Words, perception, memory and poetry: John Jenkins reviews ‘Ashbery Mode’ edited by Michael Farrell

Ashbery Mode, edited by Michael Farrell, TinFish Books, Hawaii, 2019

Ashbery Mode is an anthology of poems by 67 of some of the brightest and most innovative contemporary poets from all around Australia; and also contains a 1992 photo portrait of John Ashbery, plus a thumb-nail sketch and several concrete poems. I also have a poem included, but will endeavour to be objective.

As the title suggests, this book is a sort of local Oz salute to that quintessential New York poet, who died in 2017 aged 90, and acknowledging his ongoing influence, which is predominantly viewed as positive, though some poems are more ironically situated as reflections certain of Ashbery’s approaches and overall legacy.

As Michael Farrell points out in his introduction: “Ashbery Mode acknowledges the significant influence – and appreciation – of John Ashbery and his poetry in Australia… (and) is important for several generations of Australian poets.”

Indeed, it is fascinating to discover how each of the 74 poems included might relate, whether in part or obliquely – or sometimes glaringly – to Ashbery.

The unifying element seems to be tone, a slightly evasive concept, which includes not just vocal sounds, but the general attitude or character of what is written. As Farrell notes: “(Ashbery’s) control of tone seems to allow him to say anything, which is liberating.” Or, as Anne Vickery affirms in an inside-cover blurb: “(This book is…) Less a lyrebird mimicry and more a loving, expansive conversation with Ashbery.”

There is a wide inclusiveness in Ashbery’s own work that incorporates all manner of stylistics, from the formal and even strictly architectural to the wildly free-ranging; from the discursive, repetitive and every-day, to the odd, surreal, jokey and humorous. And the same freedom is given free rein here.

Ashbery was born in 1927, and spent his childhood on a farm. He became a Harvard graduate, where he befriended a slew of later NY poets. He worked briefly as an ad man, then lived and worked in France, translating modernist works into English. He then spent the remainder of his years in or near New York. In the mid-1960s he hooked up with Andy Warhol and ‘The Factory’ crew. He also worked extensively as an art critic/journalist, and was later a teacher. Ashbery wrote 20 books of poetry, including pulling off a Pulitzer at age 50 for his influential Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. This ekphrastic work reflects on a somewhat cheesy self-portrait by the Italian painter Parmigianino (1503-1540), a flattering image, rendered in the Mannerist style. The image is obliquely and dramatically sky-lit, set in a curved, semi-circular mirror, and with the artist’s fore-shortened and bejewelled hand in the foreground. Ashbery’s poem is also appropriately reflective.

In many of the poems in Ashbery Mode, the relationship to any distant mentor is oblique, but still reasonably evident, I think: partly a matter of a shared high or post modernist style, but much more because of some underlying concerns; a preoccupation with the provisional nature of thought, and shifting cross-fluidity between words, perception, memory and poetry.

In Wendy Fleming’s Waiting Room Machine 6, Head and Neck, Radiotherapy, Peter Macallum Clinic, a group of people sit in a cupboard-like ward. The situation is both all too real and entirely surreal, and this effect is only heightened if one knows that Fleming once worked as a senior nurse. The poem is tempered by a deeply compassionate tone, but also steeled by an entirely objective and truthful accountancy:

Six times I sit here & no one discusses
weather. Members of this club
are beyond the vanilla of cloud talk.
The woman in the padded plastic chair
skull swathed in a navy turban
white and red Scotty dogs a-leaping
studies a yellow appointment form.

In this tedious space, Fleming says:

We all have a yellow sheet of appointments… 

…No piped music on lower level, 2…

Here, people stare at wall prints, or at vapid daytime TV. Finally, Fleming stoically reveals how:

My husband was fitted for a face mask
a head shell to be worn on the radiotherapy table
Keeps his head still…
……for each guided dose of penetrating radons
measured and aimed very precisely for a direct hit.

