This essay by Ann Lauterbach is adapted from the lecture on Ashbery she gave at Poets House in New York City (2005-03-25) as part of the "Passwords" series presenting "poets discussing the work of other poets." The ARC understands that a recording of this presentation is available for listening at Poets House, although an audio recording is not currently available at the ARC. The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session. The ARC has a program from the 2004-2005 season at Poets House in which Lauterbach's lecture is listed.
John Ashbery—Mapping the Real: The Given and the Chosenby Ann Lauterbach
The name exists as a language—this is the existing concept of consciousness—that is not fixed, and so it ceases just as quickly as it comes to be; it exists in the element of air.—Hegel
1. The Given
Charles McGrath's recent New York Times review, unhappily, tediously, called "Mapping the Unconscious," of John Ashbery's two new books, one of poems, Where Shall I Wander, and the other, Selected Prose, begins "John Ashbery is our great poet of the interior landscape—all the bric a brac we carry around in the attic of our minds: imagery, quotations, movie dialogue, advertising jingles, song lyrics, snatches of overheard conversation." McGrath tells us, condescendingly, that Ashbery is now the "grand old man," at once wise and ironic, of American poetry; the experience of reading him is, he says, "a little like re-enacting the central drama of most of Ashbery's poems: the experience of suddenly coming upon something that is both deeply familiar and more than a little strange."
I don't know about you, but my mind's attic is filled with very few of these remnant linguistic fragments, and neither is a typical Ashbery poem, which is crammed with objects, nouns of an incalculable variety, abstract to concrete. Let's just turn to the opening poem in the new volume, "Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse": spiders, famine, downtown, neighbors, home, yards, municipality, places, vineyards, bee, hymn, monotony, peace, run, present, pact, heaven, truth, hum, wires, meritocracy, food, table, milk, class, skid-row, style, rock crystal, concern, fears, step, possessions, spring, bears, wolves, shadow, dawn. Hidden in this panoply of things is a map not of the unconscious, but of an Ashberian landscape we recognize as our own. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the most salient traits of Ashbery's work is how peculiarly conscious it is, if by conscious we mean observant, receptive, responsive to the world.Ashbery's habitual displacements, parataxis, diffuse causalities are not portraits of his or our inner mindscapes; he is not interested in the outlines of a self but in an enactment of the ways in which a self and world are as mobile and intertwined as molecules of oxygen. If this mobility happens to include snippets of slogans, songs and conversation, then it is because the air is filled with them. For Ashbery, the self is as porous as it is retentive, as present as it is incipient; it comes into being at the very moment of the poem's shaping, no more concrete and stable than the relationship between air and melody, leaf and sun.
Hasn't the sky? Returned from moving the otherAuthority recently dropped, wrested as much ofThat severe sunshine as you need now on the wayYou go. The reason why it happened only sinceYou woke up is letting the steam disappearFrom those clouds when the landscape all aroundIs hilly sites that will have to be reckonedInto the total for there to be more air: that is,More fitness read into the undeduced result, than land.This means never getting any closer to the basicPrinciple operating behind it than at the distractedEntity of a mirage. The half-meant, half-perceivedMotions of fronds out of idle depths that areSummer. And expansion into little draughts.The reply wakens easily, darting fromUntruth to willed moment, scarcely called into beingBefore it swells, the way a waterfallDrums at different levels. Each momentOf utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentineGesture which hides the truth behind a congruentMessage, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,Tearing it limb from limb at this very moment: butThe sky has pleaded already and this is aboutAs graceful a kind of non-absence as eitherHas a right to expect: whether it's the form ofSome creator who has momentarily turned away,Marrying detachment with respect, so that the piecesAre seen as parts of a spectrum, independentYet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival;Whether on the other hand all of it is to beSeen as no luck.
