John Ashbery once wrote that artists are no fun once they have been discovered. Maybe his poetry is his way of never being discovered. At least not without turning the spotlight back on the reader.
Uncommon knowledge and drifts of odd objects fill his 20th book of poems, Chinese Whispers, leaving imprints of their soft conundrums and algebraic imagery behind:
We were reading to ourselves. Sometimes to others.
I was quietly reading the margin
when the doves fell, it was blue
outside. Perhaps in a moment,
he said. The moment never came.
(from “Portrait with a Goat”)
Chinese Whispers is the British version of the telephone game in which a message is whispered from player to player and is often transformed beyond recognition in the end. It’s a perfect title for this Ashbery book, which is built from secret structures and stacked variables that challenge readers to bring their own signified pieces of consciousness to the poems in it.
A master at applying conversational tone and humor to the weightiest ideas, Ashbery is also a modest philosopher and expert jester. Speaking about love in “Her Cardboard Lover,” the poet pulls out his Etta James records and dusts off his cryptic joke book:
The way you look tonight
is perishable, unphotographable, laughable. Sometimes
dyslexia strikes in late middle age. You are
the way I look tonight. At last
my love has come along.
And you are mine at last.
And Ashbery plays on in the midst of sleeping animals, rainy days, theme parks, pussy willows, strange neighborhoods and faithful trees. He walks through these worlds but never becomes too familiar from one line to the next, as if the continuum is meant for limitless discoveries of what we do not know, and most importantly, what we cannot know. This idea is expressed beautifully in the first stanza from “In Whatever Mode”:
“Tenderly,” we thought. It
estranged us a little.
A later kindness dissipates a
awning. In the end we are all bores.
That’s what it’s for.
His command of language, carefully aimed ambiguity and brilliantly masked metaphors make Chinese Whispers another success for Ashbery, who, once again, takes poetry to the next level while keeping it intensely and mysteriously personal.
Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.