There is an experience of quickly becoming ‘lost’ within some poems in this book, particularly in the absence of conventional sign-posts or references. Yet, there is also, and perhaps paradoxically, a sense of familiarity and rightness about this! As if the shifts of attention – between things in any poet’s mind, and the surrounding real world – are organic and thus apt to any convincing description of daily life. For example, in Luke Beesley’s Timber Hitch, we learn how:

She folds over into the sunlight and I decide to use it. Sun, light, is
a study buildings study of sunlight intercepting a hessian bag of
oats the shade drawn, drawing. I tell her to draw a bath and laugh. She
points it out – cards hearts. Calls me back on the landline and I imagine
her in a paddock. The centre of the woods. The tree splinter-ed. Leaves
the door pencilled losses: Ashbery. It is a still life. Still life.

Here thoughts keep jumping wildly around, as a woman artist folds a drawing over, and the poet/co-artist keeps communicating with her, and this eventually makes him think of Ashbery, who he then renders in a thumbnail sketch, titled “Ash”, which is printed below the poem.

Peter Minter’s I Just Do Eyes. J, J, Just Eyes is particularly dream-like, and a poem in which texts self-generate. It begins surreally:

Men with orange shovels
……arrive at the so-called ‘dawn of life’
as I return to the same strange dream:
…pine trees in cool, extrinsic blocks
…..fall from a sentence above…

Sometimes a poem’s dream-like quality is oddly ‘realistic’. After all, dreams are a huge part of anyone’s life. For example, over Ashbery’s own 90 years – when, let’s say, he slept about eight hours a night, and even if he dreamed for only two of them – that adds up to nearly eight years!

Ashbery was past master of the conversational or ‘chatty’ mode. And Mark Mahemoff’s Dear Superman registers more than touch of faux nostalgia, often leavened by surreal asides. Actually it’s a letter to his super hero, as the poet fondly remembers and talks to his familiar childhood pal:

…how we walked in the snow at night
I have a photo of you then, all bright
red flash-camera eyes
or those summer evenings we spent
sitting on the mailbox,
or the bubbler-gum chewing contests
on Pam’s front lawn?
We were so invincible then…

Ken Bolton’s Late Night Reading combines two conversing voices, in a very low-key and relaxed ‘dramatic’ poem, in which an imaginary hello takes place:

I am reading
Some Trees by
John Ashbery…
…& it
always makes me feel
very young…
… So there we are, very young.
We have never met…
…In fact, he has spoken….
…“I didn’t catch your name.”
It’s a question,
but he says it
in the flat, polite,
American way…”
“…I’m a fan.”
“Very nice to meet you.”

In the poem Bolton shows a mastery of both cool, deadpan humour and this interactive mode.

There is a slightly similar tone in Laurie Duggan’s Allotment #66:

coppiced beech
a dumped mattress…

……………………….red wood ants build hills with
……………………………………………….these splinters…

WARNING// Do not play
on the sculptures

…………these have disappeared
…………replaced by foxgloves…

What was once an outdoor art display has apparently decayed and returned to nature. But in a final throwaway, some stray bit of glitter, or rather litter, obtrude into the last line – perhaps courtesy of our trashy nature-destroying consumer culture – as the poet notices: “a sachet of HP sauce on the track”.

The environment is no longer able to be simply swept under the carpet in Jill Jones’ View (Adelaide) Hills, a poem full of interesting repetitions, which only become more insistent:

Surely there was life, once in those seams
and then it’s back to work again, more work
and the pollution attendant on it.
We entered, and presto!

And then it’s back to work again, more work…

Until the final stanza weaves some previous lines, thus:

The beginning of a festival is a nice place to be.
Surely there was life, once in those seams.
I mean, don’t you see the silhouetted foothills too,
and the pollution attendant on it?

There is often a similar ‘pebble in the shoe’ and touch of grit in Ashbery; an earthiness just below his polished shoes flashing across the tar and cement of Fifth Avenue. As Farrell puts it so well: “The earthy eruptions of Ashbery’s poetry show the farming history of his later urbanity, the flannel shirt beneath the suit…” Denis Gallagher’s A Cushion, subtitled ‘For JA at 70’, also succinctly tugs at and reveals the cosmopolitan flâneur’s still-fresh farming roots.

