It is time finally to leave behind the long-settled idea of John Ashbery as a postmodernist–but not without some parting glances. Said idea, repeated in various registers rifted with admiration and discontent and puzzlement, has been with us as long as the cultural category of postmodernism itself. Fredric Jameson, for example, the great thinker of postmodernism’s logic, begins his first essay on the topic by mentioning Ashbery; it takes all of two sentences. Indeed, the poet’s name often seems to provide a sufficient defense for the idea of postmodernism: if nothing else, we insist, it has given us Ashbery. Or vice versa: perhaps he has given us it. Either way or both, it is a close marriage.
But which Ashbery are we talking about? There are at least five or six on offer. There is the dreamy and sweet ironist who debuted in 1956, the year after Wallace Stevens’s death, with Some Trees, a Trojan horse snuck into the courtyard of High Modernism. There is the fractured and obdurate revolutionary of The Tennis Court Oath (1962), a book that helped inspire David Lehman’s suggestion that the era of avant-garde experimentation had exhausted itself with the New York School (a chilly verdict indeed on the rest of the century). There is the surreal formalist of Shadow Train (1981); the serene mnemonist and penseur of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and A Wave (1984); the prose macrologueist of Three Poems (1972). These categories, loosely sketched as they are, still don’t encompass the megastructure of Flow Chart (1991) or the one-off flight of Girls on the Run (1999), nor do they really grasp the more casual and gestural lyrics that fill, say, Houseboat Days (1977) and have registered Ashbery’s room tone at least since Hotel Lautréamont (1992).
One could certainly argue as to which of these is the most postmodern Ashbery. The smart money might be on Three Poems, given its epochal opening to "The System" ("The system was breaking down") and its proximity to the systemic breakdown of industrial modernity, which any number of historians and cultural critics have dated to around 1973. In its place, we get "late capitalism," the shifting faraway-near worldscape of globalization and niche markets, hollowed industrial cores and fantastically elusive financial schemes, a structure in which time is obliterated and returns as endlessly expansive but mysterious spatial arrangements. By now it does not take extraordinary insight to see in this baffling, sensuously abstract and unfixed situation a good portion of Ashbery’s poetics.
But the smarter money might be on not choosing: Ashbery’s postmodernism lies precisely in the way that there are many Ashberys. A collage of Johns, let’s say. The poet is something like a Venn diagram of all his modes, an overlaid spread of common ground and outlying territories, each of those another terrain vague of the imagination. He is his own baffling landscape.
But he is not without familiar markers, and these help orient his new book, Planisphere. The most persistent is the poetry’s conversion of time into space, a longstanding Ashberian trope, which over the years has taken on a sense both of gravity and habit. In the recent work (particularly his superb and moving previous volume, A Worldly Country), it inevitably takes on the weight of mortality.
It does not wear this heavily or sentimentally; Ashbery is heroically free of the world-was-better-when-my-body-was-younger piffle that mars some of his well-known contemporaries. Instead we have the sense of the poet (and us with him) being always inside time, suspended within it as within some queer medium (an entirely proprietary substance, one part limestone and two parts prosecco). There is no lyrical leap to ecstasy, to someplace beyond the capacious Ashberian land. Time itself is the worldly country, and there is no other. Not for the living, and perhaps not the dead either.
And so the book must begin, "Is it possible that spring could be/once more approaching?" Well, something is always approaching in Ashbery, though perhaps things come more gently now. Compare this with the beginning of A Wave‘s first poem, "At North Farm": "Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you/At incredible speed, traveling day and night." Now it is an entire season on the move, another season, time flowing in over the horizon to fill and replace the time within which we already find ourselves. Shortly he readies himself for more of the same, "should further seasons coagulate/into years, like spilled, dried paint." We can’t help but wonder if this is the paint of a haphazard landlord, long gone but visible in his traces; or is it a Jackson Pollock, trying to make visible life’s immaterial process, the time it’s made of.
The poem is "Alcove"–not for the first time in an Ashbery book, the poems of Planisphere are arranged in alphabetical order by title. That is to say, their arbitrary sequence disrupts anything like thematic development, or the tracing of a logic along its arc. Such developments, after all, assume linear progressions, one thing after another as opposed to one thing next to another, as we get here, time being not a sequence but a place. There is no plainer way to say it than the opening of "Boundary Issues": "Here in life." As he will note in "The Burning Candle," via his well-known drift of pronouns and especially the least definite among them, "We grew up inside it." Perhaps this is the mysterious "it" of the common phrase "it is snowing"–what we are always inside of.
To settle on Ashbery as a poet of time itself, however, is to settle for too little. It conceals the ways he manages, much more than is often credited, to deal with the particulars of lived life. Moreover, it makes it difficult to recall that Ashbery’s time is part of historical time, 1956 to now, and cannot be detached from it. Late modernity, if it does begin around 1973 (seventeen years into Ashbery’s career, that is), seems to have ended a year or two ago with the collapse of the global financial system and the vision of globalization that shaped so much of our thought.
