Ways to Imagine an Idiosyncratic America: John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”

 

In order to be the ally of literature, and to direct the reader to that variety and complexity, rather than away from it, this […] style itself will have to differ greatly from much philosophical writing that we commonly encounter: for it will have to be non-reductive, and also self-conscious about its own lack of completeness, gesturing toward experience and toward the literary texts, as spheres in which a greater completeness should be sought.”  (Nussbaum 49 Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature)

1.

What does a poem look like “in which a greater completeness should be sought?”  While there are numerous poems of John Ashbery’s that we could use as our exemplars, let’s look at “Pyrography,” which Ashbery composed “for the catalogue of ‘America 1976,’ an exhibition of paintings of American landscapes sponsored by the U.S. Department of Interior commemorating American’s bicentennial.”  (Ashbery 1001)  As we read “Pyrography,” we will have to keep this important factual information in mind, as we might say that “Pyrography” is concerned with landscapes – idyllic, imagined, natural, cultural – even as the poem itself, as Angus Fletcher has argued, is a landscape or environment in and of itself.  Indeed, “Pyrography” is a fascinatingly complex poem, and it takes as its title the notion of “writing with fire,” or decorating wood or other materials with burn marks, suggesting the formation of indelible impressions, formed in a unique way.  As we’ll see, the poem itself is concerned with doing something similar – with making us aware of our Norman Rockwell-ish visons or impressions of our country – our less complicated pastel evocations of a nostalgic past – even as it complicates these visions through its emphasis on particularity.  The poem therefore pivots around pyrography in at least two ways – calling attention to our national and cultural impressions as a form of pyrography, while the poem itself carves impressions, too.  Here is the first stanza of “Pyrography”:

Out here on Cottage Grove it matters.  The galloping

Wind balks at its shadow.  The carriages

Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak. 

This is America calling:

The mirroring of state to state,

Of voice to voice on the wires,

The force of colloquial greetings like golden

Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.

In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives;

The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.  (495)

The poem begins with a funny, fictional-sounding name and location: “Cottage Grove.”  Funny, because in its fictional-sounding, mild and tepid name – suggestive of resorts, suburbia, and revolving lawn sprinklers – it does not necessarily suggest a place concerned with issues of weight or gravity.  Yet even here, “it matters.”  Notice the way Ashbery constructs his sentence: “Out here on Cottage Grove it matters.”  While the sentence is not in quotes, suggesting that it is spoken by the Ashberian speaker as opposed to a different persona, it has a kind of regional, colloquial flavor – “Out here.”  We are “on” Cottage Grove, not “in” or “within” or “inside,” thus evoking a kind of flat land, a prairie or meadow.  The first sentence carries a certain knowing provincialism, a rural awareness that is tinged with a subtle kind of irony.  It is as if Ashbery were uncannily impersonating a voice distinct from his, though equally interesting and worth putting down, while at the same time drawing our attention to this impersonation, so that the act has an aura of (respectful) comedy around it. 

Yet suddenly we are flung into a different tonal register, more poetic, philosophical and prophetic: “The galloping / Wind balks at its shadow.”  “Galloping” seems apropos, as the first sentence evoked a world of agrarianism, and therefore a world involving horses.  But now it is not horses that are galloping, but the wind itself, a wind that furthermore “balks at its shadow.”  To “balk” at one’s shadow suggests a mortified awareness, a sudden moment of self-consciousness that invokes surprise and disgust, a head-shaking incredulity.  It is as though we have been shaken off the more languorous pedestal of the earlier sentence and had cold water thrown into our faces.  Because it is the wind balking at its shadow, we are given to think there is some kind of cosmic implication in the sentence, a general important mood or significant feeling the sentence is attempting to get down on the page.  This mood, while difficult to articulate, seems to be connected to a feeling of great absurdity, incredulity, disbelief, skepticism, and humility, as if the wind, free in its galloping, was disturbed and humbled by the too grave existential implications of its shadow.  Thus when we read, “Out here on Cottage Grove it matters.  The galloping / Wind balks at its shadow,” we are given two sentences that strike one as completely incommensurable – tonally, content-wise, stylistically – yet somehow related by the consciousness of the author.  There is an air even of conspiracy and suspicion around these first two sentences, a suggestion that nothing is what it seems, that even “Out here on Cottage Grove it matters,” where the very wind “balks at its shadow.”  One senses a burgeoning and dark complexity underneath the mild veneer of Cottage Grove, a thematic pattern that will repeat itself throughout the poem, especially in the third stanza, where we read,