Can you tell a book by its cover? Well, Ashbery Mode’s certainly hints strongly. It shows a happy, smiley 1950s family, with TV-portrait Mum and bow-tied American Dad, plus several happy kiddies, their pooch, and an added cute koala.

As Farrell notes: “Ashbery’s poetry can be read in terms of a childhood image, providing a comfort and ease that underlies, what at times seems, the surface obscurity of context.” But this idealised family also looks a parody of itself, and not without a fair slap of kitch.

Appropriately, there is irony aplenty in Adam Ford’s Paradise, which certainly combines ‘high’ with ‘low’ art. This witty poem literally supports a cast of angels, archangels, Muses, and other supernatural beings. Each of its stanzas is script-like, as if directing the next episode in some odd terrestrial/celestial soap opera. Here’s Verse 1:

Malakh lands himself in trouble.
Abdiel acts indifferently during a movie date with Gabriel.
Metatron defends Sachiel’s decision to breastfeed in public.
Uriel promises to watch Arariel in the sprint race.

The poem follows these recurring ‘characters’, tracking their unfolding and unlikely roles.

Irony also abounds in Robyn F. Peck’s What A Stupid Night, which at first glance seems a bizarre fantasy, but is actually based on a real story, that of Gérard de Nerval, the nom-de-plume of French writer Gérard Labrunie. Note, ‘brunie’ sounds like ‘browny’, thereby registering a matey Oz tone, when the poem tells us how:

Browny walked a lobster
on a pale blue ribbon.
“This lobster does not bark
and it knows the secret of the deep.”

He ate ice-cream from a skull,
carried it round as a drinking vessel.
“This skull, it was Mum’s.
Had to murder her to get it.”

When he tossed his chapeau to a hippo
his friends all shrieked with laughter.
“Absolutely incroyable, Browny!”

Note how there’s real shock value re Nerval’s mad lie about his odd drinking vessel. But the poet’s flagrantly displayed eccentricity does have a very dark side, as we soon learn:

…With an old apron string
he hung himself one winter’s morning …

Passers-by found his body…

…Flopping from an iron nail.”

Reading between the lines, as it were, Peck seems to suggest that ‘Browny’ should have really taken himself quite a bit more seriously.

Ashbery embraced his life-long gay identity, and eventually married his partner of 35 years, David Kermani. Appropriately, there is a multi-talented array of proudly gay and lesbian poets represented in Ashbery Mode; all sharing pages of this book with poets of straight or bi or who knows what sexual orientation, also freely included. This just adds to its wide variety and inclusive appeal.

Close to one of Ashbery’s many recurring concerns are poems that have an infatuation with the continuous slippage of often discarded or unexamined ‘ordinary’ moments, of day-to-day experience. They can be seen as an enabling medium of consciousness itself, as well as being deeply poetic, in the sense of ‘mysterious’ or ‘elusive’. Connected to this sense is a pre-occupation with mortality, the impermanent and provisional nature of places and scenes that may have once seemed stable and secure, but which become insubstantial and increasingly diaphanous through the inevitable erasure of time. This dimension can be experienced through quick collage jumps between thoughts and their tangled threads, combined with quickly sampled flashes of reality.

The title of Nicolas Powell’s poem, Omena, is also the Finnish word for apple, and there’s more of that language in his poem, as we soon find:

Laitteet, the Finish word
for the fairground rides
on the hill in the distance
translates as ‘gadgets’…
………… The gadgets
still as the horizon they pepper
and closed for winter, remain lit.
I take my bite and leave my apple,
omena, miniature omen, on the bench.
When I return its flesh is brown.”

In some poems movement must bring change, and everything changes as it moves – akin, in a sense, to a certain feeling when reading Ashbery, that meaning is always slipping back and forwards in time, and is never pinned down precisely, because language and experience, to be truly alive, are animated by a somewhat unpredictable sense of ‘provisional ongoing-ness’.

