Disseminating "circumference": the diachronic presence of Dickinson in John Ashbery's "Clepsydra.".
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. (168)
As many critics have noted, Emerson is an important influence on Ashbery, but Emerson is not the only source for the poetic term circumference. Emily Dickinson too is indebted to the American essayist who was her contemporary, but she took the term and made it her own, and it is around her "Circumference" that Ashbery considers drawing a circle.(1)
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. The earlier poet's "Circumference" thus exists simultaneously with that of a later poet (who is also giving forth light, though Dickinson herself is not concerned with the nature of the later poet's poetic production). This simultaneity is central to "Clepsydra," which explores the relationship of the individual to his or her past, while at the same time, through its references to Dickinson, thematizes its relationship to its own poetic past. The Clepsydran exploration of diachrony bears a striking resemblance to the theories of influence that John Hollander develops in The Figure of Echo. I will touch on Hollander's theories because they can provide a working vocabulary for this essay's investigation of "Clepsydra"'s diachronic relationship to Emily Dickinson.
Hollander differentiates between outright allusion and echo in order to describe a mode of reference that is less overt or intentional than the direct invocation of a prior text by a later one. He explains that a poetic figure can be said to echo a prior figure when the author is not conscious of the reference, or when the specific textual context has been lost to the reading audience. In the case of echoic references, the later poem's meaning is not dependent on interpretive inclusion of the prior poem. What is especially interesting about this theory is Hollander's emphasis that, whether echoic or direct, the allusion is by nature diachronic, and even self-referentially so. He explains that the "allusive echo, leading from poem to poem, [is] itself a trope of the later text" (113), and this is true for Ashbery's poem as well.(3)
That the echo trope resounds throughout "Clepsydra" is not surprising, given the poem's interest in personal and poetic histories. But "Clepsydra" is uneasy about its debt to Dickinson and the problem that remembering the past generates for it, an uneasiness that more nearly suggests Harold Bloom's aggressive theories of influence and belatedness than Hollander's theories of simultaneity.(4) However, Hollander does provide a useful model for understanding the later text's awareness of itself in relation to the earlier one by describing this awareness
as a trope of the fallen and unfallen conditions. Major English and American poetry after Milton would continue to play on the relation between a "present," contemporary meaning of a word, and an alluded-to, earlier, "original" one - a dialectic of the prior as opposed to the phenomenologically primary. (113)
For Ashbery this is a living issue. He asserts: "I see myself in this totality" - alluding here to the poetic past as well as the private history of the individual - "and meanwhile / I am only a transparent diagram, of manners and / Private words with the certainty of being about to fall" ("Clepsydra" lines 190-93).
The fall Ashbery fears is the danger that in calling up the work of the past writer, "Clepsydra" will become derivative or lose its poetic cohesion; as a result the references to Dickinson continuously vacillate between being direct allusion and haunting echoes, though for reasons different from those Hollander gives. This difference leads us back to Bloom: "Clepsydra" can be read as a sustained meditation on the threats posed to what he terms, in The Anxiety of Influence, the latecomer.(5) But Ashbery is not misreading Dickinson so as to go beyond her. Her poetry is necessary to "Clepsydra," providing as it does one of the later poem's central tropes, even though it also threatens Ashbery's own circumference each time his poem returns to it. This explains the obliquity of some of "Clepsydra"'s references to Dickinson: the poem's invocation of a referentially indirect or "unstated circumference" (40) articulates the danger that the poetic past represents for its poetic present. In other words, "Clepsydra"'s echoic allusions are the manifestation of its ambivalence toward the prior writer. Both Hollander's and Bloom's theories help to outline the complex relationship "Clepsydra" is marking out between itself and Emily Dickinson.
The need for an indirect relationship to Dickinson also helps to explain why, throughout "Clepsydra," Ashbery uses the image of sky to stand for his own poetic endeavor. Sky is of course the traditional locale of the lyric, but it is also an important and recurring figure in Dickinson's poetry, and as such becomes the perfect locus of the poetic struggles that "Clepsydra" describes. Sky is also, from Ashbery's distinctly earthly perspective, the visible analog for that which cannot be seen but which bounds us, circumference itself. By using the images of circumference and sky together, Ashbery is able to illustrate the nature of the threat that his debt to Dickinson poses: each time we move backward to remember Dickinson's poetry, we are forced to dis-member Ashbery's poem, though at the promptings of "Clepsydra" itself. The poetic integrity of "Clepsydra" is rent, the poetic present (what the poem figures as "space") displaced by the poetic past.(6)
A clepsydra is a water clock: it measures time by the discharge of water. The word can also refer to a fountain. In fact, a fountain makes an appearance in the poem and is given credit for "previsions" (89), linking the conceit of poetry as prophecy with the poem's image for itself. Through the watery reference of its title, "Clepsydra" figures itself as a poetic source and in so doing opposes itself to what I have mentioned already, Dickinson's own rendering of poetic vitality as flame and light:
The Poets light but Lamps - Themselves - go out - The Wicks they stimulate - If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns - Each Age a Lens Disseminating their Circumference - (Poems 883)
Ashbery seems to be dousing Dickinson's fire with his watery image, in case the light of her poetic vitality flames out of control and threatens to consume his own poetic circumference. But what is of greater importance is the title's combining the notion of time with that of movement through space. The tide "Clepsydra" sets the stage for the poem's description of our experience of time as a diachronic one: it makes the temporal into a landscape whose spatial nature allows the reader to move back and forth between earlier and later (near and far) figures and tropes.(7) This conflation, if that is what it is, recurs throughout the poem. The water clock links time and space more effectively than Dickinson's light-based metaphor, since light is essentially anti- or trans-spatial.
