Friday, September 22, 2017

their merely being

The words HE and SHE in John Ashbery's Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid", 1975, could be swapped without trauma, or trauma only to those thinking of the original ballad. The natures of these two 'voices' are unstable – they could even be the same voice talking to itself – or a thousand voices, anyway - Ashbery said his poems occurred to him as conversations between voices. The selves of HE and SHE (if you try to imagine that they have them) are beyond your power of judgment. I think of Bridget Brophy trying to find a form for that state. The Jewish characters in Flesh are only bothered by their religion because people expect it to make them manifest themselves in certain ways; they are supposed to pin themselves down by accepting a Jewish cookbook from a relative. Ashbery repeats the shape of things answering one another but he doesn't have the things, only the structure of answering. The shape is is so simple, he tells you: just write HE followed by a block of text and then SHE followed by another block. His Landscape (After Baudelaire), 1984, written in dumb rhyming couplets. "When the storm rattles my windowpane | I'll stay hunched at my desk, it will roar in vain." Simplification is one method of tyranny, said G. Hill in that Paris Review interview everyone quotes. There is the Ashbery but that appears at the start of a line or a sentence with the contrasting states being somewhat nonsensical, undercutting, or strange, like the fruit that exist suddenly to make a point in the title poem of Shadow Train, 1981 ("but the strawberry" …): "To desire what is | forbidden is permitted. But to desire it | And not want it is to chew on its name like a rag | To that end the banana shakes on its stem | But the strawberry is liquid and cool, a rounded | Note in the descending scale, a photograph | of someone smiling at a funeral."

Robert Archambeau wrote about Ashbery in Prelude:

Describing Ashbery’s characteristic mode as the “Mallarmean sentence” [Fredric] Jameson tells us these sentences “unfold in a perfectly grammatical way and offer the syntactical part of the mind a set of operations which has no other identifiable motivation and which thus unexpectedly simply designates itself as pure operation, as pure syntactical process to be completed.”

No one can prove the but is right, nor can they call it wrong. Say the point after the but is like the trees in his early poem, Some Trees, 1956:

That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness

Brophy feels glad that the unsupported but takes away our right to invent the thing by giving it place, purpose, and meaning.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

it imposes on every light

Brophy's In Transit, 1969, is different again, completely otherwise from the last two books - now the voice is jaunty and Shandyish, aggressive but confiding, and the narrator is at an airport, which is the most direct expression so far of the vibrating between-place that Brophy inhabits or see herself inhabiting, especially when this narrator tells us that they are going to let their flight leave without them. There are two countries they could be in (one at the beginning of the flight, the other at the end), and they are doing as much as they can to ensure that they are not in either. Thinking this was going to place some worry on the flight crew, which I now pictured, I saw that I had been stimulated into adding non-existent things to the story (the doubly-imaginary flight crew was irresistible though, and I still observe them).

The narrator has forgotten whether they are male or female. Covertly trying to look at their own groin without attracting attention, they are foiled by corduroy trousers standing up in stiff folds. The clothing on their torso is also ambiguous. Now what? Brainwave! they think: I will go into a public toilet and remove my clothes inside a locked cubicle. But which set of toilets can they enter without attracting suspicion? They have mislaid their name, then they get it back but it is Pat. "Interlugubre," they say. "And what of me as a narrator?"

I am hateful to myself through claustrophobia. It is not a personality, this jellysac I can't break out of; it is a mere agglutination of physical characteristics. And must I for ever shew you everything, including myself, through this not quite transparent, this yellowed, wobbly, and probably distorting gelatinous envelope, myself?

I am weary of the limited permutations on predictable refractions which it imposes on every light I pass through it.

They predict that their physical identity, once they find it, will "murder" them. "It is for your sake I am seeking … the predestined masc. or fem. murderer, who shall destroy, by gobbling up, this 'I'." To be something is the equivalent of being murdered or self-betrayed (or of growing up, another voice would say, maybe one of those children's-book authors who end their stories with adulthood as death or implied death – Narnia -). You notice that In Transit changes after the narrator has figured out their sex. Eventually they melt off, and groups of people from different protest movements storm the airport, sabotaging the building, laying bombs, and playing rock music.

(Perhaps against Brophy's desires, the book here becomes very fixed to a certain decade.)

Looking at the totally different styles of Flesh, 1962, The Finishing Touch, 1963, and In Transit (as unalike as, say, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, and Arno Schmidt?), can I argue that Brophy spent the 1960s trying to defy the jellysac of "limited permutations"? Once again, as in the other books, she does not seem committed to the production of a good ending, not even a good wayward ending, as if endings confront her with the demand to be a professional, make something the way it should be, and she shies away from it, she is one of those legendary Muslim craftspeople who put mistakes in rugs; she has let you know that she is still there, that she is not an author, that she is not a nameable thing. So it is unsatisfactory and yet stubbornly thematic every time.

Since John Ashbery has just died I have been listening to him recite poems on Youtube, those Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1974, lines about "a wave breaking on a rock, giving up | its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape | The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty | as they forage in secret on our idea of distortion. | Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since | dreams prolong us as they are absorbed? | Something like living occurs, a movement | Out of the dream into its codification." Mirror was not Ashbery's favourite Ashbery and not mine either. Other people liked it, he said to Pennsound, in 2016 I think (the March 18 interview?), but he thought that was only because it was close to their idea of how a poem should look, or closer than most of his other poems anyway.