                                                                        if we were going

            To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today,

            It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details

            So as to be able to include them; otherwise the narrative

            Would have that flat, sandpapered look the sky gets

            Out in the middle west toward the end of summer  (496-197)

 But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Back in the first stanza, we have just come across a profoundly discontinuous leap into another sentence – “The galloping / Wind balks at its shadow.”  This mood carries over into the next sentence, where we read “The carriages / Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.”  “The carriages” refer our attention back to “Cottage Grove,” the sense of a provincial town in which carriages still can be found – and yet because such towns nowadays are mostly found in exhibits and museums, a certain air of unreality hangs over the sentence, as if what we are witnessing is not a realistic depiction but a kind of re-creation or reconstruction, a hyperrealistic setting a la Baudrillard.  “A sky of fumed oak” is a difficult-to-parse formulation, but could mean anything from “a sky of clouds” (as though an oak tree were fuming with anger, with steam coming out of its branches, this steam turning out to be the clouds), to a sky of “perfumed oak,” in which the sky is filled with the scent of trees, oak trees more specifically.  Whatever the case, no matter how we understand this enigmatic term or phrase, suddenly we are given more insight into our bewildering setting:

This is America calling:

The mirroring of state to state,

Of voice to voice on the wires,

The force of colloquial greetings like golden

Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.

In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives

The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.  (495)

 We are again given a deliberately sentimentalized picture of America, and this picture is conflated with a certain theatricality or even artificiality.  Yet it is hard to know how ironic the passage is intended to be read.  “This is America calling” – like “Out here on Cottage Grove,” the construction of the sentence suggests a remarkable sensitivity to language on the part of Ashbery, this line seeming to suggest at once the flavor of newsreels, game-shows, sweepstakes, and Publishers Clearing House winners, while at the same time evoking a more genuine sentiment, the notion that there is something being said right here and now in the poem that is germane to our understanding of what America means to us.  “This is American calling.” The line carries compelling reverberations, as if the poem itself were America, and that furthermore it is “calling” us, either on the telephone or, in the deeper sense, calling us the way a vocation or siren calls to us, in a kind of unmistakable, inimitable, interior and hypnotic way.  Like a dream.  The poem is raising the ante, making a bolder, more ambitious claim, even if the boldness of the claim is subverted somewhat by its game-show-like, arguably more trivial-sounding tone.   

Yet even though American itself is calling, we are not privy to a weighty conversation about American values, but are rather directed towards a meditation on the meaning of “the force of colloquial greetings” – all those numberless “hellos” and “how-are-you’s” that punctuate our civil landscape like so many helpful, banal road signs.  It is as though Ashbery were, in a radically creative way, re-creating the climate, the texture, the linguistic atmosphere, of our most mundane moments, as if to say “these are not mundane at all.”  Therefore, even “in service stairs,” suggesting drab corridors in white and grey office buildings, “the sweet corruption thrives”, whether that be death, decay, erosion, or literal corruption; and then we read the wonderful, metaphorically magical line, “The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.”  Again, like Ashbery’s earlier seeming and subtle impersonation of a style or mode of talking, here again, when we read about the “creaking revolving stage,” one has the sense of artifice poking through the veneer of the poem, as though Ashbery were calling attention to the construction of his poem – and therefore our imaginative construction of our country.  Indeed, the poem gestures in two directions at once – towards authenticity and boldness of expression – “This is America calling” – and towards funnily corny (though beguiling) mundane circumstances that allude very lightly to, say, a more serious James Wright poem – “The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.”  It is in that sense that Ashbery is able to have his cake and eat it, too – he manages to deliberately strike out in both senses of the word – he is able to say something bold (strike out), while at the same time poking fun at his boldness (strike out in the baseball context).  And it is tantalizingly unclear where the irony begins and the sentimentality ends, or vice versa.                      

2.