The backward-forward movement between past and present that is made possible by "Clepsydra"'s time-space conflation serves as a useful guide to reading the poem, too. As the title implies, the poem is a model for how things change over time. Moreover, it enacts its thematic concerns on syntactic and structural levels. Each sentence is at once a development of the sentence preceding it and the first term of a syntactically new subject. As a result, almost no sentence means only one thing: we are constantly forced to look back and ahead to determine variant readings, any one of which can be valid, depending on which sentence grouping we include it in. "Clepsydra" must be read backward and forward structurally too. Themes connect, develop, and double (and triple) back on themselves, and the reader is forced to move back and forth to trace the developments. One could argue that all poems operate in this way, but in "Clepsydra" this kind of action is one of the subjects of the poem. As a result, the ways in which the poem revises and evolves its themes are highlighted, and the reader is explicitly pushed to look back and forward to orient herself. Though this essay cannot reproduce such a reading, we can take a shortcut and begin where "Clepsydra" ends.
In its closing movement, the poem, addressing the "you" that may refer to the speaker's past self, to Dickinson, or to the reader (and perhaps to all three), suggests that "Perhaps you are being kept here / Only so that somewhere else the peculiar light of someone's / Purpose can blaze unexpectedly in the acute / Angles of the rooms" (238-41). The narrator glosses this further:
What is meant is that this distant Image of you, the way you really are, is the test Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this Wooden and external representation Returns the full echo of what you meant With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of Your single and twin existence, waking in intact Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body Is changed by the faces of evening (242-53)
After reading "The Poets light but Lamps - " the "you" here does sound like a direct address of Emily Dickinson. This is the calm with which the poem ends, having made its peace with its poetic predecessor, in a kind of resolve that could be described as "the sensation of having dreamt the whole thing, / Of returning to participate in that dream, until / The last word is exhausted; certainly this is / Peace of a sort" (47-50). This peace accepts that Dickinson's "Purpose" (or as she puts it, the "vital Light" of her "Circumference") will "blaze unexpectedly" in the "rooms" of Ashbery's poem, that she has "won," and he has echoed her as she predicted. Ashbery's use of "Purpose" here also connects "Clepsydra" to another use of "Circumference" in Dickinson's work, in "From Cocoon forth a Butterfly."
In this poem a butterfly emerges from a cocoon "As Lady from her Door" and flies across fields of flowers, a trope for poetry:
Where Parties - Phantom as Herself - To Nowhere - seemed to go In purposeless Circumference - As 'twere a Tropic Show -
And notwithstanding Bee - that worked - And Flower - that zealous blew - This Audience of Idleness Disdained them, from the Sky - (Poems 354)
Dickinson is playing here on the comment by Emerson quoted above that "St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference nowhere" (168). Dickinson's "Parties," or flowers, seem to go "Nowhere" by following the sun heliotropically. The circumference of Augustine seems radically diminished here, and the "Nowhere" that was testimony to God's power seems now an aimlessness, or the innocence of existing that we might associate with the simple beauty of a flower. However, Dickinson insistently complicates her figures, in part because the nature of her circumference is paradoxical. She revises the "Nowhere" status of circumference by describing it as a "Tropic Show," a thing produced or achieved by both flowers and poems. To those who do not understand the meaning of the (poetic) trope, it appears purposeless, an empty performance. This purposelessness may in fact be a way of differentiating flowers and poems from the business of the world. Unlike the poem's author, who states that her "Business is Circumference" (Letters 412), the world must have rational grounds for all its transactions, and a visible product from which to profit. The very different tropic nature of poems causes them to follow the vital lights of Dickinson's sun, her poetic understanding, to achieve "Circumference."
As her "vital Light" "blaze[s]" in "Clepsydra," this poem (as the "distant / Image" of Dickinson) "Returns the full echo" of what she meant when she said that "The Poets light but Lamps- / Themselves - go out- / The Wicks they stimulate- / If vital Light//Inhere as do the Suns-" (Poems 883). Ashbery's admission that there is "nothing left over, from that circumference now alight / With ex-possibilities become present fact" testifies to the fact that his "Age" too is, in Dickinson's words, "Disseminating [her] / Circumference."
But at the same time that Ashbery seems to be addressing Dickinson, he is also addressing the self, in particular the self's past identity which, like an imago, haunts the individual existing in the present. The "circumference now alight" calls up Dickinson, but the "you," wearing, "like clothing," its ex-possibilities, calls up an intimate, embodied self. Beyond resolving the tension with Dickinson that runs throughout "Clepsydra," the end of the poem unites the personal and poetic pasts in the poetic circumference from which, "Clepsydra" promises, there is "nothing left over." And in creating this union, Ashbery differentiates his circumference from the Dickinsonian one.
The Dickinsonian "Circumference" figure functions as a kind of emblem for the movement in much of her work from the expectable, quotidian world to the bizarre or otherworldly. In a somewhat showy confounding of the normative and the mysterious, Dickinson declares to Colonel Higginson: "Perhaps you smile at me - I cannot stop for that - My Business is Circumference" (Letters 412). The day-to-day world conjured up by the term "Business" is turned on its head with the addition of the inscrutable term that Dickinson made her own. In the same vein she writes to Mrs. J. G. Holland: "All grows strangely emphatic, and I think if I should see you again, I sh'd begin every sentence with 'I say unto you -' The Bible dealt with the Centre, not the Circumference - " (Letters 850). Dickinson uses the biblical language ("I say unto you") for the evocative force it lends as a medium of mystery; it becomes a kind of lens through which the prosaic reality of everyday life is recast, its appearance shown to be masking some hidden meaning.
