Reports of looting and insane buggery behind altars: John Ashbery's queer politics.
Contemporary cultural events like the passage of the "Defense of Marriage Act," which made sure that states could deny gay marriages before states were even asked to consider accepting them, underline the huge difference in cultural value between heterosexual and homosexual love bonds. Homosexual and heterosexual desire and bonds, given their different cultural valuation, have entirely different available narratives, legality, forms of expression, as well as different available relations to abstraction, specification, self-definition, community, ritual, temporality, and spatiality. This is not to suggest that there are not overlaps, but rather that any treatment of homosexual desire as simply another form of desire (read, heterosexual) will be fundamentally flawed, if not also in the service of a homophobic fantasy of a world without gay people in it.
This said, there is little argument among critics who have the slightest sympathy for Ashbery's work that "homosexual moments" in a text are interesting and useful ways to tease some of his poems into meaning Homosexuality enters and then exits this critical stage with little fuss, which means it causes little outrage but also attracts little serious, sustained attention. This ease is underwritten, in part at least, by "Ashbery's difficulty." That is, as Helen Vendler has remarked, "it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is 'about'" (Music 224). Since reading "homosexuality" in Ashbery's poetry allows a point of penetration through grammatical, referential, or epistemic murk, its value as a critical tool seems inestimable At the same time, the difficulty of Ashbery's poetry allows critics to disregard homosexual thematics when they are not useful to their other projects.
For instance, Helen Vendler, against what she declares is a popular belief that Ashbery's poems are not "about" anything, elucidates some themes in the lyrics in Ashbery's 1980 volume As We Know. Vendler suggests that these lyrics are about "growing up, fidelity, about identity, about death, about ... the permanence of art, about construction, about deconstruction, and perpetual creative joy in the face of death" (Music 237). Notice how homosexuality is not just missing as its own thematic but is also missing as something that would inflect the other thematics, as in "growing up gay, "fidelity without heterosexual marriage narratives in place," "identity in the face of erasing and phobic cultural forces," "death without a comforting/troubling narrative of reproductive continuation," and so on.(2) These do not seem mere qualifications but are actually constitutive of the themes that Vendler locates "Fidelity," to point out the most striking instance, needs to be positioned in terms of the kind of relations it describes. A gay man has no uncomplicated relation to "adultery" or "fidelity" since these words depict activities and conditions based on a legal marriage bond; in order to use such heterocentric terms about gay people or bonds one needs at least to mention that they are being torqued from their general cultural usage. Furthermore, this is not a volume without explicit homosexual content. Many of the poems entail homosexuality as an inflection of their central thematics, and two poems in this collection are eponymously and frankly about male-male relations; they declare themselves up front and go on to meditate on the male-male bonds suggested in their titles.(3) "My Erotic Double" has the poet flirting with an image of his own lazy self, and "The Plural of 'Jack-in-the-Box,'" the final poem of the collection, muses on how homosexual bonds might affect the spatial, mythic, and linguistic boundaries that contain them.
But even in the best cases, where homosexual content is not being actively erased from readings of Ashbery's poems, "homosexual meaning" is treated as a tool of reading or sense-making, with the implication that homosexual meanings are best deployed at the service of larger, more shared systems of meaning. Such figurations of generality as heterosexual must always be interrogated, because not only do they elbow homosexuality out of the frame, they also deny (by ignoring) any complicated way of inhabiting a heterosexual subjecthood.
If there is any one thing that queer theorists can be said to have given the academy, it is the sense of how crucial the homo/heterosexual divide is to Western culture's most central binarisms. This, in turn, fosters the sense that identity is too complicated to snugly fit broad binarisms.(4) Homosexual thematics, styles, and desires are worth examining, in other words, on their own terms. In their specificity, they trouble generality; they highlight and vex the operation of metonymy itself (the correspondence of part to whole and whole to part).(5) Further, queer people living in this culture, who cut across or through its definitions, require explicit strategies to negotiate linguistic productions of the specific and general.(6) For instance, on a tax form a coupled lesbian may have to mark the box for "single" (for lack of any other box) when she considers herself anything but single, highlighting the way in which this term inadequately describes her and violently blocking her from the tax and other privileges accorded someone "married." The felt exclusion and misrepresentativeness of this situation make the linguistic markers "single" or "married" active sites of anger, comfort, capitulation, and resistance. The sheer variety of affect, and effect, that can attend this seemingly simple accounting of a subject's relation to her culture, on this the starkest of levels, testifies to the fact that for a gay or lesbian person defining himself or herself within the larger culture requires reading tools that are often not only not vectored toward but which are against more general ways of reading.
In this case, a box that might or might not be difficult for a heterosexual form filler can't but give a gay or lesbian taxpayer pause. A site of apparently evident definitional simplicity becomes a site of difficulty, deliberation, and decision. This is at least as true in reading poetry where self-definitional strategizing is not one to one, box to attribute. Poets, who traffic in linguistic charge, most of all must be cognizant not only of definitional activity but also of its effect. For gay and antihomophobic poets and readers of poetry, homosexuality is not merely a tool by which to reach a more general effect or understanding (a way to clear a blocked path) but a node of linguistic charge itself that can vivify or deflate general effects, as in the world it can vivify or deflate general categories.