This is the opening of "Clepsydra," from Rivers and Mountains. Here we have the famous Ashberian discursive, mild, reasoning tone, couched in his flexible syntax, apparently telling us something about reason's great object: truth. But somehow this telling works as an untelling; truth seems to be unstuck, hovering like a mirage, a graceful kind of non-absence, as if we had traveled to a preliminary stage, just before observation steadies itself into image. Ashbery's atmospherics of incipiency, his "staggered times of arrival" lift the jurisdiction of the poem both from the scenic precision of image—window on the world—and from self-regarding mirror, which lies shattered on the ground like one of Robert Smithson's dangerously beautiful heaps. This reticence opens the world to a kind of premonition, almost Edenic in its fluid inclusiveness. Yet, at the same time, the creator has turned away, "marrying detachment with respect," his "authority" recently dropped. Somehow, the imperatives have disappeared.Ashbery discovered Surrealism as a boy, in an article in LIFE magazine on Alfred Barr's famous show "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" at the Museum of Modern Art. He was still living in upstate New York, where he grew up on his father's apple farm, and although captivated by the images, he "didn't know there could be a Surrealist poetry." But "around this time" as he puts it, he also won a current events contest—and, for his prize, received Louis Untermeyer's anthology of modern British and American poets which included Frost, Millay, Wylie, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters—the core of American localism, narration, and earnestness, tilted toward moral lessons: good fences make good neighbors, all that. As is always the case, Ashbery's influences were partly chosen by him and partly chosen for him: he was given Untermeyer's anthology; he chose the Surrealists and WH Auden. I have come to realize the simple, obvious, fact that life is part given and part chosen; a negotiation, argument or conversation, between our physical settings, including our DNA, and the ways in which those settings allow us, permit us, to find or know our will and desire, our purpose.I am perhaps overly fond of quoting Gertrude Stein's assertion that "nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen, and that makes composition." It is still the most succinct accounting for the way art shifts our sense of being in the world. McGrath tells us that Ashbery's "great gift is for the burnishing of ordinary language, for the redeployment of slang and cliché in ways that render the prosaic more poetic. The writing of verse somehow releases him into limberness and playfulness and openness—a happy state that is itself the subject of some of his best poems." Surely John Ashbery has provided more than an opportunity to redeem slang and cliché and ordinary language, more than a sort of yoga class for the psyche, whereby the prose of the world is rendered more limber, "more poetic"? For critics like McGrath, it is clear that the change of which Ashbery is avatar is one in which he finds only the most tepid pleasures; McGrath, and he is not alone, still wants a poetry of personal intensity and literary finesse; he wants to find in Ashbery the old values of self-absorption raised to the level of revelation, a world contained by tidy narratives and vivid descriptions. He charts the Ashberian career through a sequence of shifts in mood, from early "artful abandon" to "slangy, homespun, familiar" to "mellow" "resignation."Since the death of his pal Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery has been the titular head of the first generation of the New York School of poets, a term with which he has never felt particularly at ease. The name came from the gallerist and publisher John Bernard Myers, who was hoping to promote the poets he published by associating them with the New York School of painters. Ashbery's famous "abstraction" is often associated with these painters—Pollock and DeKooning and so forth—but this is, it seems to me, misguided. The artists Ashbery champions are predominantly figurative: Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Anne Dunn, Joe Brainard; Jasper Johns, Joseph Cornell, Giorgio deChirico. Likewise, many of the poets he most admires are among our most concrete: Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, for example. The abstraction in Ashbery finds its origins not in painting or poetry but in music, in Webern and Berio, Cage, Ives, Elliot Carter. His knowledge of and familiarity with twentieth century classical music is astounding.Most of our best critics have written about Ashbery: Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Charles Altieri, Harold Bloom and, most recently, Angus Fletcher. Each has found in Ashbery some aspect that suits his or her theoretical focus and aesthetic needs. For Perloff it is indeterminacy, for Vendler, Romantic song, for Altieri modernist subjective agency, and for Fletcher, whose book is called A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of the Imagination, a vital mapping not of the attic of the mind, conscious or not, but almost the reverse: a kind of open enclosure through which we begin to attain a relationship between ourselves and the world that is so closely calibrated that distinctions between the two lose their boundary. He calls this, somewhat awkwardly, "the environment poem."He writes (p. 227)
If we identify coherence with a loose and notably inconsistent completeness, we reach the artistic representing of environments, a representing pressed so far that the poem actually is an environment. This view would assert that there are two external and real worlds, the one we daily walk around in (or drive through), and the one the environment poet has invented. Both would have equal shares of the real—equal shares of Being. This view blurs the sharp distinction between fictions of fact and fact itself, but the point is that such poems are not about the environment. In some sense they share the same character, the same intrusion, the same coextension in our lives as has the environment. Supposing then that such poems are intended to surround us in exactly the way an actual environment surrounds us, there will occur a breakdown of the old distinction—a classical distinction throughout critical history, no matter how complex its profile at different historical periods—between the world within the poem and the world "out there," outside the poem. The environment poem seeks symbolic control over the drifting experience of being environed, and it introduces the experience of an outside that is developed for the reader inside the experience of the work. While this outside/inside game closely resembles a stream of consciousness technique intended to reveal elusive states of mind, the environment poem converts natural surroundings and their common surrogates, like the furnishing of a house, for example, into a surrounding that actually has more presence than any state of mind. It is as if the dream had become real.