This intimation that something dramatic lies behind the quotidian world is central to Dickinson's poetic sensibility. However, her remark also criticizes the assumptions on which that biblical language rests, assumptions that have to do with the Bible's adherence to traditional authority structures. Dickinson effects this criticism by calling up Emerson, not only the author of "Circles," who lauds God's circumference as being nowhere, but the Emerson of "The Poet," who describes this figure as "the sayer, the namer, [who] represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the center" (224). Dickinson is defining herself against the Emersonian conception of (male) poetic identity, and associating it with traditional biblical power structures and gender relations.(8) She is also suggesting that, contrary to our normal assumptions about it, the Bible's real center is its preoccupation with earthly or human-centered issues, which leads it to neglect the transcendent or sublime that she figures through her other-worldly and mysterious notion of "Circumference."
But the mystery opened up by Dickinson's use of "Circumference" is not a static one; often, to discover it, the narrator-persona must go on a bizarre journey that reveals whatever paradox or mystery the poem sets out to invoke:(9)
I saw no Way - The Heavens were stitched - I felt the Columns close - The Earth reversed her Hemispheres - I touched the Universe -
And back it slid - and I alone - A Speck upon a Ball - Went out upon Circumference - Beyond the Dip of Bell - (Poems 378)
"Circumference" here is both a boundary term implying closure (necessary to emphasize the paradox of the speaker's going out on it), and a term that refers to the infinite. "Circumference" thus is the outermost term of that which has no outside (we do not say infinity plus one, because infinity is a concept, not a numeral), yet the speaker goes "out upon" it. "Dip of Bell" calls up religion: ringing church bells dip, and the sound carries outward invisibly; thus "Circumference" here refers to a conception of the universe that goes beyond human-centered notions of religion.(10)
But despite the richness of Dickinson's journey poems, we get very little description of the narrator's reactions to her unusual experiences. The narrator proceeds in a fairly matter-of-fact manner to tell us that she "touched the Universe," but then leaves it behind as she ranges farther "out upon Circumference -." The matter-of-factness of Dickinson's narrative, though it emphasizes the bizarre nature of the journey, also deflects any attempt to determine the nature of the experience for the speaker; there is no way to get at the psychological effect, as it were, that such defamiliarizations might have. As Joanne Feit Diehl notes, "the landscape becomes an allegorical projection of [Dickinson's] internal drama"; as a result, it is the journey itself that is emphasized (148).(11) This is not unusual for quest literature, but it is markedly different from Ashbery's treatment of the self. Though Ashbery is no more a confessional poet than Dickinson, he is, unlike her, concerned with the homely details that make up a life.(12) This interest enables Ashbery to highlight a central facet of Dickinsonian circumference, by using "Clepsydra" to underscore what can be described as a reticence, if not an absence, in Dickinson's journey poems. And when the journey is not that of the speaker but of the poetry itself as it travels through time, as in "The Poets light but Lamps -," we can see Ashbery setting up a contrast between "Clepsydra" and Dickinson's work that finds her circumference figure inadequate to his purposes.
Ashbery invokes Dickinson's journeys of defamiliarization by having "Clepsydra" open with an announcement of its own concern with the idea of the journey: "Hasn't the sky? Returned from moving the other / Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of/That severe sunshine as you need now on the way / You go" (1-4). Ashbery's version of the Dickinsonian bizarre journey is not, as we saw at the end of "Clepsydra," where the "Circumference" of poetic pasts (from Dickinson's "The Poets light but Lamps -") is linked to the personal past of the individual aging on earth. However, through the very act of making the contrast Ashbery turns the reference to the personal into a poetic allusion, in this way refusing simply to oppose her. "Clepsydra" itself comments on the need to refuse such a facile reaction: "I am / Not speaking of a partially successful attempt to be / Opposite; anybody at all can read that page, it has only / To be thrust in front of him" (182-85). Not only is such reactionary opposition facile, it is also predictable and so, ultimately, unsuccessful.
Ashbery's use of the rather tired idea of life as a journey, "on the way / You go," is in part his standard device of revitalizing stock phrases, here put to work as a contrast to Dickinson's bizarre journeys. But Ashbery's interest in the journey cliche extends beyond a single poem; he predicated The Double Dream of Spring; the volume that follows Rivers and Mountains, on this idea as well. Charles Berger observes (after citing Whitman's "By Paths Untrodden" as a forerunner) that Ashbery describes in Dream of Spring's first poem "the ensuing volume as a journey, the goal of which turns out to be a possible cure for angst" (147). "Clepsydra" anticipates this idea of poem-as-journey-as-cure, only here the journey is not simply that of the speaker and of the poem traveling through the narrative moment, but of the poem traveling backward and forward in time to render up, both as point of departure and destination, the prior time (poetic and personal) from which poem and speaker set out. That is, Ashbery literalizes the journey-of-life conceit, which is a conflation of space and time. And as he does this he works off the sense of Dickinson's imaginary journeys, which render mental excursions - philosophical-poetical forays into established conceptual systems that Dickinson wishes to dismantle - in fantastic and symbolic terms that are meant to leave readers floundering and dislocated, so as to be surprised into a new understanding of themselves in relation to the world.