In this essay, I will show how, in three poems that span Ashbery's oeuvre, a semiotics and thematics of homosexuality jimmies open address and reference, as well as logical, figural, and poetic closure. Frustrated closure, on the level of argument, figure, and lyric, happens often in Ashbery and is frequently remarked by critics as contributing to the tension and play in his work between randomness and deliberate artfulness. However, there is evidence within his poetry of a theoretical standpoint that reconsiders this conflict and posits unclosedness as a strategy that can be deployed against toxic or confining notions of identity, a strategy that does not buck cultural categories but stalls their crystallization and further theorizes about the value and power of that stalling. It is no coincidence that the most explicit and focused experiments of this sort correspond to Ashbery's most explicit and focused treatments of homosexuality. Other critics, most powerfully John Shoptaw, have traced the semiotics of homosexuality to Ashbery's "misrepresentativeness." That is, Shoptaw suggests that homosexuality enters Ashbery's poesis by a trope of ill-concealed concealment and ill-divulged divulgence. Implicit in this theorization, though it does not directly address the idea of the queer reader in Ashbery's work, is the idea that a queer reader goes to these texts, at least in part, for their power to represent and poetically enact structures of the closet that art makes examinable and which enable readers to imagine and plot numerous positionalities for themselves. While this does seem true of Ashbery's work, it downplays the structural theorizing that Ashbery performs. The "misrepresentative" poet figure offers many local interventions based on one grand idea about language and identity. I want to suggest that Ashbery's theorizing is more self-aware and plastic than that. The techniques that he uses to explore identity and its relation to language on a local level, through his experiments, inevitably constitute his grander theoretical frame rather than only being expressions of it. Thus, while I am not suggesting creating a chronology of poetic effects, I want to reverse the above theoretical causality, which means focusing on a poetic technique for its effect on a theory of poetics.
The closural effects I will examine are only several types of poetic difficulty in Ashbery's quiver, but are bound together by the goal of providing very particular effects for queer readers.(7) These poetic moments hold off closed meaning, providing architectural liminality, which mimetically gestures to a site, real and linguistic, where queer people can live, and these effects offer themselves pedagogically as examples of carving liminality, or inhabitable space, from the larger culture.
I take the title of this essay from a recent short lyric by Ashbery in which he explores the durability of dominant culture in the face of attacks. In the scene of "The Military Base," even though "the house took a direct hit/... it didn't matter; the next moment/it was intact, though transparent" (Can You Hear, Bird? 117).(8) There were not even any injuries from the sudden attack. Everything returns to the idea the culture had of it, whether that idea still matches reality or not, and when everything is over, "There were no reports of looting/or insane buggery behind altars" (117). This poem suggests with its final, oddly specific negation (no "insane buggery behind altars") that odd specificity is one way to sneak such reports under the apathetic inertia of a world that will not collapse. Poetry may not be able to bring the house down, but it can salvage reports of the queer attacks that happen on quotidian and other unreportable levels, attacks that may simply take the form of queer lives quietly lived. Following typical Ashberian reasoning, the report of the absence of reports of looting and insane buggery is itself both a report of looting and insane buggery and is looting and insane buggery. Following Ashbery's musings about seemingly meaningless linguistic messengers in "Litany," "It is they who carry news of it / To other places. Therefore / Are they not the event itself?." (AWK 8).
"THE FAIRIES' SONG"
The first discussion of homosexual meaning across the span of Ashbery's work occurs in John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out (also only the second full-length study on Ashbery). Shoptaw discusses a way to keep homosexuality central to discussions of Ashbery's style, as I mentioned before, without reading homosexual thematics into each of the poems. His heuristic centers around Ashbery's "misrepresentative poetics," the idea that
although, or rather because, Ashbery leaves himself and his homosexuality out of his poetry, his poems misrepresent in a particular way what I will call 'homotextual.' Rather than simply hiding or revealing some homosexual content, these poems 'behave' differently, no matter what their subject. With their distortions, evasions, omissions, obscurities, and discontinuities, Ashbery's poems always have a homotextual dimension. (Shoptaw 4)
Ashbery's poetics are, within this frame, an expression of his theoretically motivated absence from his poems. Because, in other words, Ashbery decides not to name homosexuality, it hypostasizes throughout Ashbery's poems via his style, whose most striking operations are concealment and misdirection. Evasions and omissions gesture back to the missing origin of the central evasion and omission, homosexual content. However, these gestures have become, in their own right, invested with the urgencies and erotics of the original evasion.(9) While Shoptaw's theorization is the best offered so far for homosexuality as semiotic access to Ashbery's poetry, it seems itself to misrepresent homosexual content in John Ashbery's poetry. After all, there are poems in Ashbery's oeuvre that are obviously thematically centered around homosexuality. Ashbery does not, untraceably at least, leave himself or his homosexuality out of his poems.
A poem called "The Fairies' Song" from The Vermont Notebook (1975) not only takes homosexuality as its explicit theme but also addresses Ashbery's own position in his poems as a "fairy singing," putting forward a poetics explicitly inflected by his sexuality. This poem outlines and enacts a poetic strategy for dealing with the trials of homosexual identity. It suggests why homosexuals might have a particular relation to songs, that is, poems or verbal expressions in general, and also offers a strategy for keeping this particularity particular. In other words, the poem is both a fairy's song and has as its subject the further production and encouragement of fairy songs.
