By John Ashbery. (Ecco, 2009)

Planisphere suggests a turn: rather than driving forward in a carnivalesque sprawl familiar from Ashbery’s books since A Wave, these poems are quite short.  The result is that they take on that gem-like quality that can be associated with Pound, though Ashbery seemed to have flipped Pound off in the opening lines of “The Instruction Manual,” in which simulacrum vanquished the image, and never looked back. The lines are shorter, too, so one pays much more attention to the effect of each syllable on the whole. A good example is “Um”:

 

So we’ll go no more a-teething.

For now. When the urge

to perambulation strikes, feeling

dulcet in your own happy home,

why we’ll declare it unintelligible

past, beyond belief.

 

Put another way, God is singular,

strong in feeling, wise in the ways of others.

His flesh is singular, like water,

His feeling anchored in a deep pool.

Get Him back.

He’s on an eagle trip.

 

This poem starts with the loopy, off-kilter problem phrase—the what-the-hell-did-he-mean that sets the plot in motion—and moves forward with a grand if Chaplinesque swagger (the enjambments are cliff-hangers) warding off the specter of closure. But “Put another way,” unlike the many “meanwhiles” or “and thens” that act as the connective tissue of his longer poems, leads to an uncommonly revealing, tonally forthright line about God, which then is followed by a line that could have been ripped from the Anglo Saxon “The Wanderer.” This is a new sort of effect for Ashbery, a type of seizure—of the throat and of the moment—in opposition to the more wistful, laissez-faire attitude of continual permission. Another poem ends “You know what? / I don’t care,” a moment of Ashbery being curt—who would have thought? Another begins “Ow. In fact ouch,” a far cry from the magisterial meander of the sentences of Flow Chart or Hotel Lautréamont. Ashbery has many fine short poems in Some Trees, his first collection, such as “Glazunoviana” and “The Grapevine,” and some later books, like As We Know, are full of shorter philosophical lyrics, so this isn’t an entirely new economy. Nonetheless, Planisphere introduces a unique phase of the game, one in which the master is forced to impress us with his dalliances in a much tighter space, not unlike watching Merce Cunningham in the later part of his career managing some evocative, beautiful postures from a physique limited by age. There is plenty here for experienced Ashbery watchers. One game I like to play is finding the lines of pentameter that sneak up out of the mesh—for example: “Too late we acted outside the rhymes required.” The paratactic “Default Mode,” in which each line begins with “They,” is a mirror of “He” of Some Trees, while “FX,” which conjures Coleridge, also refers back to the poet’s first book: “O in this bedsit I crave / expanded knowledge of the first click / bearpits o’erlook” (cf. “Portrait of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers”). Ashbery’s monads have windows—even the shortest poems, even the single lines, provide a glimpse of the lively universe, equal parts Bosch and Brainard, that is the functioning whole buoying these pleasing fragments.

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