. $24.99, cloth
If you are searching for an entrée to Ashbery's oeuvre, stop. Quick Question probably isn't it. Better to sashay over to the back catalogue. Pick up the enormous Collected Poems or peruse one of the two "greatest hits" compilations (Selected Poems and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems). Alternatively, you could begin with a more accessible book like Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and soak your brain in the loose iambic rhythms of the long title poem. Likewise, you could start at Ashbery's fourth full collection, The Double Dream of Spring, to figure out why those half-nods to Romanticism bound in indecision and paradox still make some of our nation's most esteemed critics weak in the proverbial knees. Or, if you're arriving from an avant-garde perspective, then turn, please, to Ashbery's early collage masterpiece, The Tennis Court Oath, or his ribald jaunt through the cultural unconscious, Houseboat Days.
If, instead, you've already fallen through the rabbit hole once or twice, Quick Question will make abundantly clear that Ashbery—in his eighth decade—remains a vital, hilarious, and, of course, difficult poet. Early in the book, when Ashbery offers us answers (of a sort) in the poem "The Short Answer," he provides this tiny nugget: "Why make things more difficult / than they already are? Because if it's boring / in a different way, that'll be interesting too." This call and response could be applied to the entirety of his oeuvre. In such light, the question becomes how well interest is piqued. With this book, the answer is one of hesitating gusto, a lukewarm bath on a freezing day. The poems suffuse your brain, but still manage to escape easy summary, luring you back into their abundantly casual rhythms and lyric sleight of hand again and again (and again). But is it as good as Planisphere? Or Where Shall I Wander? Well, no. But that bar is pretty high . . . .
This latest venture into Ashbery's mystery-inducing poetic mind delivers precisely what one might expect: a rush of confusion comingling with ephemeral fragments of clarity that dissipate, oddly, with a stanza break or the end of a poem. That which delights Ashbery fans and infuriates detractors continues unabated. Pronouns are less than stable (though their dancing may have slowed), the speakers are difficult to characterize as more than floating voices, and shards of discourse borrowed from popular culture or overheard conversation sidle up beside allusive, "literary," and almost archaic turns of phrase—all with the effect of disorienting, or perhaps, disillusioning. Quick Question, then, continues Ashbery's long-held task as both a recorder and transformer of a global, American culture.
For example, the poem "Iphigenia in Sodus," begins with "Why does that name sound so familiar? / If I were you I shouldn't worry, or ask." While the title offers an allusion to ancient Greek literature, situated in upstate New York, the first couplet undermines the allusion (or perhaps the setting). In the second couplet, however, that dismissal is challenged though the poem still seems to veer from the heroine and locale introduced in the title. By the time a suitable "she" appears in the fourth couplet, that "she" seems an appositive to a "truth" that is "envisioned" as "wrapped in jade strips, more or less flyblown // somewhat sloppy about the mouth these days." Thus, if we continue to read this "she" as "truth," the poem offers a comic vision of truth, subject—like all of us—to the ravages of time. The poem continues:
Excuse me, I had issues,
but then the doors sagged, the window frames
had disappeared a long time ago into the murk
The simple description here is, again, suggestive of decay, a theme which recurs throughout the book. As the poem turns with the semi-polite interruption, "excuse me," the possibility of reading this poem as a contemporary update of a Euripides play with the setting relocated to Ashbery's childhood home of Sodus re-emerges, and we may read both possibilities as the poem moves toward the consultation of "the oracle" that is linked with "elections [that] needed shortening." Yet, rather than leaving us with Euripides, Ashbery enacts the paradoxical peace and violence at the core of those two Greek plays as "all this // streamed away into cozier times, in ways kind to me, / before chopping them down." The last line, half the established length of the rest of the poem's lines, is a brutal finality, making clear that even at his most allusive, most transgressive, and most, well, silly, Ashbery remains an oracular poet whose vision is increasingly attuned to his version of "truth"—or more precisely, its possibility.