"The Fairies' Song" begins with "Clouding up again. Certain days there is a feeling that whatever we arrange / Will sooner or later get all fucked up" (93). That "certain . . . feeling" arouses "explosions of a 19th-century, garden-variety form of intellectual rage." But Ashbery suggests that, when confronted with this "certain . . . feeling," a fairy is "too far in the glade, the way this is all about harassing." "This" is the condition of being homosexual. A homophobic culture "fucks up" plenty in its harassing, but, Ashbery asserts, being harassed is not the sole defining mark of being gay, though it might sometimes seem it. To get caught up only in the unpleasantness of life in a homophobic culture is to miss not only what pleasures there are in ecstatic moments but also what "charity" there is in "the hard moments" (DDS 19). This formulation is offered in "Soonest Mended" from the earlier The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which shares the thematic of making the best of a "spoiled" identity with "The Fairies' Song," but is far less explicit in locating its subjects as homosexuals.
"Soonest Mended" takes its title from the cliche "least said, soonest mended," and its performatively absent first phrase could possibly even dictate both a poetics and a politics almost completely in opposition to those in "The Fairies' Song." This title could be advocating discretion or even silence as strategies for negotiating the difficulties of homosexual politics and life in American culture. The later poem, in contrast, while not a battle cry exactly, does call for self-celebrating song. But as is often the case with solitary phrases (even ghost phrases like this one) in Ashbery, "least said" may be embedded in another context of irony, comment, or persona, and refuses to be pointed in any single direction. The title could be the best expression of the culture that "barely tolerates" (DDS 17) the speaker and his lover, which then serves as the spur for the utterance that is the poem. The uncertainty that clings to the title must be considered as having its own "charity" as well as humor. "Least said, soonest mended," the cliche, commands terseness and action, neither of which occurs in "Soonest Mended": there is nothing particular to be done and much verbal production about it. In face of the advice to constrict speech and act, Ashbery's poem dilates dreamily, but his dreamy tone takes on a kind of argumentative weight in the proximity of this credo.
"Soonest Mended" begins similarly to "The Fairies' Song": "Barely tolerated, living on the margin / In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued / On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso . . ." "Soonest Mended" campily characterizes the speaker and his lover as heroines in a high poetic drama. (The boundary of the "we" shifts to include a larger group of people at several points in the poem, but the default and most common mode of the second-person pronoun here is singular, and this single other person seems a lover: they have "made a home" together.) However, as we shall see, "The Fairies' Song," the later, more explicitly gay poem, ends not with the assertion that carrying on living is enough, "For this is action, this not being sure," which the earlier poem ends on, but rather with the assertion that the action of living in a "spoiled" identity is intense and exciting, and, in fact, a source of lyric vivacity. Both poems do, however, start by proclaiming a crisis and close with an argument about closure and action, suggesting that true action is often inaction, or undecidedness, and true closure often allows opposites to coexist in tension rather than either repeating and therefore instantiating (and fulfilling) a pattern or following the chemical model of a positive and negative charge canceling each other out to reduce tension.
The second stanza of "The Fairies' Song" shows the result of fairies being harassed and taking harassing as what being gay is all about:
Sometimes one of us will get included in the trash And end up petulant and bored at the multiple opportunities for mischief, Screaming like a gull at vacuity, Hating it for being what it is.
Ashbery hopes to provide some alternatives to this result, thus the paratactically generous "there are. . . there are . . . there are" structure of the middle stanzas of the poem. It is not that "we" can prevent "our" numbers from ending up in the trash, but rather that "we" can forge responses different from "screaming like a gull at vacuity, / Hating it for being what it is." The "there are"'s catalogue sites of waste. Pastoral "Manure piles under the slop and surge of a March sun," "pale plumes of dullness," and "insipid flowering meads" begin to bend toward more abstract and less pastoral wastes: "Wastes of acting out daytime courtesies at night, // Deadfalls of resolution, arks of self-preservation / Arenas of unused indulgence" (9395). In the midst of this list comes a stanza describing a moment of subdued but expressed desire:
Thunderheads of after-dinner cigar smoke in some varnished salon Offer ample cover for braiding two coat-tails together Around the clumsy arm of an s-shaped settee. In a screech the occasion has disappeared, the clamor resumed like a climate.
The "braiding" of coat-tails can only occur under a smelly, dark cloud, around the "clumsy" arm of an awkward piece of furniture. This moment of expression occurs in silence and evaporates in a queeny "screech" and "clamor." The list of images, pastoral and abstract, insists on the presence of waste and discomfort in any momentary beauty or landscape the fairies can achieve. At the close of the list, Ashbery asks when this wild ride of waste and exaltation stops: "Where do we get off / The careening spear of rye?"(95). His answer to this question is the proposition that "we" don't, but that "we" need to theorize the mixture of good and bad from the position of someone who has to drink sour milk telling himself: "But it all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway" (95). Ashbery suggests a change of point of view, or what I have been suggesting is a declared theoretical standpoint: it's not how the milk tastes, it's that it fulfills a nutritional need. Thus, experiences might never be unmitigatedly good for fairies, but it is possible to rethink the mixture of good with bad not as good or even satisfactory but as at least livable and postulate livability as the possibility for exaltation.
The final image of the poem is one of unrestrained limpidity, where after declaring that "we," fairies, "dance on hills above the wind / and leave our footsteps behind. / We raise their tomatoes. / The clear water in the chipped basin reflects it all: / A spoiled life, alive, and streaming with light" (95). The final lyric movement suggests that what is called the "spoiled" or even "furtive" is "alive, and streaming with light" when seen from the fairy's-eye view above the crisp image of a sink. A lyric moment, gazing at oneself reflected in clear water, jumps into lucidity, producing a self-preserving comment: while seemingly hidden and wrecked, homosexual identities are on the contrary filled with lyricism and light partly because of their banished condition from other forms of visibility and order. Ashbery's poem offers testimony that fairies' lives are lived and sung.