This is a winning concept, I think, and helps us to describe what happens to us when reading Ashbery. But what kind of environment is the Ashbery poem? Reading a poem by John Ashbery can be akin to riding in an airplane. The engine goes smoothly on, its drone uninterrupted and invariable, while the air outside is by turns turbulent or calm, the view a vast blue, or obscured by the pressing clouds; the light brilliant, mottled, or ink dark punctuated by floating stars. Inside the cabin things happen; the cabin is crammed with persons and their belongings and with various devices that make us think we are still in touch with the other, outer, world. It is not always clear we have bought the right ticket; we thought we were heading for Miami but the plane has veered off to Iceland. We thought we were inside a tidy compartment, a poem, but it is suddenly wet and cold and there are strangers flying beside us like a flock of rooks. The poem is the plane, its surround, as well as its destiny.
I have been reading a lot of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze; for unnamable reasons, his writings give me a sense of rapture, as if I were being led blindfolded through fields of unknown but alluring scents. Almost nothing he says has stuck with me, but as I read, I feel an exhilaration that has to do with an intellectual erotics; one is drawn to something other, outside, strange, different, all the while feeling an uncanny sense of recognition. Here he is talking about his work with Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus:
Anti-Oedipus marks a break that followed directly from two principles: the unconscious isn't a theater but a factory, a productive machine, and the conscious isn't playing around all the time with mummy and daddy but with races, tribes, continents, history, and geography, always some social frame. We were trying to find an immanent conception, an immanent way of working with the syntheses of the unconscious, a productivism or constructivism of the unconscious. And we came to see that psychoanalysis had no understanding at all of the meaning of indefinite articles ("a" child ...) becomings (becoming-animal, our relation to animals), desires, utterances. ... Psychoanalysis is unable to think plurality or multiplicity, a pack rather than a lone wolf, a pile of bones rather than a single bone. ... If our book was significant, coming after 68, it's because it broke with attempts at Freudo-Marxism: we weren't trying to articulate or reconcile different dimensions but trying rather to find a single basis for a production that was at once social and desiring in a logic of flows. Desire was at work in reality, we saw only reality all around us, taking the imaginary and the symbolic to be illusory categories.
Is it an accident that Deleuze and Guattari were thinking about "a basis for a production that was at once social and desiring in a logic of flows" at more or less at the same time as John Ashbery was reinventing the poem for our time as, well a production ... at once social and desiring in a logic of flows?
"Nothing changes from generation to generation, except the thing seen, and that makes composition."John Ashbery has made it clear that he had not much interest in talking about himself or his work; he comments, on accepting the Robert Frost Medal, "It ... seemed perfectly natural that the subject of my remarks would be myself, or my poetry, since they—we—are what is getting honored here, though normally I go to extreme lengths not to talk about either of us, because I don't really know that much about us." Over the years, I have heard him make similar demurrals, once saying that "Ashbery" wrote the poems, while he, John, stood by. This non-egotistical space is part of what continues to enrage and disappoint some critics. Ashbery has unmade the egotistical sublime on which so much American poetry still relies. This unmaking explains in part the polymorphous pronouns, where we experience the "I" as only one possible voice among many, akin, I have often thought, to how a single musical instrument—say a flute or violin—might emerge from an ensemble to detail a melodic phrase or passage. If his poems are autobiographical, they are not in the usual senses of recollection or witnessing or telling. They are autobiographical in the sense that they are what is happening to John as Ashbery writes the poem and, in turn, what is happening to us as we read it. He has released American poetry from the staged intensities and moral high-mindedness that continue to stake their claim. By lowering our expectations for the exquisite and rarified, for the cathartic swoon, Ashbery has given us a tolerance for the ordinary which, at any moment, might produce the extraordinary, an appreciation for the banal and mundane that might give us glimpses of the sublime. If the effect of an Ashbery poem, is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, then the object of these inversions is not psychic weather but knowledge. Knowledge of persons, places and things; knowledge as it presses up against the unknown and unknowable; knowledge as it contemplates truth, doubt and error. What moves us in an Ashbery poem is its portrayal, its enactment, of the conversion of experience, of life, into knowledge and knowledge back into life. The poem as a practice of living.Although Ashbery is reluctant to talk about his own work, over the years he has written quite a lot about that of others: his art criticism collected in Reported Sightings, in the Charles Elliott Norton Lectures, Other Traditions and now in a Selected Prose, an assortment of shorter, incidental pieces. My sense is that artists and poets find in the work of their predecessors and peers qualities to admire that are congruent with their own work. Not that we are incapable of objectivity, rather that we are naturally drawn to work that helps us to define our own sometimes inchoate artistic quests. What we admire or respond to in the work of others often shows or demonstrates to us what we value in our own. Here are some excerpts from the new book, Selected Prose.
