Saturday, September 02, 2006

Reading Ashbery - Erasing Ashbery

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places —
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?

In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

We mourned that meritocracy which, wildly vibrant,
had kept food on the table and milk in the glass.
In skid-row, slapdash style
we walked back to the original rock crystal he had become,
all concern, all fears for us.
We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring.
Only beware the bears and wolves that frequent it
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.


I like this poem very much, I’ve decided. I’ve been sitting with it a bit this morning, living around it. Now, if someone asked me to say what it means, after I first discounted the question as immaterial to an appreciation of art, and then was forced to, as someone might say that to toss out the old “immaterial to an appreciation” argument is just to hide behind a naked emperor, I suppose I’d say, well, read down the poem and let its images and sounds play across your imagination and see if the tone finds its way into language.

For me, doing that, this is what I guess I come up with (reduced though, as whenever we try to put a TONE into words, we reduce it):

It starts with a warning remembered by the speaker, and ends with a warning given by the speaker. Both are good warnings to heed. The images and sounds continue quite unified down the page – spiders become the hymn of bees (become the hum of wires), become bears and wolves. As the poem advances, the dangers become larger until even the sun is blotted out.

And the narrative of dangers, watch how it accumulates:

Stanza one: famine . . . no one’s home . . . the city creates the small plots of the natural world where we rest . . . all places are the same . . .

Stanza two: we tried to make it otherwise . . . the present we’ve made is somehow wrong, a violation of the natural order . . . but we were outdone by our technology . . .

Stanza three: the idea that people can advance on their own merit is over . . . it worked awhile . . . fears . . . skid-row . . . at the bottom step of society, emotion is possible, and life, though the emotion is grief and the life is only breathing . . . but you can rinse (cleanse?) your possessions (yourself?) there in some fragment of the natural world . . . but don’t kid yourself, bears and wolves are there with their large dangers . . . and instead of dawn you get only the advancing shadow (which I suppose would be the ever encroaching technology . . . the shadow that buildings and civilization casts . . . or perhaps the generalized anxiety [death, one would reduce it to, as we like to in poems whenever there’s darkness] that is three fourths of the law).

David Dodd Lee, over at http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/ has been making /unmaking some interesting Ashbery erasures (a long tradition from Bloom’s playbook . . . Rauschenberg erasing a deKooning . . . Neil Young and Stephen Stills erasing Crosby and Nash from “Long May You Run” . . . [I'm always happier if I can find a way to toss in a Neil Young reference]).

These erasures are interesting in their violence, yes, but also in their privileging of a reading, which is what we all must do when reading, I suppose, but this privileging is also a showing, which can be revelatory. So here’s my showing/erasure of this poem’s more “tame” center. Ashbery almost sounds, ahem, “getable” this way, as it’s the revelation of my “getting” of the poem. I like his poem more than my erasure, rightfully. It contradicts itself and contains the multitudes I’m excluding from the conversation. But here it is anyway.

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

We were warned about the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them
were home.
We nestled in yards and reminisced about other,
different places —
Hadn’t we known it all before?

We slept for peace, joining in the great run. In truth
there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around. We were lost
just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There
you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring,
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.

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