Kent MacCarter’s Regarding that Brunette from Omaha, sub-titled After : “The Little Black Dress” refers to an Ashbery poem from the latter’s Hotel Lautreamont. It begins:

What was all that gossip about being alone
in the lumber business? Here the map is creased
reversible, like a windbreaker unzipped on Swedish pine…

But as repeated lines become more insistent, and seemingly disconnected, any ultimate meaning seems at one with pure invention, and probably meant to vary with each reader and reading.

Not surprisingly, Ashbery Mode contains numerous references to artworks and things visual; to art criticism, films and cartoons, as well as to the ordinary visual world around us. Michelle Cahill’s A Crystal Exegesis, for example, gives astute new meaning to the seemingly chancy, when she describes how:

…parked cars are randomly intimate…

Joanne Burns’ witty poem, Streak, also makes its interesting mark, first reflecting on jet-trail streaks in the sky, then to how, quote:

………….clothes are returning from
the laundromat covered in fresh stains this is reality not irony
– or oxymoronia, the stain economy is a growth industry…
…would you rather have a new bible
a folio copy of macbeth or five hundred handy tips on stain

Apparently, Ashbery liked to observe the sky a lot, and in Julie Chevalier’s Cloud Cover one drifting apparition appears as:

…a ghost ship sipping iced tea…

Cloud-watching is all about nested levels of shifting attention; enjoying pleasant half-trances and daydream. Chevalier’s cloud poem has a slightly hypnotic effect, as we drift between various levels of consciousness, re-surfacing and re-focusing through connected states of awareness. Clouds are also extremely ordinary observations: so here we again have both ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the same parcel: eyes in the sky, but feet on the ground. Of course, young children also like cloud pictures, as a primary exercise of the imagination.

That same sky is certainly full of drama in Toby Fitch’s All the Skies Above Girls on the Run, which has a breathless, collage-like quality, while suggesting an unspecified sci-fi scenario. Fitch’s poem mentions a mysterious “big flash in the sky”, perhaps a meteorite shower, where the

air was like sludge & yellow winds turned
the trailer park to dust…

Suffice it to say that:

…in the twilit nest of evening some
thing was coming undone
the sun was going down & down & down
for the last time sun on this broad day you make us forget
dissolve in the crystal furnace…

Of course, cinema is predominately visual, and Jeltje’s witty (After Fellini) Written in Café Olive has a strange wisdom, energy, and insight, which then fully squares the circle, by being composed of seemingly unrelated, staccato-rhythmic lines, which actually do add up, and quite effortlessly, into a single idea: about remaining known, relevant and attractive to one’s fickle audience, as in:

… there were holes
in the curtain (somebody had used it / as a parachute)
I can assure you, free-falling is
It just means you don’t have any
friends (they’d hold you back, / of course!)….
Artists all tell each other
that the audience will come back to see them
(a strange creature, it seems to lurk
in dark corners)
Sometimes a million feet (like centipedes)
go up the ramp…
…a friendly road runner of sorts
Keen to say hello, but not enough time granted
for a lengthy chat…
…Dreaming of sausage sizzles and festive crowds /
cheering the performers…

The tone of the word ‘ash’ suggests softness and gentle melancholy; a brooding sense of resignation and loss, but perhaps also of ironic detachment, which might keep the trauma of tragedy at bay. Jennifer Harrison’s sestina, There Were Daffodils, combines intricate repetition with atmospheric memories of her mother, the emotions more convincing because understated:

there were daffodils once, yellow as coffins
I arranged them tight and straight the way my mother did
but I could not make them tall; they were the beloveds
siting in the vase’s yellow edges drinking towards summer …
..I arranged them straight and tight the way my mother did.