In addition to setting out on a journey, "Clepsydra"'s opening introduces and foregrounds the sky image. The sky and sun (the same sun that authorizes the firing of Dickinson's poetic lenses?) are presented as authorities, and because both sky and sun figure prominently in Dickinson's typology, Ashbery's choice of the word authority, with its root in author, introduces the issue of literary authority.
Dickinson's (and Ashbery's) use of sky as a ruling poetic figure bespeaks a debt to the late Emersonian sense of sky as an emblem of the limitations that hinder the human struggle for power over the natural world. Emerson says in "Experience": "God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest slay, and another behind us of purest sky" (265). Dickinson takes exception to Emerson's sense, figuring sky not as a screen or mechanism to frustrate human desire, but as a luminous fact that is mysterious yet (mysteriously) encompassable. Emerson, continuing in "Experience," claims that "Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive" (265). But for Dickinson, calculation, along with other mathematical terms and operations, represents, in Gary Stonum's words, "a means by which the self constructs, controls, organizes, and takes possession of experience. More specifically, calculation works to ensure that objects and experiences do not elude our mental grasp" (133). In her estimation:
The Brain - is wider than the Sky - For put them side by side - The one the other will contain With ease - and You - beside -
The Brain is just the weight of God - For - Heft them - Pound for Pound - And they will differ - if they do - As Syllable from Sound - (Poems 632)
Put simply, the brain's ability to encompass the sky is both mysterious and a function of its ordered attempt to make meanings, which distinguishes it from the purer existence or way of knowing that is God's.
But though Dickinson believes the sky can be encompassed, there are nonetheless limits to our ability to know it. Another of her bizarre journeys, this one in "I gained it so -," may be echoed by "Clepsydra"'s invocation of sky. Dickinson's poem declares:
I gained it so - By Climbing slow - By Catching at the Twigs that grow Between the Bliss - and me - It hung so As well the Sky Attempt by Strategy - (Poems 359)
The "way" Dickinson goes here is different from that of Ashbery, yet her likening of the climb (which we assume is toward "Bliss") to attempting the sky "by Strategy" is echoed by an attempt on the sky in "Clepsydra." Ashbery's poem describes a journey that sounds like a translation of the one described above, and which also explores the relationship between the truth of the past and that of the present. The poem self-referentially comments on its opening question ("Hasn't the sky?") by noting:
The reply wakens easily, darting from Untruth to willed moment, scarcely called into being Before it swells, the way a waterfall Drums at different levels. Each moment Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true, Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent Message, the way air hides sky, is, in fact, Tearing it limb from limb this very moment (15-23)
Ashbery is playing on the notion that in speaking our ideas of the truth (in poetry or in our lives), we speak the world, and so revise it. By representing this revision with a spatial metaphor ("the bounding from air to air") he returns to the conceit of a (Dickinsonian) journey, yet it is not the "you" (whether self or antiself) that does this journeying but the moment itself.
The strange syntax that makes "the moment of utterance" (italics mine) the journeyer serves to remind the reader that any journey, by definition, relies heavily on the act of remembering, so that we can compare the places that we have passed through with the new places at which we arrive. But the figure of air - that which, a moment before, had been the steps in the journey - suddenly tearing sky "limb from limb," is an image of dismemberment. The dismemberment trope, which runs throughout "Clepsydra," actually comes out of the poem's spatialized explanation of how we "read" and "reckon" the "landscape" (9, 7, 6) - that is, the history - of our lives, a landscape that is like "the distracted / Entity of a mirage" (11-12). Moreover, Ashbery locates the dismemberment at "this very moment" to underscore the temporal dimension of the rending described here. In this way "Clepsydra" asserts that in remembering the past (in particular the poetic past, which is, for "Clepsydra," that of Emily Dickinson) we dismember the present. This present, because it is happening "now," is represented not in temporal but spatial terms (though temporality is always implied through the act of narration), that is, the landscape and its inhabitants, all of which exist in the moment with us.
The poem explores the conflict it has set up between spatial and temporal landscapes through the circumference image:
But the argument, That is its way, has already left these behind: it Is, it would have you believe, the white din up ahead That matters: unformed yells, rocketings, Affected turns, and tones of voice called By upper shadows toward some cloud of belief Or its unstated circumference. But the light Has already gone from there too and it may be that It is lines contracting into a plane. We hear so much Of its further action that at last it seems that It is we, our taking it into account rather, that are The reply that prompted the question (34-45)
All this is glossed by the observation: "we must progress toward the whole thing / About an hour ago" (51-52). In this passage several themes are being negotiated simultaneously. Now it is the "argument" that has a "way," which picks up "the way / You go" of the beginning and applies the self's spatial journey (leaving some things "behind"; being concerned with other things "up ahead") to a literary or verbal one. With "The reply that prompted the question," the subject of questions and replies (introduced first with "Hasn't the sky?") is developed too. The allusion now is to the literary conversation across time that "Clepsydra" is having with Dickinson. This diachronic conversation creates the paradoxical unfolding of time in which responses prompt queries, and we progress toward something in the present tense by way of the past. This paradox faintly echoes Dickinsonian paradoxes, especially the poem "Pain - expands the Time -," which speaks to the malleability of the temporal as it continues: "Ages coil within / The minute Circumference / Of a single Brain - " (Poems 967).
