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Created Spaces: John Ashbery's Textual and Domestic Environments

A Talking House

By Robert Kelly

Looking around my living space and working space, I contemplate the writer’s situation. People who talk are talking to someone more or less present. Writers may or may not be writing “to” someone, but they are writing language, and language is always deictic, demonstrative. There means “right there” even if there’s nobody home but me. Writing is always being done somewhere. During this period of sustained attention to Ashbery’s work, we seem to be invited to think about the interaction of his living space and his writing work.

But I have to guess about such matters from my own. I look around my house—the dining room table I write on at morning, the umbrageous office screaming with books where I type any other time of day. The spaces in which writing and living happen are bewilderingly interfused—especially as they come closer to, touch, turn into my work table at which I am sitting. Here I am, surrounded by a mixture of fond acquaintance and freezing terror. How can I ever make sense of even this desk beside me (really a six-foot door poised on four filing cabinets), it’s at my left elbow as I face my computer, which sits on its own table facing east northeast on a pale winter day, let alone of what’s on the shelves, in the filing cabinets? A book is a box. A piece of paper is a snowfield, like something out of Eisenstein with an interminable line of dark figures shuffling across it to meet some preposterous idea. What am I doing here? Are these not the palpable all-too-fleshly evidences of my mind, such as it is, its interests and appetencies and own bewilderments? My eye roams, hoping to find audible rest. Hopi kachina, Lucite scotch tape dispenser, rock from Cuttyhunk that wrote, no, taught me to write, the ending of a novel. Old eyeglasses. A whale’s tooth. No wonder I write Thinglish.

How would it be if I were Ashbery? What would my poems be like?

His house is neat, at least the public chambers of it where John and David have welcomed me, the quiet amber gloom of the McKinley era softening varnished woodwork, the staircase mounting towards (opposite of Goethe’s Faust’s descent) the realm of what must be the mothers—the heart of the house, the secret a house keeps.

But his verse is various and leaping. From percept to percept, instanter, his mind leaps from thing to shining thing*. I have to struggle to make some linear sense out of my own tumultuous real estate, while Ashbery leaps free from the neurosis of upholstery, neatness, cleanness, into those ecstasies of sheer dithering that make his work so great. Not just great writing, but healing writing.

I imagine the paintings upstairs I haven’t seen, and maybe more pictures lining the steep narrow stairs to the attic. Zo’s lithograph showing The Assassination of Sadi Carnot, Stanley Spencer’s The Poet’s Grave, Redon’s one surviving encaustic panel, Vers Ayesha.

Ah, a house. Nothing one ever makes is quite as massive, integral, intricate, mysterious, as a house. The house of a poet is her greatest poem, lost forever the minute the poet, in Wodehouse’s immortal phrase, passes in his dinner pail. Because every dust mote is a consequence of breath, every necktie left unworn but pretty in the closet, every white handkerchief (who uses those anymore?) left neatly folded in the chifferobe is part of an immense text. From which the poem speaks. I say this, but I can’t prove it. Proving a poem is hard work too, and nobody thanks you for it.

No doubt the vastness of Bashō’s tiny poems and prosems along the way, those divine obiter dicta, owes some of its greatness to the fact that his house was the whole narrow road to the northern district—Japan was his house, and let him speak.

But I have been brought far from Hudson, that Victorian palais on Court Square, across from the bandstand, the grass even in winter is greenish still. David and John live there, and to move through the rooms—those I have visited—is to pass of course, as I’m sure everyone notices, from era to era. The kitchen is 1930s America, comfortable as an apron, there must be a cookie jar, there is certainly a box of cereal. Whereas the workroom up on the second floor is a timeless aprčs-9/11 of computers and printers and office light and little magazines and what we used to call reading books. But you all know that. What gets me is the extreme Americanism of the place. I feel I have never left home.

I suspect I have a touch of Dr. Who, I feel at home in every house the way he is at home in every time. Dr. Where. Because I love houses. Every house is a book, and I love books. That every house is, or writes, a book—that is the very premise or enthymeme of the assembly you’re reading now—if indeed this essay gets into the assembly and the assembly gets published, and if it makes its way into your hands and you’ve read this far, or just opened up by what fools call chance and found me here. How unlikely all this sounds, how unlikely of fulfillment, like the predicaments Howard R. Garis used to warn us about at the end of installments of Uncle Wiggily. If the postman doesn’t leave the milk in the toaster, we’ll hear what the old rabbit gentleman got up to tomorrow. So this house of Ashbery writes a book, employing him as its man of words.

What fiendish reciprocals the world is rife with! I make a house and the house makes me. I think I’m writing my own stuff in a house but the house is shaping my dreams so that I wake to write them down. Where else could a dream come from but where you are? Where I am, I mean. Where am I? I mean it, the house writes the man.

So the editor of this assembly is sensible if indiscreet. She wants to learn the true author of the poems ascribed to Mr. J.A. Is it the house in Hudson? The apartment in New York? The primal abode among the apple trees of Sodus? She reminds me of those Baconians. Not Shakespeare wrote these plays but another using that name. Could Ashbery be seen as agent of a secret conspiracy of architecture, furniture, carpets and clean old glass windows to create a new poetics? The paintings, real or imagined, on his wall? Poets love constraints of all sorts—Chains was one of our best magazines. Poetics is the unbounded boundary. Frontičre sans frontičres. I have enjoyed this assignment, Miss Morrissette, because it allowed me to discover that I really do think place is the deepest poetic resource of all. Or, to go on with my schoolboy French, Mes murs ma Muse.

 

* By the strange torsion of Time, master of paradox, it may turn out that the poetry of John Ashbery is in many ways a much richer instantiation of Charles Olson’s notion of Projective Verse (in the seminal 1950 essay) than much of the verse of those who claim Olson as their master. It is Ashbery’s mind’s breath that leaps immediately forward, does not linger with cheesy sentiment or restatement. Nothing is restated. Everything is new. O scholars of the time to come, read Ashbery anew in that uncommon Black Mountain light. And see why the commonplace Us-vs.-Them anatomy of casual criticism (Black Mountain versus School of New York, etc.) is worth re-investigating. If it ever really was investigated, and wasn’t just a nonce label that had more to do with who was friends with whom, the social. And what’s wrong with that? By social we live. But we shouldn’t confuse it with judgment. Especially not The Last Judgment. . .