John Ashbery’s things

jsJohn Ashbery’s things

In a recent piece for Hazlitt, Chris Randle takes the opportunity to “gawk at” John Ashbery‘s possessions, even as the poetry of the famously “inscrutable elder” remains obscure. John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things, an exhibition showing at the Loretta Howard Gallery in Chelsea until November 2nd, displays the keepings of Ashbery’s home in Hudson, New York. The show’s curators, poets Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings, took a number of pieces from Ashbery’s 19th-century house—“paintings, portraits, books, collages, furniture, toys, and a warping convex mirror,” Randle lists. The objects’ associations and meanings are left open: “There are stanzas alongside them on the walls, but the exhibition eschews crude X/Y associations to try to display a process stilled.”

The items included are not only Ashbery’s own ephemera; due to his prominence in the art and poetry worlds, the exhibition also cites works by Joe Brainard, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell, among others. Randle, though, loves the items most that seem most ordinary:

Felix the Cat toys. Postcards collaged together by Ashbery himself. The sturdy black typewriter he still composes all his verse on. A bookcase filled with admired antecedents (Henry Green, Ronald Firbank, The Spoils of Poynton), close friends (James Schuyler, who co-wrote Ashbery’s only novel A Nest of Ninnies, and Harry Matthews), and intriguing strangers (Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment).

These commonplace materials, too, are what I have enjoyed in artists’ collections. I loved, at Jane Austen’s house, a banister smoothed splinterless partly by her hands; in the Wallace Stevens Collection at the Beinecke Library at Yale, a leather billfold softly stamped with a gold WS. (The most useful part of Stevens’ collection at Yale, actually, was once literal junk: the donor, whose parents rented an apartment in Hartford to Stevens and his family, wrote that his mother would occasionally grab Stevens’ penciled pages from the trash can. These were the drafts that became Harmonium.)

Curators Fitzgerald and Skillings seem to feel the same. As Randle wrote,

It’s a genial, allusive, and frivolous collection, like many of [Ashbery’s] literary ones. The exhibition, which was curated by two younger poets, doesn’t even tag any items, let alone attempt to explain them in theoretical language. I peered at a glass desk several times before realizing that it belonged to the gallerists, not their guest. Like Ashbery’s sharp turns on an enjambment, they’ve made the quotidian disorienting.

Read the entire story here.

1 thought on “John Ashbery’s things

  1. Daffy Duck In Hollywood
    by John Ashbery

    Something strange is creeping across me.
    La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
    Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from
    Amadigi di Gaula for everything–a mint-condition can
    Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
    Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile
    Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
    Stock–to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
    Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland
    Fling Terrace. He promised he’d get me out of this one,
    That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s
    Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s attenuated
    Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit
    Are its lineaments–fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s
    Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call
    Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of
    Silence. Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky
    Over the Fudds’ garage, reducing it–drastically–
    To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on
    A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover. Suddenly all is
    Loathing. I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet
    Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island–no,
    Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings,
    The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of
    Vegetal jacqueries, plumed, pointed at the little
    White cardboard castle over the mill run. “Up
    The lazy river, how happy we could be?”
    How will it end? That geranium glow
    Over Anaheim’s had the riot act read to it by the
    Etna-size firecracker that exploded last minute into
    A carte du Tendre in whose lower right-hand corner
    (Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts
    The asparagus patch of algolagnic nuits blanches) Amadis
    Is cozening the Princesse de Cleves into a midnight
    micturition spree
    On the Tamigi with the Wallets (Walt, Blossom, and little
    Sleezix) on a lamé barge “borrowed” from Ollie
    Of the Movies’ dread mistress of the robes. Wait!
    I have an announcement! This wide, tepidly meandering,
    Civilized Lethe (one can barely make out the maypoles
    And châlets de nécessitê on its sedgy shore)
    leads to Tophet, that
    Landfill-haunted, not-so-residential resort from which
    Some travellers return! This whole moment is the groin
    Of a borborygmic giant who even now
    Is rolling over on us in his sleep. Farewell bocages,
    Tanneries, water-meadows. The allegory comes unsnarled
    Too soon; a shower of pecky acajou harpoons is
    About all there is to be noted between tornadoes. I have
    Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
    Which is like thinking in another language. Everything
    Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
    That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
    Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
    Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
    Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
    We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I
    Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
    Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
    Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
    At each new parting of the ways. Pastel
    Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
    “It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
    Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?”
    Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: “If his
    Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
    What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
    I have to stay here while they sit in there,
    Laugh, drink, have fine time. In my day
    One lay under the tough green leaves,
    Pretending not to notice how they bled into
    The sky’s aqua, the wafted-away no-color of regions supposed
    Not to concern us. And so we too
    Came where the others came: nights of physical endurance,
    Or if, by day, our behavior was anarchically
    Correct, at least by New Brutalism standards, all then
    Grew taciturn by previous agreement. We were spirited
    Away en bateau, under cover of fudge dark.
    It’s not the incomplete importunes, but the spookiness
    Of the finished product. True, to ask less were folly, yet
    If he is the result of himself, how much the better
    For him we ought to be! And how little, finally,
    We take this into account! Is the puckered garance satin
    Of a case that once held a brace of dueling pistols our
    Only acknowledging of that color? I like not this,
    Methinks, yet this disappointing sequel to ourselves
    Has been applauded in London and St. Petersburg. Somewhere
    Ravens pray for us.” The storm finished brewing. And thus
    She questioned all who came in at the great gate, but none
    She found who ever heard of Amadis,
    Nor of stern Aureng-Zebe, his first love. Some
    They were to whom this mattered not a jot: since all
    By definition is completeness (so
    In utter darkness they reasoned), why not
    Accept it as it pleases to reveal itself? As when
    Low skyscrapers from lower-hanging clouds reveal
    A turret there, an art-deco escarpment here, and last perhaps
    The pattern that may carry the sense, but
    Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.
    Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s
    Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces
    The change as we would greet the change itself.
    All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
    Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
    Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage
    Shrouds our sense of it. Therefore bivouac we
    On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by
    Veiled scruples, worn conundrums. Morning is
    Impermanent. Grab sex things, swing up
    Over the horizon like a boy
    On a fishing expedition. No one really knows
    Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
    Were vouchsafed–once–but to be ambling on’s
    The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for
    Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
    Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants–what maps, what
    Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our
    Life anyway, is between. We don’t mind
    Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot
    One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,
    Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,
    Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.

    John Ashbery

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