A familiar sense of ‘domesticity’ may be key to any stable civilization, and Ashbery was never averse to poems which deliberately risk conventional subject matter and even naivety, seen as either friend or faux (sorry!); because these can become staples of interiority, of imagination and the continuous flow of thought. Many poems in this collection, likewise, explore a poetic process though which our imaginations and memories are able to re-construct places once significant to us, and re-assemble them as both artefacts of aesthetic contemplation and also personal milestones of identity. This can be combined with what Farrell calls Ashbery’s signature “airiness”.

For example, in Ashley Capes’ Black Comedy, things start out domestic enough, before his trains of thought literally gurgle down the sink. The poet begins by thinking about the humorously macabre 1955 Hitchcock classic, The Trouble With Harry, in which a body is found on a hillside, then buried and dug up again several times, and also briefly stowed in a bathtub, because no one knows how Harry has died or what to do with him. It ends happily enough, with smiles all round – including for Harry, even though, of course, his trouble is that he’s dead. Capes’ poem begins with washing bits of a pasta off a plate:

the trouble with harry
reminds me of matriciana now ,
and when doing the dishes…
…because I can’t stop
thinking, about butterflies…
…will I , in fact, be able
to laugh at my body
as its lowered into a hole…
… my teeth  …maybe
whitened too, in case wherever I’m going
I’d need a great smile? 

The general playfulness of the New York School, and of Ashbery, is given full scope here. As Farrell accurately notes: “(Ashbery’s) irony is a playful one… (He) showed it was okay to be humorous in poetry, that poems need not always be decorous, nor earnest.”

Javant Biarujia’s Exercise in Franglais (After Ashbery) is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, a comic and free-wheeling French lesson, perhaps satirizing UNESCO’s 2008 designation of Melbourne as a City of Literature, and where commuters – or so goes Biarujia’s mocking conceit – are now to be found at every turn indulging in very vocal literary and critical discussions. It begins with the poet on a bus trip, and observing an older man literally step on a younger critic’s toes. The latter then finds a new seat and a book abandoned there, The Straphanger’s Guide to Radio City, which might have something to do with New York. Anyway, possibly at St Kilda station (perhaps conflated with Gare Saint-Lazare) several budding literati/glitterati types are having a loud and heated critical debate, when there is suddenly a terrible crash of some sort, as the curtain falls on the poem’s mock-opera finale.

Stephen J. Williams’ Ode to John Tranter is also very jokey; a four-page poetic diatribe, equally laced with straight-talking and absurd humour. It’s about the glum trials of a ‘battler’ poet, as he scales various imposing barriers put up by numerous cultural institutions he must encounter:

it may be just another
boring day…
and you could sit in front of the bar-heater
smoking pages of the Times Literary Supplement
one by one and
learning to write by osmosis
or spontaneous combustion…

Of course, we are all on a journey both personal and impersonal, for no one escapes their moment of history, and which we must internalise to some degree, by registering moments and reminders, and often seemingly unassuming bits of evidence – both small and large – of the changing face of history, just as hyper-modernity and its ‘isms’ catapult us all into the new big unknowns of the digital age. Larger-scale cultural references can also be deeply personal, but also apply to everybody. Part of this tapestry are poems which make mental leaps to connect random additions, in order to freely sketch a larger picture. Life’s fragmentary and impressionistic quality can then provides a wider context. Reading some of Ashbery’s poems, indeed, is like unfolding a fan, with each fold revealing separate lines, which the reader must creatively re-combine.

This task is made explicit in Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Ashen Homage to Ashbery:

…When we were children, a different aesthetic
held us in its arms…
moving unwittingly between litotes and
parataxia: Biggles would fly forever, looping
the loop…

Parataxis means a rapid sequence of thoughts seeming to occur all at once; and litotes refers to affirmatives expressed contrarily, as in “I shall not be unhappy”. A side-ways glance at Ashbery’s oeuvre reveals how both these strategies may be employed, but are never too disruptive, because, as Wallace-Crabbe reminds us, Ashbery’s childhood happiness always underpinned his maturity, expressed through ironic understatement:

…taking it all in short pants
and mother’s arms.