As with the intimated self-sacrifice of Iphigenia, which may occur after the poem, there are flickers throughout, stronger than in most Ashbery books, of religiosity. Although the collection shifts through myriad tones, the strongest resonances are those of suffering and sacrifice as in "Iphigenia at Sodus." In fact, the short lyric mode (only one poem stretches to three pages) throughout lends itself to such subjects, or at least to the projection of such subjects onto these tiny meaning-making machines. Moreover, there are multiple poems throughout the manuscript (e.g., "Rest Area," "Recent History," "A Voice from the Fireplace," "Feel Free," "The Return of Frank James," "The Future of the Dance," "[Untitled]," etc.) that elicit the so-called "Great Recession." Although it's difficult to argue that any of these poems are "about" economics, per se, all pilfer from our collective conversations on the economic state of the nation, the world, and many borrow freely from the ceaseless bromides of news or the glorification of outlaws in film's darkened dreamscape. Quick Question, then, is not exactly about the recession, but as with Ashbery's previous book, Planisphere, this volume makes arguments that Ashbery is an apolitical poet or one whose politics emerge, as Ashbery once said of Frank O'Hara's poems, by "ignoring [the establishment's] right to exist" much more difficult to sustain. A handful of poems (more if we read creatively) serve as a kind of collective witness in a way that surprisingly few poets have attempted since the lingering recession began. In particular, "This Economy," a 17-line free verse poem divided into two stanzas, suggests the ease with which we ignore, forget, or misunderstand the ever-changing structures of our economy as well as the consequences of those structures and their change. The poem begins with a speaker, contextualized as both "pedestrian" and "serving juice to guests" realizing that he or she never thought "to imagine how a radish feels. / She merely arrived." That peculiar epiphany then elicits in the speaker a "sour empathy with all that went before" and sparks the "elaboration" couched in the Whitmanesque repetition of "Somewhere in America" that organizes the poem's final half. When those "elaboration[s]" arrive, they are abstractions of individual behavior. Taken alone, each instant is either a laugh line or an oversimplification. Indeed, the list begins with the slightly salacious, slightly absurd "Somewhere in America there is a naked person," suggesting the sort of realizations that once made adolescence so very grand. Yet, the final stanza, builds on that structure to juxtapose those imaginings to devastating effect:
Somewhere in America adoring legions blush
in the sunset, crimson madder, and madder still.
Somewhere in America someone is trying to figure out
how to pay for this, bouncing a ball
off a wooden strut. Somewhere
in America the lonely enchanted eye each other
on a bus. It goes down Woodrow Wilson Avenue.
Somewhere in America it says you must die, you know too much.
Here, I'll pause merely to note the effect of the refrain in such a tiny poem and to posit that the lonely image of that ball being bounced "off a wooden strut" resonates when juxtaposed with the aesthetics of a sunset, the first rush of attraction, or the intrusion of other voices—perhaps America itself—into that which is almost pastoral. Therein, I suppose, is the "magic" of Ashbery: tiny shards of understanding grow "crimson" and "madder" in relation to that which surrounds them, that which surrounds us. Yet, in these poems, there is something missing that you can find—in spades—in his other work. While other subjects like music, love, the dreamscape of thought, suburban landscapes, etcetera, are treated throughout, what Ashbery does not offer here is the explosive and celebratory idea that the future, many futures, remain to be written. Perhaps, such a lack is appropriate for a poet of Ashbery's age, and perhaps it's asking too much, but just once, or maybe twice, I'd like to delight in the possibilities of the radish, of Iphigenia, of someone figuring out how to pay for this.
But should you read it? Of course. Despite what may seem here as overly programmatic, intellectual, or earnest, the book contains scores of delightful poems. Likewise, you'll find some of Ashbery's best work tucked between those that may make you shrug and think "it's not as good as..." Poems like "The Bicameral Eyeball" and "Auburn-Tinted Fences." And that is why I splurged some graduate student wages on the cloth-cover edition the second I saw it.
Les Kay is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati. He earned an MFA from the University of Miami, where he was a James Michener fellow. His poetry has appeared in Tar River Poetry, Eclipse, PANK, Jabberwock Review, South Dakota Review, la fovea, Blue Earth Review, Redactions, Cellpoems, and elsewhere.