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Can You Hear, Bird.

John Ashbery's published oeuvre is prodigious, and it just keeps growing - Can You Hear, Bird is already his seventeenth book of poems. What will an Ashbery "Collected Poems" finally look like (never mind a "Complete Poems")? The reader who has not been keeping up all along - keeping pace, really - will eventually have a formidable, perhaps even overwhelming task: there will be a huge table of poems to confront, to sort out and make sense of, something more easily done, in the case of Ashbery's poetry, at leisure, with time to savor and to react, if not to recuperate and rest one's eyes. At that eventual banquet of poems, some sort of intellectual sorbet might come in handy to clear and refresh the senses.

The present volume alone contains 103 poems. For reasons not readily apparent, they are arranged in alphabetical order by title. Perhaps this is just some tomfoolery, some alphabetise (to play on one of the French words Ashbery loves to use); or perhaps it is someone's idea of saving space by having only one list of contents, an index, and putting that at the front of the book. Whatever the reason, symmetry is not the game: the table of contents is markedly weighted toward the second half of the alphabet because it includes the articles which begin titles, and there are sixteen of these beginning with "The" and only four beginning with "A"!

The poems in Can You Hear, Bird range across all manner of forms and styles, moods and voices. Some are more engaging than others (almost all Ashbery poems, even those which "do" nothing for us or leave us disoriented, are engaging.) The shortest ("Coming Down from New York") is but five lines long, the longest ("Tuesday Evening") twenty pages. The latter poem is a minor masterpiece, and it alone will make the volume memorable. A rhymed anthology of allusions and images, high to low, near to far, gathering themselves, as through elective affinity, into wishes and memories, this is a poem to read on the porch at the cottage on a long summer day. It will bring its own stately music, and its own grace: "Slowly unravelling, the chaconne / sizes us up: right pew, / wrong church. O if ever the devil comes to claim his due, let it be after / the touching ceremony, yet before the revel / becomes frenzied, and ambitions turn to laughter. / Resist friends, that last day's dying. / The melodious mode obtains. Always / remember that. At trying / moments, practice the art of paraphrase."

One of Ashbery's strong suits has always been his gift for finding apt yet unexpected analogies, and it is fully on display here, as in the poem "Love in Boots": "But it is getting late, / and I have to get up and chop wood tomorrow. Oh, if you're looking / for a timetable, it's there, in that train, that's now / two feet away, now one, but will never obstruct / or demolish us. Thank heaven for Zeno's paradox!" Lines such as these leave us thinking, as well as feeling. And that takes more time than this substantial addition to the Ashbery shelf allows. It may be time for the poet and his publisher to come to our aid with a volume of selected poems, lest we lose in a blur of pages just those lines whose wry and gracious mastery makes them most worth keeping and rereading, again and again.

John Boening University of Toledo
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Boening, John
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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