Sometimes a reader’s attention can be very fast-tracked indeed, as in Tim Grey’s From Bio, which employs automatic, free-associative writing, a bit like staccato jerks of Morse code, which here gradually fill out the picture of a terrible accident:

…because he spoke a lesion opened in pink, gastropodal, the plosive
stud of gravel under cheek inflated with invasion’s darkening surprise…
…with eyes like two scallop shells
and a taxi ploughing into his bicycle in the box-smoked dusk…

Traditional (and particularly repetitive) forms, such as the sestina, pantoum and villanelle still have a wide appeal, as their possibilities are literally (and mathematically) endless. There are a good number of examples in Ashbery Mode, as Farrell notes in his introduction: “(Ashbery) is also a poet who seems to deploy and change form with ease… He … fostered the revival of the sestina. ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’, featuring Popeye, is one of Ashbery’s best known poems.” In Ashbery Mode, the pantoum is certainly no tomb, the villanelle no villain, and sestina might remain a rich gleaner of meanings.

Ashbery was also interested in New Music – particularly post Shoenberg, including Cage and co. – with its ‘aleatory’ or seemingly dice-thrown and random notes. And, in this book, a similar infatuation with sound as well as sense is often evident. In addition to this, for many Ashbery-ites poetry seems equally to be about language itself, about having insights into the processes of language, and how our subjective and objective orientation in the world grows out of an instinct for how language works, according to its associative shifts.

So far, I have looked mainly at the pros and positives of Ashbery’s legacy, as it is registered in this collection. But what of the negatives, particularly in our present era of anti-nature climate crisis and push-back denial? Well, it could be argued that ‘urbanity’s’ other side, is a sort of stand-off against nature: insulating humanity behind endless cityscapes, sophisticated streets, apartments, nightclubs and media platforms, to erase connections with the bedrock of reality that sustains everyone on our little blue planet. And if bright lights, big city have got to everybody’s head, it might be to our collective cost.

Just consider global warming, acidification of oceans, melting permafrost, and destruction of forests (the world’s lungs) all for a passing buck. In Australia, does a toxic masculinity also preside in both boardrooms and the open cut; when young boys play with toy cars in the sandpit, but never grow up, graduating from billycarts to bulldozers, then nurturing a hidden anti-feminine bias as they further ravage ‘mother’ nature?

In an age of fractured narrative and consciousness, with simulacra everywhere, like an endless mental Moomba parade, with moments interrupted by endless copies of themselves, flashing into the mind like a multi-media hit squad, everyone addled by ads, speedy transport, constant updates and rewinds, claims on our attention, digital daydreams, multi-media distractions… and when no one seems to be able to hold onto a thought for more than a millisecond… with multiple minds jumping about like a global case of attention deficit disorder … Well, it’s a wonder that any poem is ever completed. So, is the full stop on distractions already been tossed overboard…?

In Liam Ferney’s Adrift we see a satirical reduction to ephemera, ultra-trite and ultra-right formulas, late consumer capitalism’s bogan slogans and the empty B-movie scripts of an uncaring cash-and-carry culture:

…while the Aussie dollar remains steady alongside
the greenback swapping kisses for cigarettes
takes on the chivalrous ceremony of religion.
…From a marketing perspective perhaps I should sell
the rights for these poems to the producers of a movie…
not time enough to write epics so I’m left instead
to staccato salutations manifesting rapid permutations…

There is an interesting theory about the pervasive denial of history in the United States, leading to its manufacture and celebration of celebrity culture, endless tinsel glitz and glamour, and avoidance of seriousness, now so evident in the Trump era, as democracy is reduced to some second-hand reality TV series, where every criticism can be dismissed as equally fake and manufactured.

This ‘denial’ theory goes something like this: that the smiling self-parody and surface parade of American popular culture glosses over deep traumas characteristic of actual US history: starting with initial conflict between Britain and other colonial powers; then settlers warring against native Indian peoples; then Revolutionary war against the British; followed by wars of continental expansion and rapid economic growth based on violent exploitation of black slaves; then the doubly traumatic Civil War; after which Jim Crow laws were reinstated in the South; and, more recently, the 1920s Wall Street collapse, followed by anti-Communist paranoia, the Cold War and arms race.

