John Ashbery (3): More on “Mooring”

I promised I’d talk some more about Ashbery’s Mooring of Starting Out, and so I shall.

mooring rope (source: altered from wikimedia)

mooring rope (source: altered from wikimedia)

“You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? […] There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope — letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier — if they took an ingenuous pride in being in people’s blood” (from “For John Clare”) 


high-rise buildings in Paris

I’ve already mentioned Ashbery’s partiality toward John Clare in the previous post, and given you a little taste of his poetry — the poet as the eye, as a witness for the world around him. There is little doubt Clare’s poetry would have been different had he lived in a city, especially one so active and bustling with life as, say, New York or Paris. In “For John Clare,” Ashbery picks up on Clare’s mode of the poet as mere observer and applies it to an urban setting. A tall building, when we really pay attention to it, can become overwhelming.

apartment building in Hong Kong

apartment building in Hong Kong

Truth is, living in an urban environment it becomes essential for us to filter out a large part of the information we are bombarded with — and I’m not just talking about advertisements and music blaring inside and outside of shops. I’m not implying Ashbery’s poem is about information pollution, or urban sensory overload, but it brings these things to mind.

As it is, we have learned to perceive our city surroundings “as those things that were meant to be put aside — costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. [We] can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay. […] As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin’ to tell us somethin’, but that’s just it, she couldn’t even if she wanted to — dumb bird.” Did you notice that shift in tone right there? The turn to colloquial, personal, speech? The insult that isn’t really one? (Jenny Wren, in case you weren’t familiar with her, is a character from the children’s rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” — she plays the not unimportant role of returning the maid’s nose in the nicer version of the rhyme.)

Ashbery’s sense of humor is hard to miss, especially in poems like his sestina “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” The poem features none other than Popeye the sailorman, Wimpy, Swee’pea, Olive, and Alice Goon as well as the Sea Hag. There is lots of mention of spinach, of course, and a tangled-up plot: There are cryptic messages, such as the note stuck to Swee’pea’s bib that reads “Thunder / And tears are unavailing, […] Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment / Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

We then learn that “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country / One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment / And all that it contains, myself and spinach / In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder / At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant / / Arpeggio of our years.” What it boils down to is this: “I’m taking the brat to the country,” explains Olive and leaves the protesting Sea Hag alone in Popeye’s apartment.


The envoy, which contains all six end-words — is rather glorious: “[Thunder] Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder, / The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched / His balls: it was sure pleasant to spend a day in the country.” I rather suspect that the envoy was written first, but that’s just my speculation. It just fits so very well. This sestina captures Ashbery’s irreverence toward “Poetry” (with a capital “p”) as well as showing him to be a skillful poet.

There are several long prose-poems toward the end of Mooring and I wanted to take a moment to talk about one in particular, “The New Spirit.” This poem is like one long love-letter, alternating between sweetness (“You are my calm world. This is my happiness. To stand, to go forward into it.”) and metaphysical, poetic discussion of being in the world (“We must remember to keep asking it the same question / Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer / In words broken open and pressed to the mouth”).

I both want to talk about this piece and not talk about it — there is so much to say, so much to notice, and so much I’m sure I’ve missed — so I strongly suggest that if you want to read Ashbery, you read this poem as well as the ‘fun’ ones. In a way, it is like what Ashbery says about Beddoe’s Death’s Jest Book, which is complex and long and must be so in order to contain the gems it does. Moments of great beauty, or great clarity, though often (for me) those two are the same. Some simply beautiful phrases and passages, like “something you know, not just as the tree is aware of its bark, but as something left with you on consignment. And it need not just be” (313). Some passages are sad or dark, some downright spiritual, and again and again, there is the attitude of love: “Quick thinking on your part saved us from such a melodramatic end, though: you merely restored the dimension of the exploratory dialogue, conducted in the general interest, and we resumed our roles of progressive thinkers and builders of the art of love” (323, my emphasis).

Here’s another passage I wanted to share before I leave you to (hopefully) read the whole thing, or parts of it, distractedly over a nice moccha or a cup of tea:

And yet you see yourself growing up around the other, posited life, afraid for its inertness and afraid for yourself, intimidated and defensive. And you lacerate yourself so as to say, These wounds are me. I cannot let you live your life this way, and at the same time I am slurped into it, falling on top of you and falling with you. At this point it is again time for forgetting, not casually so as to repeal it delightedly later on, but with a true generous instinct for ending it all. This is the only way in which new lives — not ours — can ever begin again. (314, my emphasis)

That bit at the end, that’s not a call to suicide. It might sound like one, especially at first reading, but ‘ending’ here is ‘forgetting’ — and forgetting for good. Giving up on an idea or a belief that hurts, and giving up on it with the intent of leaving it behind. My reading, that is. Ashbery is not going ‘goth’ on us here, I’m telling you. It’s not that simple. This poem is not morbid or depressed, it speaks of “tomorrow coming up […] a feast of expectation, […] moving fast into the caves of your soul” (319).


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: A beautiful (adj.) knife, the mind: Barbara Hamby | Outside of a Cat

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