In the Clepsydran paradox, temporal and spatial journeys are brought into conflict for the purpose, ultimately, of conflating the two. This conflation is latent or implicit in some of Dickinson's poems, such as "Pain - expands the Time - " and "The Poets light but Lamps," but it is not explored in her work as it is in "Clepsydra," where it is used to suggest that to move forward we must move backward. At the crux of this conflation (a conflation which is, at line 40, still nascent) is the image of circumference. Ashbery connects circumference to the sky motif by loosely relating the former to "some cloud of belief": the cloud inhabits the sky of Ashbery's poetic production, and it is toward this that the future ("the white din up ahead") is called.(13) Ashbery frames his poetic production in the terms of Dickinsonian typology when he admits that all of the stuff of the current life ("unformed yells, rocketings, / Affected turns," which can double as references to writing) may be drawn to his own lyric center (the "cloud of belief') or to "its unstated circumference." That this circumference is "unstated" and is followed by the lines: "But the light / Has already gone from there too" seems an acknowledgment that it is an indirect ("unstated") reference to the Dickinsonian circumference of vital light, whose inherent power Ashbery is simultaneously acknowledging and trying to escape. With the invocation of circumference, the dismembering of the sky is linked to remembering Emily Dickinson by way of the poem's spatial-temporal conflation.
The poem deliberately blurs its invocation of the poetic past by using vague terms that can refer also to the individual's personal past:
To have this to be constantly coming back from - Nothing more, really, than surprise at your absence And preparing to continue the dialogue into Those mysterious and near regions that are Precisely the time of its being furthered... ... it was then, that it was these Moments that were the truth, although each tapered Into the distant surrounding night (60-71)
By allowing the ambiguous "this" from which the poem or narrator is "coming back" to refer to a "dialogue," the poem invites us to read the referent as diachronic conversation, especially now that the Dickinsonian image of circumference has been invoked. This invocation of Dickinson that only indirectly acknowledges her influence is itself a subject of the poem: we are influenced by the past but initially resist that influence, or do not even know how to talk about it. Until the introduction of "circumference," the Dickinsonian typology present in "Clepsydra" was the borrowing of terms without the substance of those terms yet put into play. As "Clepsydra" begins to forge its meanings more deliberately, the Dickinsonian imagery that had already seeped into its fabric drenches the later poem, simultaneously giving that poem its theme while paradoxically threatening its integrity: to remember Dickinson is to dismember itself.
"Clepsydra'"s ambivalent relationship to Dickinson is at the heart of its continued exploration of the conflation of the spatial and temporal. Out of this ambivalence it invents a new landscape, in which "regions" are "time" and "Moments" taper off into "the distant ... night." The poem moves from these momentary truths that dissolve into the night, back to the image of sky (here the sky at night), whose starlight may be "only the reverse / Of some more concealable, vengeful purpose to become known / Once its result had more or less established / The look of the horizon" (74-81). This attributing to the sky a "vengeful purpose to become known" responds to sky's earlier dismemberment which functioned as the spatial analog for remembering Dickinson. Ashbery's lyric identity, as figured by the poem "Clepsydra," wants to wreak vengeance on that which threatens its integrity, and in this way is very Bloomian in its relationship to the prior poet. But to sustain its meditation on the diachronic relationship it has to the past, "Clepsydra" does not let us forget Dickinson or the fact of its own awareness of her. The reference to "purpose" functions also to anticipate (or recall) the poem's suggestion at its close that "Perhaps you are being kept here / Only so that somewhere else the peculiar light of someone's / Purpose can blaze unexpectedly" (238-40) in the "rooms" of this poem. And both purposes call up the defiantly "purposeless Circumference" of "From Cocoon forth a Butterfly," discussed at the beginning of this essay.
The journey described in "From Cocoon forth a Butterfly" is also a bizarre one, where the butterfly becomes the lady, and before disappearing mysteriously, floats briefly in the sky above those earthly inhabitants that work to survive, or above those that, like poems and flowers, simply exist in a kind of transcendence that makes of their earthly origins a paradox. The natural world in Dickinson's poem, despite its defamiliarized cast, seems "a distant image," to borrow "Clepsydra"'s phrase, of Ashbery's time-distorted landscapes that act on human beings with strange willfulness and mystery. One of the strangest aspects of this Ashberian landscape is what "Clepsydra" describes as "the discovery of the declamatory / Nature of the distance traveled" (86-87). The distance traversed declaims itself; the journey thus becomes an inherently rhetorical act, and not only as the butterfly's journey is, passing by "Tropic shows," or as Dickinson's own journey in the making of a poem is, by creating those tropic shows. The journey described in "Clepsydra" is a rhetorical act in that it is the moving back to a prior writer, and in that, by doing so, it invokes the "declamatory / Nature" of that backward movement Ashbery is suggesting that the past in fact declares itself. This notion of "Clepsydra"'s relationship to its past is at once similar to Bloom's sense that the poetic past is psychologically inescapable for the poet in the present, while at the same time it defies his claim that "really strong poets can only read themselves."(14)
But "Clepsydra" also warns against taking too literally this idea of the past being recreated by the present, continuing: "But there was no statement / At the beginning" (93-94). The invisible fountain of poetic production that "Clepsydra" both describes and is invents all of these conceits:
... one must not forget that the nature of this Emptiness, these previsions, Was that it could only happen here, on this page held Too close to be legible, sprouting erasures, except that they Ended everything in the transparent sphere of what was Intended only a moment ago (97-102)
These "previsions" can only exist on the page But paradoxically, once they do exist, they end what they saw. "Previsions" is now made to refer also to the difference between poetic inspiration and realized poetic product: once the prophetic imagination is put down on the page it is no longer elastic and boundless. The previsions can have only a limited number of referents; the imagination is constrained by what the words used to express it can mean.