"Perhaps the word that occurs oftenest ... is the word "they," for this is a poem about the world, about "them." (What a pleasant change from the eternal "we" with which so many modern poets automatically begin each sentence, and which gives the impression that the author is sharing his every sensation with some invisible Kim Novak.) Less frequently, "I" enters to assess the activities of "them," to pick up after them, to assert her own altered importance.""If these works are highly complex and, for some, unreadable, it is not only because of the complicatedness of life, the subject, but also because they actually imitate its rhythm, its way of happening, in an attempt to draw our attention to another aspect of its true nature.""A hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen""a completely new picture of reality, of that real reality""the sudden inrush of clarity is likely to be an aesthetic experience, but ... the description of that experience applies also to "real life" situations, the aesthetic problem being a microcosm of all human problems""It adds up to a tumultuous impression of reality, which keeps swiping at one like the sails of a windmill.""The inability of man to perform the simplest act for himself is assumed from the beginning; his desperation is no longer recognizable as such, having changed to a strangely calm resignation to his fate, which is merely to sit observing the appearance of the objects around him.""The beautiful does not emerge from the artist's hands, but what emerges from the artist's hands becomes the beautiful.""very close to life as it is actually lived""to create nothing less than reality itself, not literature about it""it is no longer the imaginary world but the real one, and it is exploding around us like a fireworks factory, in one last dazzling orgy of light and sound""the impossibility of knowing all; the possibility of a superior knowledge to which we will not obtain""beauty is directly linked to the obscurity of the author's intention""it is rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently what your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is the easier it is to talk about it. At least, I'd like to think so""the spaces between things seem to be getting bigger and more important ... it gets harder to make the connections between things""I too often feel like a person I know nothing about""ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness—or pleasant surprise""I am beset by the notion that it could have been written any other way""anything that is standing still might as well be dead""reality begins at home""inner and outer reality fuse into a find of living fabric""leaving the reader at the right moment, just as meaning is dawning""mysterious urgency""it keeps its secret""the act of creation and the finished creation are the same, that art is human willpower deploying every means at its disposal to break through to a truer state than the present one""late, queer clarity""the core of strangeness""tense, electric clarity""the way things happen naturally is, if we can find it, our best grace""poetry is perhaps the best model for happening""life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach""as strange and marvelous a writer""imminence of a revelation that does not take place is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact"
2. The Chosen
At the University of Wisconsin, where I was an undergraduate, the givens of contemporary poetry were not entirely promising. The confessional poets were in full cry and although I loved John Berryman's Henry sonnets, and was awed by Plath, I knew instinctively that I did not want to follow them. I loved Theodore Roethke's tangling with late Eliot, and Dylan Thomas's mesmeric cadences, but my real discoveries were elsewhere, in nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction, in art history, in the peculiar American struggle with the secular and sacred; in the Bible itself. My desire, still inchoate, realized only as negation, was for a poem with the range of Henry James, where the inner and outer, the subjective and objective, were without clear demarcation; where one was making a world, not just reflecting or describing one. I know Matisse and Guston, Bach, Berlioz, Guthrie, Baez, and Elvis.My first encounter with John Ashbery and his work came in 1971 when I was living in London, having fled there after a failed stab at graduate school at Columbia. Already I had made a decision to become a poet, although I didn't really know why. I had, like Ashbery, wanted to be a painter. Anyway, the art/poetry scene in London in those days was lively; there was a sense of mobility pushing up against the entrenched literary and artistic establishment. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were pop signs of a more pervasive unrest that realized itself in more serious ways. There was an ambient but curiously intense interest in international intellectual/cultural shifts that were pressing on the moribund confines of English taste. Music, fashion, poetry, film, theatre, and the visual arts seemed to be in a state of contagious mutation and eruption; the new seemed to be news. The real news then, as now, was of the grim intransigence of war.A magazine was invented to keep up: Time Out in London. The city was seething with activities.The art scene was in flux; magazines such as Danny Weissbort's Modern Poetry in Translation, and Michael Horowitz's anthology The Children of Albion were bringing new energies to the staid literary scene; David Hockney's charmed paintings with their bright colors and quick drawing, Francis Bacon's roiling monumental figures of an archetypal wounded humanity, the American expatriate Jim Haynes' Arts Lab, the English critic/poet Eric Mottram's interest in new American poetry, turning from high modernism toward the renegade energies of the Beats, Black Mountain, and the New York schools. A poet and translator, Anthony Rudolph, brought a disputatious French poetry across the channel—"l'éphémère" and "Tel Quel." Feminism was in flower, aided by such American presences as Carolee Schneeman, Suzi Gablik, Lynne Tillman. Young English poets included Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Stuart Montgomery and Elaine Feinstein; new publishing houses and magazines were beginning to respond to a new poetics. Asa Benveniste's Ambit and Trigram Press; Montgomery's Fulcrum. The artist Mark Boyle had been the production manager for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I think Hair played the entire time I was there—the age of Aquarius—along with new works by Beckett and Pinter. The polymath Jonathan Miller, who had been a member of the Cambridge comedy group Beyond the Fringe, was in London articulating the world's new age. Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground. We wore floaty layered clothes spiked with colored mirrors, short skirts and high boots. The lyrically naif sweetness of the Beatles clashed with the harsher sexual tonalities of the Rolling Stones: you can't always get what you want . ... Ike and Tina Turner strutted in a SoHo club.Even the class structure seemed to be in flux; social boundaries gave the stolid English reserve an unexpected, sometimes forced spontaneity; there were the famous manners and then there were the mannered gestures of an incipient reckoning, by turns cosmetic and real. There were times when the world did seem to be a stage and the players a motley mix, a restless troupe that alternated between the bawdy exuberance of Chaucer's pilgrims and the existential angst of RD Laing's "divided self." There was a palpable sense that something was happening, but no one knew what it was except, perhaps, Bob Dylan.There was a giddy sense of imminence, as if the world were alternating between collapse, disorder, and a new what? Nameless possibility. I had a date with the painter Lucien Freud and found myself in a netherland of transgressive perversity that seemed to argue, almost biologically, with the elaborated hopes for an enlightened psyche formulated by his grandfather. At all times, I felt the uneasy, pained status of being an American at a time, not unlike this one, of almost universal outrage for what our government was doing.By 1970 I found myself employed at the Institute of Contemporary Art, located in the classical white edifice of Nash House on the Mall, where the "new spirit" took its uneasy foothold. I was hired by the Director, an American named Michael Kustow, to run the publicity department; that is, to write and edit the ICA's eventsheet, which was sent out to its members to announce, and describe, the month's upcoming events. No sooner did I accept the job, than I asked if I could, as well, plan readings. Michael, a burgeoning entrepreneur, was delighted, and so I set about bringing the spoken word—poetry—to the stately home and radical aspirations of our arts emporium.The readings were attended by the usual suspects: other poets, their friends, and a few members of the inquiring public, those who belonged to the ICA and those who did not. The readings were held mostly in a small room upstairs, except on those occasions when a famous writer was in town—say Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote or Robert Lowell—when we snared the auditorium from the lecture series on Linguistics. I planned some events in which poets talked about other poets they admired—I think Elaine Feinstein talked about Charles Olson—but I began to feel that no one really knew what to think about the new poetry.I planned an ambitious series on contemporary French, East European and American poetry called Poetry Information. It was spring 1971. I knew very little about the French and the East Europeans, and not a lot about the Americans. But the program was stitched together nevertheless. I raised moneys from the American embassy and the Arts Council to bring