This poem is a straightforward lyric, but with a strategizing plot, an arc moving from the clouded to the limpid, passing through a Whitmanesque list, coming to rest in an ecstatic moment. The interesting thing about the poem, considering its rather typical form, is that it neither finds redemption in the spoiled nor spoilage in redemption, but is instead a supreme example of Keats's "negative capability," "where a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (qtd. in Preminger). It is not an ecstasy because of or despite waste and spoil, it is just there, right along with its opposite, testament to their possible/impossible coexistence. Ashbery does not make sense of how this coexistence can happen; instead he states that it does while he demonstrates that it does poetically: the press and anxiety of the excess detail of spoilage impels the poem to saturation, whereupon adding a single temporally locatable scene, a single present rather than a continually spiraling possible future, creates a precipitate of clarity.
This example alone shows that homosexual meaning does not always misrepresent itself in Ashbery's poetry. Here it is not only explicit in, but also explicitly fundamental to, a lyric. It also offers a glimpse as to how Ashbery writes homosexual lives as difficult on a quotidian, lived level, a difficulty that invites an analogy to his own poetic difficulty. Interestingly, the only time the word homosexual appears in Ashbery's poetic oeuvre, it elucidates just this connection between the "pain" of life (which Ashbery so often thematizes in a general way), homosexual lives, and difficult writing. The first poem in Ashbery's seven-part "Haibun" series addresses the import of his entire body of poetry to future generations of gay readers. He writes:
I'm hoping that homosexuals not yet born get to inquire about it, inspect the whole random collection as though it were a sphere. Isn't the point of pain the possibility it brings of being able to get along without pain, for awhile, of manipulating our marionette-like limbs in the straitjacket of air, and so to have written something? (W 39)
This part prose-part haiku poem suggests that difficulty is a way of preserving the constructability of his poems for homosexuals not yet born, preventing the poems from being "claimed by the first person who happens on them" (39). Ashbery declares that he wishes to preserve his poems' power to name, and therefore hold and reduce, pain for this particular "not yet born" audience. While this does not suggest that his poetry is only addressed to homosexuals, it does suggest that he has particular designs for serving an audience of homosexuals; he wants to aid and abet a particular use of his poetry in the midst of other uses, trying to ensure that other critical and readerly appropriations do not interfere with his transmission of the "possibility of getting along without pain, for awhile" to future gay readers. More general meanings, as discussed above, are not being dismissed out-of-hand but are considered possible obstacles in the way of this poetic project.
Shoptaw's scheme, then, with these readings in mind, proves useful, not insofar as it accounts for a hypostasization based on the absence of homosexuality but rather that it accounts for a hypostasization simultaneous with its presence. This general sense that homosexuality infuses all of the poetry seems helpful insofar as it carves irrigation canals by which gay readers and readings can reach the poems, but, when forwarded in the absence of homosexual thematics, it flattens the peculiarities and specificities of influence that homosexual meaning has in poems across Ashbery's career. I want to argue that Ashbery does precisely not leave homosexuality out of his poems, while they still "behave differently."
Homosexual thematics arise from both readings of single poems and from readings of Ashbery as a theorist across poems. The difficulty associated with these thematics is not just self-protective in the sense that it protects the author from persecution, but is more often self-protective in the sense that the homosexual meanings are precisely that which is being protected. Ashbery's misrepresentative poetics are partly symptomatic of what types of articulations around gay desire are available in culture and language, but they are also willful refusals to settle into narrative, lyric, or imagistic wholeness without registering by disjunction and breakage the realness, specialness, and particularity of gay meanings and lives.
SHIFTY PRONOUNS: "THE GRAPEVINE"
Some readily available sites of this different behavior are Ashbery's famous shifty pronouns. Critics often quote the interview with Ashbery in which he discusses pronominal shiftiness directly:
The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like the variables in an equation. 'You' can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I'm addressing, and so can 'he' and 'she' for that matter and 'we.' (qtd. in Perloff 258)
Ashbery suggests that the "point" to this shiftiness is that "we are all somehow aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what's the important thing at the particular moment rather than the particular person involved" (Perloff 258). He then makes the much-grasped-at comment that
I guess I don't have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps produce a kind of polyphony . . . which I again feel is a means towards a greater naturalism. (Perloff 258.
Ashbery suggests three things that seem to contradict one another, and critics usually just highlight and dwell on the not-very-strong-sense-of-my-own-identity strand without disimbricating it from the others. Dissecting this very statement, we note a shift, if not a shiftiness. There are three seemingly contradictory statements: (1) Pronouns shift in Ashbery poems because inside his poems they are less important than the form of address; that is, the speaking voice breaks down the barriers between pronouns as it sees necessary to balance its "equations." (2) Voice, and thus the equations it formulates, exists in conversation, boundary-crossing traffic, with its subjects such that subject-object relations in his poems inform the speaking voice. In other words, the "equations" formulate and are formulated by their variables in a give-and-take that defines the very speaker who utters them. And (3) Ashbery has a weak sense of his own identity. The first proposition places the speaker in a dominant and the second in a subordinate relation to its subjects; the last proposition, then, seems to contradict the first two propositions by its claimed naivete about identity. However, I think, differently inflected, this last statement is more of a manifesto than a confession. From the above two propositions it is clear that identity and subject-object relations are very much at the forefront of Ashbery's poetic practice and consciousness; his statement suggests that he does not have a very strong sense of "identity" as a flatly formulated condition. Identity is precisely what Ashbery is strongly active in critiquing, strategizing about, and reformulating at both molecular and molar levels in his writing. His comment, inflected with this sense of his investment in interrogating identity, suggests that his work with identity aims toward a mimesis not of his own private "weak" sense of himself as a bounded individual but of identity as it is more complicatedly formulated than in the colloquial "sense of oneself."