As a matter of historical fact, then, we must admit that the great postmodern poet comes both before and after the era (not that we have much of an idea yet regarding how to describe what follows postmodernism: what it looks like, how it feels). Perhaps this recognition gives us another way to think about Ashbery: not as a poet of some real or conjectural period but as a poet of the transitions between periods. The shifts of the early work can be understood to foresee, even oversee, the passing away of Modernism and modernity and the onset of the late modern world. By the same token, the work of the past decade-plus, abandoning the stylistics of epic postmodernism, has struggled to reckon with that period’s rack, ruin and wreck.
And indeed, the wreckage of an era is on full display in Planisphere. This brings us to what is finally so striking about the new book, and so likely to go otherwise unmentioned: it is profoundly topical. It would not be overstating the case to suggest that the poems here are ripped from the headlines. And not just any headlines: Planisphere, composed (one assumes) in 2007 and 2008, returns again and again to the financial crisis that is itself the very sign of the end of the postmodern era.
This realization dawns slowly, especially if one has accepted the popular notion of Ashbery that the scholar Christopher Nealon has so persuasively laid to rest, that of the poet as "endlessly elusive…a poet laughing at us for trying to grasp meanings that aren’t there." But if Ashbery is not that, he is scarcely a documentarian; there are no mentions here of Bernie Madoff or AIG.
Not quite. How direct do we need it? In "Attabled With the Spinning Years," the poet insists that "In a hundred years…we’ll look back/at how we were cheated." This could be about almost anything, one supposes. Another poem starts with "All this random money, committed money," and suspicions start to grow. Could this be money sloshing about in the last days of the boom, about to grind to a halt? Elsewhere, "’It’s false reasoning based on expectation,’/he admits." Taken together, these passages start to resemble glosses on the financial dream life and its bust.
Surely the game is on. And so one must consider this as a possible context for "He Who Loves and Runs Away," with its container ship laden with an ur-Ashberian catalog:
Here come the transistors,
bananas, durian (a fruit said to have a noxious smell),
baby bottles, photocopiers, and souvenirs,
such glorious ones! Nothing useful except key-chains,
lockets to be furnished, a ball to stuff with life.
Again, stuff approaching; we must be reminded of all the detritus and gewgaws that "come clattering through the rainbow trellis" in his ’70s classic "Daffy Duck in Hollywood": "a mint-condition can/Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy/Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile/Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged/Stock."
But circa 2008, such material has leapt into the shipping lanes, comical but pure commerce, albeit come to an odd turn. At this point the book lays its cards on the table:
Yet it’s hard not to imagine the loss.
I think, though I can’t be sure,
that all this is being added to my bill.
Woe betide us! We shall never pay,
though, not in a million years.
Everything is promise.
It turns out that we are inarguably amid the credit economy–or, more aptly, the American credit economy’s abject failure, its bonfire of fictitious capital. As the seeming abstractions and gently archaic interjections bear us along, the debts accrue, with the sweetly Ashberian ambiguity of promise–a hopeful promise, but one never to be kept. If it is a poetics of mystery and flux, this turns out to be precise to the situation: "Nobody knew what they owed or how much credit/had been advanced, being incapable of niceties," runs the title poem. The elusiveness of Ashbery and the elusiveness of credit turn out to be the same special effect. Yowza.
Once we start to see the book this way, it can’t be unseen: the title of "Default Mode" tilts insistently away from its technological sense and toward real estate (what is a mortgage, after all, but the exchange of thirty years for a plot of land now, the conversion of time into space?). Each anaphoric line begins, "They were living in America," followed by some stock phrase, as in "They were living in America the same old same old." It seems innocuous, playful, a bit exhausted. But: "They were living in America fictitiously" and, in case we still don’t get it, "They were living in America extended terms of credit." And even, "They were living in America but it’s all over."
And so it is: late capitalism, finance economies, postmodernism. We are returned to the Ashbery of transitions, of a particular America that has gone bankrupt, though the contours of the onrushing dispensation are not yet clear. The poet seems periodically sanguine about this and manages some moments of resigned, ironic hopefulness: "We’ll talk about it./Sunset calms, soothes,/rain is toothsome,/and you get all out of debt like that." This is not a new tone for Ashbery, though his mortal lightness and vernacularity grows all the stranger in the context of what we used to call "current events." And something about the future tense is now haunting, the future being so hollowed out.
If the speculative bubble provides one image of the age, Ashbery matches it with his own sense of suspension in a placidly hermetic sphere: call it snowglobalization. It is in this that we float, unable to leave but equally unable to reside there anymore. A paradox, though a singularly Ashberian one: "Ah, but we live in a peculiar era," he writes, late in the book, late in history. "You can’t get from there to here."
Can we get anywhere? A cynic might respond, Could we ever? And yet we do get here–here we are, after all–without necessarily seeming to have done much to bring this about ourselves. Ashbery’s keenest contribution may be his provision of this sensibility, this sense of drift that is only accurate to the drifty moment, where not much can happen, and does.