one American poet over. The choice boiled down to two: Gary Snyder, the darling of the burgeoning spiritual ecology movement, or John Ashbery, the urbane young lion of the international art set, who had only recently returned to New York from a ten year stint in Paris. Ashbery had won the Yale Younger Poets prize (beating out his friend Frank O'Hara) with his collection, Some Trees, chosen by W.H. Auden, and had published three more books since: The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains, and The Double Dream of Spring.I cannot now recall why Ashbery was chosen over Snyder. They both captured a part of the shifting urgencies of the time—Snyder turning toward the simplicities and clarities of the spiritual East, Ashbery already ensconced in the complex urbanity of the Eurocentric late modern. They both had strong supporters among the young poets. I wrote to John Ashbery and invited him. He seemed not very interested; he did not want to fly. He hated to fly. Perhaps, if we could put him up at the Ritz, he would agree to fly. We scurried around to find more funds. More funds were found. A room was reserved at the Ritz. Asa Benveniste made an elegant poster, on brown paper: "JOHN ASHBERY: LE CELEBRE POET AMERICAIN." A sudden snag: the film department had claim to the auditorium at the ICA! No place for the reading by the celebrated American poet! But I told you! More scurrying. A trip to the American Cultural Attache. A space at the Embassy, a lovely red velveted auditorium, but John Ashbery did not want to read at the American Embassy! Because of the war! But this is a really nice, enlightened Embassy! They hate the war! OK!Over the course of the days John and David Kermani were in London there were numerous parties and gatherings; John read a second time at the house of the poet Anthony Howell. I took him to Carnaby Street to buy a velvet jacket. After his reading at the Embassy, a reception at the house where Elgar had lived; le tout monde seemed to be present. I remember a sense that I had inadvertently made an important discovery, the nature of which I had only the vaguest sense. The given of my poetic coordinates had shifted radically toward the chosen.After one reading, I said to him, "O Mr. Ashbery, I love cliches!" He looked at me with an expression I have come to know well, a mixture of amusement and kindness and mischief, and said back, "And they love you."I don't recall which poems he read those days in London; I know that the poems in Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Spring were and are crucial for me. I read and reread "The Skaters"; when I returned from London, John and I performed "Litany" together and recorded it for ZBS studios. For myself, I found in his play of multiple pronouns a relief; it suggested that poems might have some of the capacities of fiction and, beyond that, out identities might be understood as formed through a prismatic lens rather than a single monocle. This diversity of self suggested, in turn, that meaning might be found in a new horizontality, in the variousness of a scanning surface rather than in the verticality of layered depth. The intersections of time and space conceived as a fluid field of incident, free from the structural exigencies of causal narrative. His poems habitually make more than one temporal track. Here, for example, is the end of "The Task"
I plan to stay here a little whileFor these are moments only, moments of insight,And there are reaches to be attained,A last level of anxiety that meltsIn becoming, like miles under the pilgrim's feet.
But the poem that has become talismanic for me is "A Blessing in Disguise," whose radial energies, irresolute locale, and shifting intimacies gave me access to a new kind of mystery, as if one found oneself inside of one of Sol LeWitt's gleaming white incomplete open cubes, a kind of transparent labyrinth made to accommodate the most intimate and the most public spaces.One night, my friends Peter and Susan Straub joined John and David for dinner at an Indian restaurant, and then we went back to their room at the Ritz. John stretched out on the bed; the rest of us deployed ourselves around the room, one wall of which was all mirrors. John had just finished a series of long prose poems, which he had with him in manuscript. He read to us. From time to time he turned his head and caught sight of himself in the mirror; at one point, he raised his leg and flexed his foot, admiringly. "Not bad" he said, interrupting Ashbery's poem to admire John's ankle.This is what he read to us:
I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.
The flowers were
These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on
to divide all.
Or, as yesterday's New York Times editorial put it: "we wake up thinking we know what we know, only to find that we have to think all over again."
Ann Lauterbach, March 2005Presented here by permission of the author.Copyright © 2005, 2006 Ann Lauterbach