As "Clepsydra" works out its conflict with its poetic past it jets upward, falls back, and jets upward again, its poetic flow alternately presenting visions of transparent possibility and the dying fall of doubt and fear of limitation. Several of these dying falls are important for how they evolve the spatial imagery and relate it to the past figure addressed as "you," who is both Dickinson and the poet's earlier self or selves Ashbery observes that always there comes "a moment when / Acts no longer suffice" (131-32), a moment which "reduce[s] that other world, / The round one of the telescope, to a kind of very fine powder or dust / So small that space could not remember it" (141-43). The telescope was introduced earlier in the poem as a metaphor for looking at "an empty yet personal / Landscape" (111-12) and here is recalled as an instrument of the creative exploration of the past. However, now "space" cannot "remember it" - that is, the spatial dismemberment caused by the act of remembering cannot be repaired; the dying fall of the fountain leads to a sagging of belief in the effectiveness of action, which in this poem means creative action, that which happens on the page.
But these doubts in the act of creation are resolved, as everything in "Clepsydra" is, temporarily, in the poem's declaration that
The past is yours, to keep invisible if you wish But also to make absurd elaborations with And in this way prolong your dance of non-discovery In brittle, useless architecture that is nevertheless The map of your desires (168-72)
It is the past, the "you" to whom the speaker owes every "crumb of life" (193), that
intensifies echoes in such a way as to Form a channel to absorb every correct motion. In this way any direction taken was the right one, Leading first to you, and through you to Myself that is beyond you and which is the same thing as space, That is the stammering vehicles that remain unknown, Eating the sky in all sincerity because the difference Can never be made up: therefore, why not examine the distance? (198-205)
This passage is both an acknowledgment of debt and a celebration of liberation. Ashbery acknowledges the echoes of Dickinson that have resounded through "Clepsydra" heretofore, while at the same time claiming that they are the right source simply because they were what was chosen. This passage also expands on the mystery of the dismemberment of space motif: it is the speaker (or Ashbery himself) who is dismembered, and who must in turn "Eat ... the sky," or internalize the poetic horizon, because "the difference" between this poem and its predecessor cannot be "made up" - that is, it can neither be invented nor compensated for. And so "why not," as the speaker says, "examine the distance" of years that separates "Clepsydra" from its Dickinsonian previsions? This examination constitutes the (somewhat provisional) solution to the threat that Dickinson represents to Ashbery in her ability to dismember (Clepsydran) space.
This threat and the need to examine it so as to know the danger it represents bring us almost to the poem's close. The narrator declares:
It is because everything is relative That we shall never see in that sphere of pure wisdom and Entertainment much more than groping shadows of an incomplete Former existence so close it burns like the mouth that Closes down over all your efforts like the moment Of death, but stays, raging and burning the design of Its intentions into the house of your brain (225-30)
The relativism of this passage is the key to the poem's ambivalence toward its inability to recover the past or to be free of it. As "Clepsydra" has illustrated, the present poet tries to control the poetic past by focusing that past through the lens of the poet's own concerns. However, once the past is (gropingly) recalled, its poetic "Circumference" is disseminated: the past "burns" like a "mouth" and imprints its own intentions into the present poet's brain. The "house of the brain" clarifies that the "mouth" belongs to Dickinson; it refers to the poem "One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted -" which continues: "One need not be a House - / The Brain has Corridors - surpassing / Material Place - " (Poems 670). Ashbery's phrase elides the middle term, which must be recovered for the full impact of the passage to be felt: like some houses, Ashbery's brain is haunted. The haunting, moreover, provides a gloss on the relationship between Dickinson, as "Clepsydra'"s poetic past, and Ashbery's personal past. Dickinson's poem continues:
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting External Ghost Than its interior Confronting - That Cooler Host.
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop, The Stones a'chase - Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter - In lonesome Place -
Ourself behind ourself, concealed - Should startle most - Assassin hid in our Apartment Be Horror's least (Poems 670)
Dickinson's poem succinctly describes the confrontation - between self and self - that Ashbery's engages in a more windy and indirect manner. However, this self-to-self confrontation haunting "Clepsydra" derives (at least at this moment in the poem) from Dickinson, and as a result the haunting is a dual one, that of the poetic other, as well as the personal one.
Ashbery extends the house metaphor Dickinson employed by adding
the certainty that it Wasn't a dream your only clue to why the walls Are turning on you and why the windows no longer speak Of time but are themselves, transparent guardians you Invented for what there was to hide (233-35)
That the "walls" of Ashbery's brain - the structures that support the edifice of identity - are turning on him suggests that his confrontation with the haunting, mediated as it is through Dickinson, is a transformative one: the walls of his own brain have betrayed him (by being changed). Ashbery reminds us that it is the poetic and personal relation to the past that is the transformative agent when he changes the windows from portals that allow us to look at the past and the passage of time into things that guard us, either from our own internal truth or from the external one that we cannot bean This hidden truth has its own independent existence: it has "Grown up, or moved away, as a jewel / Exists when there is no one to look at it" (236-37) and "this / Existence saps your own" (237-38) because it reveals that the solipsistic self is not alone in the world, and is certainly not the center of that world. The existence of truths other than our own is devastating, and at this moment the fact of Dickinson's presence, a presence with which Ashbery has fought and negotiated throughout "Clepsydra," seems to defeat the later writer. The reach of Dickinson's circumference seems to engulf "Clepsydra"'s ability to speak its own independent truth.
