|John Ashbery at home in Hudson, New York in 2005.
Photograph by Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
Poem of the week: Breezeway by John Ashbery
There’s a generous measure of fun in the title poem of Ashbery’s latest collection, but the American poet also plays hide and seek with violence and disconnection
Monday 8 June 2015 14.05 BST
Someone said we needed a breezeway
to bark down remnants of super storm Elias jugularly.
Alas it wasn’t my call.
I didn’t have a call or anything resembling one.
You see I have always been a rather dull-spirited winch.
The days go by and I go with them.
A breeze falls from a nearby tower,
finds no breezeway, goes away
along a mission to supersize red shutters.
Alas if that were only all.
There’s the children’s belongings to be looked to
if only one can find the direction needed
and stuff like that.
I said we were all homers not homos
but my voice dwindled in the roar of Hurricane Edsel.
We have to live out our precise experimentation.
Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards.
Batman came out and clubbed me.
He never did get along with my view of the universe
except you know existential threads
from the time of the peace beaters and more.
He patted his dog Pastor Fido.
There was still so much to be learned
and even more to be researched.
It was like a goodbye. Why not accept it,
anyhow? The mission girls came through the woods
in their special suitings. It was all whipped cream and baklava.
Is there a Batman somewhere, who notices us
and promptly looks away, at a new catalog, say,
or another racing car expletive
coming back at Him?
In the airy, light-admitting, open-plan lyrics of John Ashbery’s latest collection there’s a generous measure of sheer fun, and the title poem, Breezeway, is no exception. But the game plan here seems to include playing hide and seek with violence and disconnection: there is the hurricane to contend with, as well as the careless breeze, God as well as the dog.
At first, like Marianne Moore’s real toads in imaginary gardens, there’s a real breezeway in the condo, or at least the idea of one. As a communal space in a hive of private ownership, such a structure would be the ideal topic for a neighbourhood dispute. The poem’s soundscape catches fragments of conversation, and imputes voices other than the speaker’s. Interruptions and misunderstandings are hinted: “Someone said…”, “Alas it wasn’t my call./I didn’t have a call…”, “It was like a goodbye.” It’s striking how many short sentences and end-stopped lines there are. The poet is in staccato mood, a little angry, though the anger dances on the feet of jokes.
Dan Chiasson hears mis-hearings in the poem: “bark down” for “back down” and “break down”, for instance. In Ashbery’s lexicon, words, phrases and sentences are super-connective, or divide like stem cells. “Bark down” may connect, via comic antithesis, to “bark up” as in “to bark up the wrong tree”. There’s also “ bark” in the sense of announcement. So if you bark something down, you probably shout it down, an interpretation that would fit the theory of the poem as variations on a quarrel. Imagine barked shins. Imagine a breezeway in which a dog barks maddeningly at nothing. Perhaps it’s Pastor Fido, who has a small part in the next stanza. Meanwhile, “jugularly” is a fine 4-syllable adverb, a choking mouthful of violence which suggests shoving down as well as shouting down. This breezeway might be the locus of social control.
The amused impatience of the poem swells into allegory, pushing beyond the parochial towards the chiliastic. It’s like that cartoon-character of a breeze who, at the end of the first stanza, “falls from a nearby tower/ finds no breezeway, goes away/ along a mission to supersize red shutters.” (Notice the odd directional hinge of “away/ along” and how well the unexpected preposition, “along”, amplifies the scope and physicality of the “mission”. Elias, aka Elijah, was a prophet, and he plays a related role in the poem.
Was there also a super-storm called Elias? There ought to have been. God, you’ll recall, challenged Elias by means of wind, earthquake and fire, though it turned out that he, God, wasn’t in any of them: at least on this occasion, he was the “still, small voice”. The possibly spiritual dimension of the “call” in Breezeway is knocked down by phrases like “dull-spirited winch”, “children’s belongings”, “stuff like that”. The winch is a reminder that poetry is not wholly a call(ing): it’s heavy lifting work – like getting agreement for a breezeway, like dying.
In response to the question about children’s belongings, the speaker seems to correct some unknown person’s misapprehension: “I said we were all homers not homos”. Either designation might explain an absence of kids. It’s a brilliant throw-away remark, turning on that serendipitous near-homonym, and we smile, but perhaps uncomfortably. This is where the weight of the parochial is felt. Perhaps Hurricane Edsel is a windy homophobe. Why shouldn’t a car turn into a caricature of machismo? As a hurricane, too, he would probably wreck the whole breezeway.
The stanza’s last 3 lines stoically accept defeat and outline a moral imperative. Dying is the release to be earned when we “live out our precise experimentation”. There’s not much time to mull this profundity over, or worry whether “crisp rewards” is about cremation. In the next stanza, we shift to a new frame, and bathos strikes in the blunt past-historic: “Batman came out and clubbed me.” Is “Batman” a nickname, perhaps for some angry, verbally brutal dog-lover, kitted out by the poet’s imagination as an evangelical form of the super-hero, his mutt a Christlike faithful shepherd? Perhaps he’s like those “mission girls…/ in their special suitings”, dressed for holiness but somewhat less benign, and quite unlikely to deliver angelic calories.
The images become increasingly difficult to connect. Those “Existential threads,” for instance: are they remnants of the speaker’s “view of the universe”, related to string theory or even the threads on an internet forum? “Peace beaters” could denote drummers, dating from a period back in the 20th century when all kinds of activities, including sex, were believed to be capable of delivering world peace. Among my favourite lines are: “There was still so much to be learned/ and even more to be researched.” That motto should be on every British university door, with italics to underline the deadly irony of “so much more to be researched”.
There may be more wisdom in not researching Ashbery’s meanings. Why not be Taoist about it and go with the flow, enjoying the surreality as the words decide for themselves how to join hands and ride the narrative breeze? Well, yes, but the poem still insists on some groundedness, and some not inconsiderable moral logic. Its caricatures are satirical in intent, and the metaphysical hunger abides. That Batman-God who “promptly looks away” the minute he notices one of his creatures will not reveal himself in any rushing wind. He won’t be descending into the breezeway. The “racing car expletive” seems to be bothering Him, though – at least temporarily. In a sub-text about getting along with the neighbours, He may be another looming challenge for us all.
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