The equations in which Ashbery's pronouns are variables do not often have simple resolutions heralded by poetic equal signs. He suggests a way to consider his poems' analogy to mathematics in "Litany," where he writes: "I want to write / Poems that are as inexact as mathematics. I have been / Sitting making mudpies, in the sparkling sunlight, / And the difficulty of giving them away / Doesn't matter so long as I want you / To enjoy them. Enjoy these!. . ." (AWK 91). "Mathematics" and "mudpies," as Ashbery configures them in these lines, are structures of meaning upon which he models, and in whose light he considers, his poems. Mathematics are internally coherent but difficult to translate from the abstract (therefore "inexact"), and mudpies are internally incoherent but coherently categorically constituted by their translation into gifts. The smeared juxtaposition of these two suggests that this speaker/poet sees the internal coherence of math and the external, purely relational coherence of mudpies as equivalent: both are systems and gifts, and their desired giftness outreaches their internal coherence as systems. Thus the logically organized and the pleasurably unorganized share the problem of translation into the world, and the translation requires a willing receiver. But that the chosen recipient is willing to receive them is less important than the maker's desire that he or she enjoy them. This is the organizing principle of math, mudpies, and poetry for Ashbery. In other words, equals signs in Ashbery's poetics, equivalences and closed analogical structures, are at the service of wanting "you / To enjoy them," at the service of the reader's pleasure as the author imagines it. This offers a more coherent sense of what pronouns are meant to do in Ashbery's poetry than usual inflection inflicted on the oft-quoted interview.
As simple as it may sound, it has not yet been stated in Ashbery criticism that the shifts in pronouns are first and foremost meant to provide readerly pleasure. They may cause delight with their irreverence, surprise, and sentimental identification in their breakages, which offer unauthorized attachment or pleasing breaks from category by their disarrangement of gender and number. The confessional "I" can slip into the royal or chummy "we," what was a crowd can condense to a "she," and the solitary lyric tone of a single utterance can splinter into a rowdy group discussion. "Most reckless things," as Ashbery said in a lecture to the Yale Art School, "are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing" (RS 391).
While I think moments of recklessness are underregarded aspects and pleasures in Ashbery's poetry, they do not lend themselves to more than satisfied or disgruntled local responses unless lashed together in a project of deployed recklessness. Thus, I would like to focus, for the sake of my discussion of pronouns, on mathematics over mudpies, and consider how moments of reckless pronominal usage can crystallize around bigger projects of recklessness. "The Grapevine," a poem from Ashbery's first published book, Some Trees (1956), offers a good example of Ashbery's mathematical pronouns. Its sense of poetic equation centers on homosexuality as an epistemic issue, wherein lies its recklessness. It is poised on the edge of coming out at a historical moment when gays and communists were being hounded out of their professions, if not their lives. John Shoptaw tells how months before Ashbery finished Some Trees, F. O. Matthiessen, one of Ashbery's professors at Harvard and also gay, jumped from a 12th-story hotel window just before he was scheduled to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (Shoptaw 35). Besides being reckless in a simply poetic sense, aligning and misaligning pronouns around gay meanings at this time performed a kind of political recklessness that organizes and depends on these more textual recklessnesses. While it might be argued that Ashbery's shifts are often pointless and arbitrary, in the case of "The Grapevine" they are certainly neither; a real point is being made with the poetic material at hand, and it addresses an urgent political reality.
The poem is not parsible in the simplest sense, because it torques its pronouns out of typical relationality and referentiality. One needs to treat the pronouns in it, the "you," the "we," and the "them" as algebraic variables, like X, Y, or Z. As the poem proceeds, the values, the people these markers stand for, change. Grammar, relations between the terms themselves, and optic, epistemic, spatial, and temporal shifts modify their referents, or in mathematical terms, their value. So, parsing cannot result in a satisfactory reading, though it is necessary in the service of figuring out just what the terms of the equation are. The very epistemological situation the poem puts forward is itself a kind of function, where every X that undergoes its indicated operation comes out a Y, though X and Y are never flatly given referents.
Of who we and all they are You all now know. But you know After they began to find us out we grew Before they died thinking us the causes
Of their acts. Now we'll not know The truth of some still at the piano, though They often date from us, causing These changes we think we are. We don't care
Though, so tall up there In young air. But things get darker as we move To ask them: Whom must we get to know To die, so you live and we know? (ST 19)
Shoptaw's reading of this poem is informative but limited:
In this word-of-mouth network of 'fruits,' not only have the names been withheld but the pronouns have been changed at every opportunity. Who committed, who detected, these fatal acts, 'we' or 'they' or 'you'? To 'you' (including the readers), the investigating 'they' uncomfortably resembles the uncovered 'we.' . . . The revenge of those found out consists of planting seeds of doubt and suspicion among those knowing. They themselves may be subject to investigation. (21)
Shoptaw's connection of Ashbery's poetry to "the McCarthy years" and the deep structure of suspicion and homophobia in America around the time that Some Trees was written is a necessary addition to Ashbery criticism, but this poem seems more than a simple rewriting of "it takes one to know one." The poem also suggests an attraction to a network of homophobic knowing whose motor is also paradoxically that of a homosexual community.