But the last portion of the poem, having faced the most difficult truth - that our own understanding of the world is only one of a multitude ways of seeing, which also influence and mediate our own - incorporates the deflation of ego that this represents. Ashbery acknowledges that his poem may exist so that "the peculiar light of someone's / Purpose can blaze unexpectedly in the acute / Angles of the rooms" (239-41), but adds in what seems like a non sequitur, "It is not a question, then, / Of having not lived in vain" (241-42). This statement, which recalls the questions and replies of "Clepsydra"'s opening, signals a new direction of inquiry, one that invokes the present writer's life and so turns its attention from the past's influence on the present, to the present itself. With this we also return to the closing section of the poem, which no longer reads simply as an acknowledgment of the poetic predecessor who dominates the poem with her "circumference now alight / With ex-possibilities become present fact" (248-49). Dickinson seems at this juncture to have receded; Ashbery seems to be addressing the self who has acknowledged failure in producing only "this / Wooden and external representation" (11. 245-46) of what he meant. But instead of focusing on this failure, Ashbery declares that "regardless of whether or not / You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won" (244-45) - which, while only an assumption, nonetheless signals a mood that is new to "Clepsydra." The self "Must wear [the ex-possibilities of the past] like clothing, moving in the shadow of / Your single and twin existence" (250-51). This lack of choice reminds us of the defeat at Dickinson's hands and is an acknowledgment of the power of the past. However, the defeat is mitigated by the images invoked: the past clothes the present; it protects the self from exposure and helps to define the self's appearance. These images are gentler and less competitive with the past than earlier ones; as the poem observes: it is possible to "wak[e] in intact / Appreciation of" (251-52) the necessity of accepting our relationship to the past. Through appreciation may come a new kind of tolerance, perhaps even a feeling of resolution.
But the defeat that Ashbery seems to acknowledge here as inevitable, despite its appearance of confessional self-exposure, also disguises his own poetic survival instincts. The psychological acuity of "Clepsydra"'s analysis of the effect of the poetic past on the poet of the present enables Ashbery - paradoxically - to create an independent poetic identity, even while it requires him to admit defeat to do so. Dickinson's reticence on the psychological effect of the journeys she undergoes, discussed earlier in this essay, provides a place for Ashbery to come into his own. By acknowledging that his poetic journey, in the backward-forward movement, dismembers his poem and saps his own existence, Ashbery provides an explication of the psychological sufferings the self undergoes in facing truths about itself - a psychological suffering that is dramatically staged in Dickinson's "One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted - " yet left completely unexplored and mysterious. In explicating these sufferings, Ashbery has done the very thing he despairs of doing throughout the poem: he creates his own truth within Dickinson's circumference. Of course, in doing so, "Clepsydra" makes its own circumference that displaces Dickinson's own, but because the poem must first be defeated by Dickinson's circumference in order, finally, to displace it, her figure is simultaneously present and absent, much like the past itself. "Clepsydra" succeeds in simultaneously admitting the power of the prior poet, and re-membering its own poetic integrity.
The kind of success that Ashbery allows himself at the end of "Clepsydra" is akin to what Bloom calls his "heroic and perpetual self-defeat," but Bloom invokes Ashbery's use of "the American Counter-Sublime" (Introduction 6) to place the poet as the literary son of Stevens (as well as Emerson and Whitman). However, the working out of a poetic relationship to Dickinson in such a substantial poem as "Clepsydra" may throw new light on the canonical heritage of Ashbery's oeuvre.(15) "Clepsydra," composed in 1965, was one of the last poems Ashbery wrote while he was in France (Shoptaw 83). For most of the decade of his residence there, Ashbery lived with Pierre Martory, who, Ashbery tells us, "was reading Emily Dickinson, Eliot, and Gertrude Stein" (Introduction xi) when they met. While this statement cannot be used as evidence for Ashbery's own familiarity with Dickin-son, it does suggest that she was a poet he knew at this period. Bloom claims that Ashbery "turned to French poetry as a deliberate evasion of continuities [with Stevens's and Whitman's work], a desperate quest for freedom from the burden of poetic influence" (Introduction 7). But it seems equally possible that, at the close of a period during which Ashbery attempted to break the "continuities" in his work with the (male) American tradition, he composed a sustained meditation on his poetic relationship to another American who is famous for creating her own iconoclastic tradition that defies the work of literary fathers. Like Dickinson, Ashbery resists being influenced; who better, then, to use in his staging of a dramatization of poetic influence? In this staging Ashbery recasts Dickinson's interest in the dissemination of the "vital Light" of her "Circumference" by exploring instead the later poet's reaction to being "The Wick" that is stimulated. In doing so, he disseminates a very different circumference, one that depends on what Hollander describes as the "fallen" poetic self-consciousness, to create a new poetic sphere, in the other American tradition of radical iconoclasticism.
1 See Rodgers for a useful discussion of the development of this trope in Dickinson's oeuvre.
2 John Shoptaw notes a number of Dickinsonian references in Ashbery's work. He argues that "While Ashbery's poetry is as representative and inclusive as Whitman's, it is also as misrepresentative, exclusive, and restrained as Emily Dickinson's" (2). Though this claim is an interesting one, the allusions that Shoptaw cites do not in themselves constitute a sustained examination of the relationship between Ashbery's and Dickinson's work.
3 In describing the relationship of the present self and text (these two blur in "Clepsydra") to its past self and poetic past, Ashbery says "It intensifies echoes in such a way as to / Form a channel to absorb every correct motion. / In this way any direction taken was the right one" ("Clepsydra" 198-200). And at the poem's close, he affirms that "this / Wooden and external representation / Returns the full echo of what you meant / With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight / With ex-possibilities become present fact" (246-49).