The theory posits that all of the above has spawned a winner-takes all, kill or be killed ethos, plus near-insane infatuation with guns, and ongoing huge disjunct between rich and poor. In short, serious traumas have been conveniently swept under the happy-faced fun and frivolity of the US cultural carpet, sustained by the American dream/myth that anyone can make it there, to great richness and fame. Perhaps a hint of this is parodied in Ashbury Mode’s kitschy-coo cover, literally a ‘cover story’ disguising a more worrying underbelly.

Mannerist distortion, too, can soon become impoverishment of reality, a reduction down to mere “stylistics’, with appearances exaggerated and made hyper ‘elegant’. Such art can become florid in its extremes and deliberately artificial, turning a collective back on very pressing problems, while under the spell of fashion-aping and shallow distractions. Furthermore, it may not be such a big jump from this to flirting with a deliberate frivolity and bad faith, with pretentiousness and excess. Such a rash trash culture openly rewards the superficial, as we now witness it beaming from the blighthouse of Trump Tower, where responsibility and integrity may be reduced to just another celebrity glitter parade, a reality TV show, one both consumed and all-consuming, yet risking an entire population’s loss of integral identity, not to mention a badly damaged democracy. What can be seen as ‘harmless fun’ might be superficial shallow glitz and entertainment, a diet of popcorn, without real sustenance. Lurking behind the playful ‘irony’ is a deliberate tackiness, with Pop culture always on the lookout for baubles, bangles and beads, and by genuflecting to cons and careerists.

Yet perhaps more importantly, Ashbery has made us much more aware of how things actually play out, as part of the larger reality we already inhabit. In that sense, he is a sort of meta-realist, perceptively illuminating forces that both prop reality up and simultaneously tear it down, thus tracing change.

 D. J. Huppaz’s poem, Scenic Interlude, asks the question:

why did you flatten the horizon
into orange? Now it smells of
dried air…”

And it ends with this gobbledygook management speak:

accumulations of data often resemble
schools of management. we should
calibrate some robust metrics around this.

Then there’s Pam Brown’s Antipodean Default Mode, starting with a repeating, refrain-like line, “they were living in Australia”, which is then qualified by the next line, ending with this sequence:

…they were living in Australia
like true blue Americans…
waking in fright…
never looking back.

Susan Hawthorne’s Infernal Sestina very pointedly lists the ills of world, and how we might all be complicit (to some small degree) in its “strife”, routine “thieving”, “piracy of the poor”, “violence” and “avarice”; with writers perhaps bringing all these questions into the flickering light of public consciousness, but never to ultimate accountability, because the political reality remains, that: “…the slippery slope of hell ends with betrayers no charges laid…”

Back-tracking again, there was a time when Australian artists and writers suffered the inferiority complex of the “cultural cringe”, which dictated that only those living in Britain could be recognised as legitimate or anything more than laughably provincial, because Australia was always made to rhyme with failure. In contrast, Henry Lawson noted that Americans affected a “cultural swagger” rather than cringe.

Of course, America prevented the possible capture of Australia by Japan in World War 2. Did we thus become a minor Pacific war-trophy, and doormat client state, and only more so during the Cold War era, with our national foreign policy faxed in from Washington? We certainly embraced American culture, in supermarkets, on TV, white goods, radio hit parades, movies and our way of life in the post-war boom years. And that certainly wasn’t all bad, adding hugely to life’s pleasures becoming more available to all. But perhaps the same old residual cringe factor resurfaced when Oz poets began aping New Yorkers, including Ashbery, in the 1960s and onwards. Did we take on a false cloak of cosmopolitism? After all, the spectacular, high-rise urbanity of New York is nothing like the typical experience of Australians. Although about 90 per cent of us live in coastal urban areas, with Sydney and Melbourne now undergoing an historic apartment construction boom, still by far the greater number of Australians inhabit those endlessly sprawling mid and outer suburbs. So was the New York dream just tinsel, and longed-for fantasy? Just another way to bleach the old convict stain, and aspire ourselves out of a cultural tangle of post-colonial apron strings? Is the American Dream in Oz one of blindly copying yet another foreign culture, of collecting idealised tokens, badges of fashion, of celebrity culture, of shallow kow-towing and being in with the in crowd, yet still unable to create and assert a unique national culture and self-confidence of our own?