The poem is an allegorical address to a plural "you" who remain the intra-poetic audience throughout the poem but drop from sight as soon as they are invoked in the second line. The "we" and "they" set up in the first line are developed as antagonistic groups, "they" ferreting out "us." As Shoptaw suggests, this first "us" consists of homosexuals, and the first "they" consists of people enforcing homophobic laws and cultural norms. "They," the pursuers, die at the end of the first stanza and take to the grave the "truth of" some people "still at the piano," truth that often dates from the "us" themselves. This "truth" consists of whether those "still at the piano" are gay or not. Homosexuals, along with homophobes, are interested in identifying other homosexuals, as the final lines of stanza 2 suggest, in order to constitute a
gay community. The "young air" of the final stanza seems the celebratory and heady part of either entering the community of other gay people or of collectively imagining "ourselves" as a gay community. "Things" then "get darker" when the self-identified members of the gay community "move / To ask" those still at the piano the poem's only question. The question poses the possibility of an inquisitive community "dying," no longer wanting to know, but rather knowing. One way to make sense of the resurrection of "we" in the last line is to read the speaker's use of "we" as itself algebraic. The first "we" is the we of the present, inquisitive, and the second, the "we" of the desired future, secure enough in its knowing that it no longer wants to know more. The former "we" desires its own demise, since its desire to know gets in the way of "you" living. The poem imagines pronouns aligned in a utopic and differently epistemologically driven gay community. Rather than knowing the "truth" of one individual's sexuality, the final stanza suggests that there is someone to get to know. Knowing in this stanza turns to acquaintance. With this shift "we" who know about people can "die," and be transformed to "we" who know people, who participate in a community.
This poem really seems less concerned with destabilizing the homophobic "they," as Shoptaw suggests, than it is in reimagining a homosexual "we." "The Grapevine" starts in this poem as a system of homophobic knowledge and ends as the fantasized living tissue that holds clusters of fruits together. Such a network is excessive, it outreaches epistemology, and is logically unrealizable. However, the poem's own creation of such a network, the "we" that is resurrected, offers both articulated reasons to urge toward such a network and a semantic performance of one.
VAGUENESSES: "AS WE KNOW"
Like "The Grapevine," the title poem of As We Know theorizes knowing, or "sense, as shot through with sexuality. Charles Altieri has offered a supple reading of this poem in "Contemporary Poetry as Philosophy," in which he reads its "vagueness" as "a crucial feature establishing the poet's complex grasp of subjective agency" (217). Altieri remarks that where Ashbery's "predecessors sought strong images as locales for positing identities," Ashbery experiments with "the subjective force projected in deictics and other shifters, hoping that how one establishes one's relation to utterances and situations provides a sufficient grounding for the range of identities and identifications that constitutes subjective life" (216). As I have examined earlier, deictics in Ashbery often open up many locations in a poem, especially at its close, in order to allow even contrary attachments. My focus differs from Altieri's in its concern with how these moments are propelled by homosexual thematics, which require new strategies for figuring identity. Fuzziness, or multivalency, is for Ashbery the centerpiece for such a strategy, enabling writer and reader to inhabit a homosexual subjectivity poetically. Altieri's acute analysis of Ashbery's theorization and poetics of subjecthood in "As We Know" falls short by failing to locate the homosexual thematics central to the poem's effects which enable a whole new level of address, irony, and urgency. Altieri acknowledges the limits of his reading when he writes, "Having chosen this example ["As We Know"], I wish I could be more certain than I am of the specific drama underlying this poem" (216). I would like, while developing Altieri's critique, to hypothesize about that underlying drama, which I think is accessible on the level of innuendo. The poem begins with an "it" that wends its unspecified way through the first two stanzas:
All that we see is penetrated by it - The distant treetops with their steeple (so Innocent), the stair, the windows' fixed flashing - Pierced full of holes by the evil that is not evil, The romance that is not mysterious, the life that is not life, A present that is elsewhere.