4 For a useful discussion of the application of Bloom's influence theories to Ashbery, see Geoff Ward's subchapter "Anxieties of Influence."
5 Though several of Bloom's six revisionary ratios could be applied to "Clepsydra" and its invocation of Dickinson, none of them seems to me to adequately describe the peculiar relationship that Ashbery has to Dickinson in this poem. The frankness with which the poem both depends on and exposes its fear of the prior writer prevents it from being a candidate for the ratio tessera, in which a poet "antithetically 'completes' his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough" (Anxiety 14). Neither is appophrades applicable to "Clepsydra": Ashbery is not actually holding his poem open to Dickinson's work, even though he makes peace with her at the end. Rather, Ashbery is claiming for himself the figure of circumference without displacing Dickinson, because of the very nature of that figure, which suggests a transcendent poetic whole.
It is interesting that Bloom himself, in "Hard Moments," calls "Clepsydra" a failure "because its solipsism, like that of Stevens's 'The Comedian as the Letter C,' is too perfect" (56). A reading that takes into account "Clepsydra"'s relationship to Dickinson rescues it from this charge, and also calls into question Bloom's description of the poem as one "that neither wants nor needs readers," consumed as it is with "Ashbery's entrapped subjectivity" (56, 57). "Clepsydra" is engrossed with the problem of its author's subjectivity, but although this subjectivity is frequently entrapped, it is also threatened by the subjectivity (or the poetic record of this) of Emily Dickinson.
6 The gaps that this dismemberment makes are difficult to notice because of "Clepsydra"'s structure: it is a relentless torrent, flowing continuously onward as does time itself. (In some places the urge to flow becomes a struggle, manifested by the disjunctions in syntax and logic; or perhaps as it roars and pours it overflows the banks of syntax.) The poem's impulse is to prevent a rending of its fabric, "that circumference now alight / With ex-possibilities become present fact" (248-49) that is its whole.
7 With the opposition of water and fire we see again "Clepsydra"'s aggressive attitude toward Dickinson, such that the poem's relationship to her seems to fit Bloom's rather than Hollander's model. But to handle the poem's preoccupation with its diachronic relationship to the prior poet we need Hollander's theories.
8 See Margaret Homans's chapter on Emily Dickinson for a discussion of Dickinson's attitudes toward constructions of male poetic identity.
9 See Robert Weisbuch for a discussion of some of the journeys Dickinson undertakes in her poems.
10 Dickinson's exclusion of religion is performed here by ellipsis, which Bloom says "no modern poet has employed . . . so effectively as [she], probably because for her it was a deep symptom of everything else that belonged to the male tradition that she was leaving out" ("Hard Moments" 60).
11 Diehl's description of Dickinsonian landscapes calls up the opening of "Clepsydra," where "the landscape all around Is hilly sites that will have to be reckoned / Into the total" (6-8).
12 Bloom even goes so far as to declare that "All of Ashbery (I am puzzled as to why Richard Howard thinks Ashbery an 'anti-psychological poet'), including 'Clepsydra,' is profound self-revelation" ("Hard Moments" 57).
13 In describing the future as being called toward his own poetic production, Ashbery is turning on the model of the relationship between the poet and posterity set forth in Dickinson's "The Poets light but Lamps -." The "vital Light" of her poetry, inhering in later readers' minds, is exchanged for a more aggressive model in which the future is "called toward," or dictated by, the poetic production in the present.
14 Bloom insists that, for strong poets, "to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect" (Anxiety 19). However, "Clepsydra" is about the relationship between the poetic past and present, as well as the individual's responses to his or her history and to the versions of that history that abide in the present. To write this poem Ashbery must be able to read the past with as much sophistication as any strong critic.
15 Shoptaw notes that Ashbery himself regards "Clepsydra" as a poem that marks an important change in his work. Ashbery explains:
After my analytic period, I wanted to get into a synthetic period. I wanted to write a new kind of poetry after my dismembering of language. Wouldn't it be nice, I said to myself, to do a long poem that would be a long extended argument, but would have the beauty of a single word? 'Clepsydra' is really a meditation on how time feels as it is passing. (qtd. in Shoptaw 83-84).
Ashbery, John. Introduction. The Landscape Is behind the Door. By Pierre Martory. Trans. John Ashbery. Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow, 1994.
-----. Rivers and Mountains New York: Holt, 1966.
Berger, Charles. "Vision in the Form of a Task: The Double Dream of Spring. "Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ed. David Lehman. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980. 163-208.
Bloom, Harold The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
-----. "Hard Moments" John Ashbery: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1985.
----- Introduction. John Ashbery: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1985.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, 1960.
-----. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Belknap, 1958.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Emerson, Dickinson, and the Abyss." Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1985. 145-59.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton, 1957.
Hollander, John. The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1981.
Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
Rodgers, Audrey T. "'Circumference' in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson." Emily Dickinson Bulletin 31:15-32.
Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Stonum, Gary. The Dickinson Sublime. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Weisbuch, Robert. "A Quest Fiction." Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1985. 81-98.
ANNETTE GILSON is postdoctoral teaching fellow at Washington University, St. Louis. Her essay on Henry James's "Broken Wings" is forthcoming in "The Finer Thread, the Tighter Weave": Essays on the Short Fiction of Henry James.
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|Title Annotation:||woman poet Emily Dickinson; poet|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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