It must be said that some recent signs are very positive: marriage equality in Australia, increasing multi-culturalism, a wide-spread re-born feminism, climate activism motivating the young, and inclusion of first nations in our national debates, and particularly culture.

On this note, B. R. Dionysius, in The Cold Work of Stones, perhaps questions any lasting legacy of Ashbery:

We skimmed only the flattest rocks
across the face of the freshwater lake
deftly as the steel-grey hubcaps
we frisbeed into the deep / blue belly of night…
…We thought that maybe he was divining
for some secret purpose to his life…

But, Dionysius concludes:

He sank completely out of sight…
His ripples ending
as quickly as they / had begun…

There seems an interesting tension here, as to the many possible positives and negatives of Ashbery’s overall legacy, demanding an even-handed balance and fair accounting.

Ashbery, one could strongly argue, was (and still is) an essential bulwark against po-faced poets and fusty academicists; against the narrowly-focused and tiresomely formulaic; against manufactured seriousness, a received gravitas, and mandatory high-art references and attendant snobbery. Ashbery, I believe, helped to throw open an important and very wide door to genuinely creative poets, artists, critics and composers, strongly encouraging the innovative, the individual and the unique.

As Farrell reminds us: “…(Ashbery) is as experimental as he wants to be at any particular time, without any kind of program. You can take or leave his more experimental work… His poetic is informed but not earnest, his affect amused, benevolent even.” Furthermore, as Farrell adds, Ashbery’s work might appeal: “…to poets who are interested in ‘trying things’… without proclaiming anything like a manifesto, or position statement.”

Certainly, Ashbery Mode reflects this huge diversity and freedom, and is refreshingly democratic and inclusive. There is the opaque and the easily accessible; while the obscure, avant-garde and experimental go hand-in-hand, and sometimes in the same poem, alongside the popular and easily accessible. Pop culture and high culture – the twin highs and the lows of our cultural moment – are both shown as building blocks of contemporary history.

There is also a mother-lode of humour and dead-pan wit, often conflated with hard-nosed commentary about ordinary things, as well as daring innovation. In short, there is a great generosity, fully acknowledging the contradictions of our modern age – now with its hi-speed streaming of data and entertainment, sampled image-flash moments, and everything simultaneously competing for our (often too brief) attention.

As Aden Rolf says in his poem, Exchanges:

We expected…
Some direction, some push…
for living in the present continuous…

And perhaps we finally got this with Ashbery.

Finally, I must give the last celebratory word to Oscar Schwartz, whose poem, Wine, declares:

This wine smells sweet
And tastes purple, It resonates with no acidity…
This wine reminds me of a Persian King’s party…
A primordial swig made to stain…
And it rests in cleft chins
Drips down through alleys of stubble…

Of course, any final toast to Ashbery must end with a decidedly Oz tang, and Schwartz concludes:

This wine is sacred beer.
And it is to be served in jugs.

Ashbery Mode is an important book, not only for its careful editing and the diversity and quality of its contents, but for the timely and critical questions it raises.

 – John Jenkins


John Jenkins is a widely published writer, working across poetry, short fiction and non-fiction. He resided in Sydney in the mid-to-late 1970s, and now in Melbourne’s semi-rural, Yarra-side fringe. His latest collection, Poems Far and Wide, was published by Puncher & Wattmann last year. Meanwhile, John is working on a quadrella of novellas, plus collection of short stories. He can be found at www.johnjenkins.com.au

Ashbery Mode is available from https://tinfishpress.com/?projects=ashbery-mode-book

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