And further in the small capitulations Of the dance, you rub elbows with it, Finger it. That day you did it Was the day you had to stop, because the doing Involved the whole fabric, there was no other way to appear. You slid down on your knees For those precious jewels of spring water Planted on the moss. . . . (AWK 143)
Let me start by hypothesizing backward. The final scene, "you" sliding "down on your knees" for "precious jewels" is a rather transparent scene of fellatio. This activity then retroactively defines the "it" that peoples the lines above it. "The day you did it / Was the day you had to stop, because the doing / Involved the whore fabric" suggests that having gay sex troubles the "whole" ontologic "fabric" of the speaker or addressee. It both leads one to reimagine one's place in the world and offers leverage, via a secret that expresses itself everywhere, to reimagine the world itself differently. The steeple becomes "so / Innocent" only in the context of a phallic loss of innocence; its innocence is a product of being penetrated by "it," the fantasy of gay sex, which could offer the steeple a context in which it would become uninnocent. The list locating the "it" - "the evil that is not evil, / The romance that is not mysterious, the life that is not life, / A present that is elsewhere" - gestures wilth decreasing specificity to homosexuality. "The evil that is not evil" specifies homosexuality in religious discourse; "the romance that is not mysterious" respecifies it in relation to heteronormative courtship suggesting that homosexual romance, shorn of courtly circumlocutions and custom-laden circuitry about sex, cuts to the chase; "the life that is not life" zooms further out to suggest that homosexual lives do not show up on the birth-marriage-death map of heterosexuality; and the "present that is elsewhere" suggests in the largest sense that, because of its banishment from dominant heteronormative discourse, queer lives always happen "elsewhere," they are always temporally spatialized outside of the "present." The poem's first stanza concentrates on homosexuality's movement outward to bigger and bigger othernesses that depend on homosexuality's position as the other in a heteronormative discourse of morality, erotics, ontology, spatiality, and temporality, until it "Involve [s] the whole fabric. . ."
The kneeling moment in the poem, in its ripple effect on the fabric of reality, makes this "you" "teeter on the edge of this / Calm street. . .// As though they are coming to get you" (143). Since the whole world has been rearranged in the subjective experience of gay sex, it seems that some regulatory agent should have noticed the anomaly and arrived to eliminate or correct it. But none does: ". . . there was no one in the noon glare. . ." (143). Since this ecstatic reorganization met with no external crackdown, and the giddiness and exhilaration of inhabiting an alternative "present" is apparently livable, the speaker moves into the fourth stanza with a new knowledge and approach:
The light that was shadowed then Was seen to be our lives, Everything about us that love might wish to examine Then put away for a certain length of time, until The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned Toward each other, to each other. The way we had come was all we could see And it crept up on us, embarrassed That there is so much to tell now, really now.
The "light that was shadowed" at this moment of reorganization that followed gay sex, the light that hits objects and defines shadows, outlining in its absence, is seen as "our lives." This figuration makes intimacy between two figures in the poem possible: ". . . and we turned / Toward each other, to each other."
The final lines of the poem suggest both the joys and the limits of narrativizing completely on the basis of moments of outlawed ecstasy: "The way we had come was all we could see / And it crept up on us, embarrassed / That there is so much to tell now, really now." This sets up two lovers looking back on their past, seeing only the way that they had arrived there, and for the first time finding a historical register in which to figure themselves. The "really now" in this reading is a spine-tingling assertion of presentness against the world's insistence that they, as homosexuals, exist in a "present that is elsewhere." There is, however, a critique of this very situation embedded in the lines. They also suggest that the vision presently available to these lovers is inhibited by the fact that "the way they had come," their sexuality, is "all they could see." This critique inflects the "embarrassed / That there is so much to tell now" with a bitchy final address shift that is dismissive of how much there is to tell. "Really now" suggests not just a very particular temporality but also a playful, dismissive gesture, the kind of thing one might say to an intimate at the end of a hyperbolic narrative. "As We Know" critiques its own ecstatic knowing while celebrating it. This double move comments precisely on how "we know." "Our" knowledge is embarrassedly shot through with sexuality, a situation that Ashbery earlier explored in "The Grapevine," whose thematic knowing is much more exact: "how do we know who is gay?" But as in "The Grapevine," we need this embarrassment of overlocation as the foundation to further knowledge.
Ashbery's queer poetic project, as we have seen in various poems, uses difficulty mimetically. Difficult describes a way lived life feels (full of pain, littered with climbable and unclimbable obstacles), which corresponds to a kind of poetry (full of disjunctions and ellipses, littered with climbable and unclimbable obstacles). This is not a simple correspondence, because any poetic manifestation of difficulty does not just mimic lived difficulty; rather, in its artfulness it offers a vocabularization of the lived and thereby a much-desired momentary respite that can be referenced in a project of remembering or as a way to avoid or rescript future difficulties. Difficulty as a literary effect and difficulty as lived conflict are connected by a theory of literary mimesis to which Ashbery often has recourse in interviews, the "greater naturalism" quoted above, and which recent critics have emphasized. Poetic difficulty is, here writ, a performance of, figure for, and site of lived difficulty. The literary text offers a removed place where naming, untangling, tangling, figuring, and refiguring can take place. As noted in the above quotation from Ashbery's poem "Haibun," by making pain available stylistically within his poems, Ashbery hopes also to make perspectives and strategies for dealing with it available. This rather general project, or theory and practice of difficulty as mimetically deployable, is most convincingly and exactly described or enacted around homosexual thematics in Ashbery's poetry. A critical project that forgoes making homosexual themes obvious for their own sake also forgoes establishing a ground for his very abstract, overflowing, and sophisticated theories and practices of difficulty, which are, by their nature, themselves difficult.
1 Two examples that consider Ashbery as a love poet writing to a male lover but do not figure homophobia or the particularity of homosexual desire into their discussions are John Keeling's "The Moment Unravels" and Charles Altieri's "Ashbery as Love Poet." Altieri claims that in love poetry "Demonstrating one's seriousness as a poet becomes inseparable from demonstrating a seriousness as a lover responsive to the ways in which the beloved leads the imagination beyond particulars" (31). While this may be a real concern with connecting to an audience, it squashes the particularity of gay desire into the particularity of the beloved. These particulars are not particular in the same way: while a poet may avoid merely describing the beloved in order to invite readers into his poem, and make himself serious as a poet, we must note, for instance, that Ashbery as a love poet never proposes marriage or seeks to define or reflect his love through reproduction. These are cogent, central, and manifest particulars that cannot be brought "beyond particulars." Altieri proposes a fine way to teach Ashbery's poetry, and his approach is not hobbled by its lack of specificity, but more attention to just such particularities could only strengthen his readings. Keeling on the other hand, while recognizing the beloved as male, recognizes nothing else in "Litany" that could make this observation interesting or worthy of attention. He bludgeons the homoerotic scenes the poem offers into bland comments on the passage of time. For Keeling, acknowledging Ashbery's sexuality is just a step he makes in order not to be patently wrong.
2 Growing up gay did make it into her list of thematics a decade later when she reviewed Flow Chart, "A Steely Glitter Chasing Shadows".
3 Catherine Imbriglio makes the point in "'Our Days Put On Such Reticence'" that with a living author one can never tell how much critical silence around homosexuality is the explicit or assumed wish of the author and how much is the function of cultural pressures (253). However, peeling the author's agency regarding self-representation away from a general cultural silence about homosexuality seems too obviously to exonerate other critics. In the case of Vendler's criticism of As We Know, she ignores the gay thematics of the poems in this book. Even if this is at the behest of the author (which seems unlikely), it does not need to be blamed or excused, but simply corrected.
4 Compare Sedgwick 1-63.
5 Edelman 3-23.
6 Bersani 111-81, where he examines the relation of the homosexual to society through the lens of an origin story about gay children feeling necessarily, in his telling, apart from any community from the outset.
7 Ashbery has explicitly addressed closure as a site of authorial strategy in an interview when he was asked whether he ever played a joke on his readers. Ashbery replied:
A gag that has probably gone unnoticed turns up in the last sentence of the novel I wrote with James Schuyler [A Nest of Ninnies]. Actually, it's my sentence. It reads: 'So it was that the cliff dwellers, after bidding their cousins good night, moved off towards the parking area, while the latter bent their steps toward the partially rebuilt shopping plaza in the teeth of the freshening foehn.' Foehn is a kind of warm wind that blows in Bavaria that produces a fog. I would doubt that many people know that. I liked the idea that people, if they bothered to, would have to open up the dictionary to find out what the last word in the novel meant. They'd be closing one book and opening another. (Stitt 36-37)
Ashbery's closural gesture of sending his reader from one book to another is not the only frustration that is happening. Just as the word foehn sends the reader to the dictionary and perverts the novel's closure, so does finding the definition of foehn offer little closural traction within the novel. The final sentence, after all, does not take place in Bavaria, where foehns generally occur. It is an empty gesture that references nothing but itself. This foehn does what foehns more generally do: it blows in fog.
8 In citations within the text, I will refer to John Ashbery's books of poetry and prose as follows:
AWK, As We Know DDS, Double Dream of Spring RS, Reported Sightings ST, Some Trees W, A Wave
9 In his chapter "Homosexuality and the Matter of Style," Yingling makes a claim similar to Shoptaw's. He explores how gay writers have
often found literature less a matter of self-expression and more a matter of coding: from Byron to John Ashbery, the consistent locus of parody in gay texts suggests a self-consciousness about what texts may and may not do. (25)
I will suggest, taking Yingling and Shoptaw's insights as foundational but not complete, that in Ashbery, coding is not an endpoint: it serves to particularize gay experience and if not self-express at least self-locate. Coding does not just not say to avoid self-nominalization, but in Ashbery particularly, it avoids saying in order to declaw the violences of the nominalizing process, thus allowing new forms of identity and identification within gay self-nominalization.
Altieri, Charles. "Ashbery as Love Poet." The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Susan Schultz. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.
-----. "Contemporary Poetry as Philosophy: Subjective Agency in John Ashbery and C. K. Williams." Contemporary Literature 33 (1992): 214-42.
Ashbery, John. As We Know. New York: Penguin, 1979.
-----. Can You Hear, Bird? New York: Farrar, 1995.
-----. The Double Dream of Spring. New York: Ecco, 1970.
----- (with James Schuyler). A Nest of Ninnies. New York: Dutton, 1969.
-----. Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987. Ed. David Bergman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
-----. Some Trees. New York: Ecco, 1978.
-----. The Vermont Notebook. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975.
-----. A Wave. New York: Viking, 1984.
Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Coote, Stephen, ed. The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Edelman, Lee. Homographesis. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Imbriglio, Catherine. "'Our Days Put On Such Reticence': The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery's Some Trees." Contemporary Literature 36.2 (1995): 24989.
Keeling, John. "The Moment Unravels: Reading John Ashbery's 'Litany.'" Twentieth Century Literature 38.2 (1992): 125-51.
Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Shoptaw, John. On The Outside Looking Out. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Stitt, Peter. "The Art of Poetry XXXIII: An Interview with John Ashbery." The Paris Review 90 (Winter 1983): 30-59.
Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
-----. "A Steely Glitter Chasing Shadows - Flow Chart by John Ashbery." The New Yorker (3 Aug. 1992): 73-80.
-----. "Understanding Ashbery." The New Yorker (16 Mar. 1981): 108-36.
Yingling, Thomas. Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
JOHN VINCENT's essay on A. C. Swinburne's novel Lesbia Brandon recently appeared in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. He has published poems in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, and elsewhere.
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|Title Annotation:||gay poet|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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