Like the way in which a “page…turns,” Ashbery signifies through the beginning of his next stanza that a shift is occurring.  He draws attention to this shift through metaphors for leaving and beginning.  (In “Grand Gallop,” a great poem from Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery similarly writes in the beginning of the third stanza, “The dog barks, the caravan passes on.”  It is a way of signifying transition that I had never encountered in a poem before reading Ashbery, in which the very language in the poem enacts a kind of transition, thus clueing the reader into the fact that the poet and poem are moving onto and into a different setting, a different set of concerns.)  Ashbery thus writes,

            If this is the way it is let’s leave,

            They agree, and soon the slow boxcar journey begins,

            Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs

            Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered

            Only as a recurring tic.  And midway

            We meet the disappointed, returning ones, without its

            Being able to stop us in the headlong night

            Toward the nothing of the coast.  At Bolinas

            The houses doze and seem to wonder why through the

            Pacific haze, and the dreams alternately glow and grow dull.

            Why be hanging on here?  Like kites, circling,

            Slipping on a ramp of air, but always circling?  (495-496)

 As so often in an Ashbery poem, the language at the level of content is mirroring what it is doing at the level of form – that is, we hear that “the slow boxcar journey begins,” (a journey and adventure that we are currently participating in by the very process of the poem’s unfolding), and then we read some white space, signifying that very beginning.  But only until we fall into the next line and read of the fact that we are “Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs / Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered / Only as a recurring tic.”  Here, like the line “the page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio,” Ashbery combines seemingly incommensurable experiences or things, thus stretching metaphor into new shapes.  Look at this sentence closely, its complicated blendings:

                                    and soon the boxcar journey begins,

            Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs

            Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered

            Only as a recurring tic. (495)

I think this is exactly what Martha Nussbaum means when she refers to literature as “spheres in which a greater completeness should be sought.”  Like Henry James or Marcel Proust, Ashbery is exhibiting a new way of thinking, one which widens our understanding of what consciousness (national or otherwise) might mean.  Let’s move slowly through the passage.  First, we are undertaking a journey.  The journey becomes faster until the “gyrating fans of suburbs” (which seem to extend the thought while at the same time serving as metaphors for the acceleration) enfold the darkness of cities, all of which is “remembered / Only as a recurring tic.”  It is as if Ashbery were saying how much happens in the world during the time in which we blink – and therefore how much history – the “important” and the “unimportant” – lays or lags or longs behind the mere mention of the word “America.”  We move forwards, then move more quickly forwards; suddenly we have expanded outwards, and then narrowed into a mere “recurring tic,” as if we were being called attention to the ocean of consciousness and things behind the pinprick of our conscious awareness.   

3.

Meanwhile we are still traveling onwards in the poem, and midway through our journey, like any journey, we meet “the disappointed, returning ones, without [the journey] / Being able to stop us in the headlong night / Toward the nothing of the coast.”  In the inexorable pace and rhythm of the poem, we still come across other people, perhaps readers of the poem, too, who have given up and gone their separate ways “Toward the nothing of the coast.”  And Ashbery begins to slow down, though he wonders, however, why exactly he is slowing down: “The houses doze and seem to wonder why through the / Pacific haze, and the dreams alternately glow and grow dull. / Why be hanging on here?  Like kites”.  Again, we are given metaphors for the unfolding of the poem itself.  “Why should I stop here,” Ashbery seems to be asking, “where the dreams glow but ‘grow dull’?’”  Where we are “Like kites, circling / Slipping on a ramp of air, but always circling?” 

            As if to escape this circularity, we are given another formulation at the beginning of the third stanza that combines disparate experiences in a new kind of blending metaphor, here a kind of (pardon the redundancy) metaphorical simile.  We read,

            But the variable cloudiness is pouring it on,

            Flooding back to you like the meaning of a joke.  (496)

 

Here we have simultaneously the sense of rain pouring down, and yet it is falling “back to you” like the “meaning of a joke.”  There is therefore the sense of a kind of rushing feeling, moving towards one, not dissimilar to the moment in “These Lacustrine Cities,” from Rivers and Mountains, in which we read,

            We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,

            To a violet sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air

            To you, pressing you back into a startled dream

            As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.  (125)

In both passages, we are approached by a syncretic awareness that combines elements of the weather (rain, deserts, a “violet sea,” air, sea-breezes) with an impressionistic intuitional consciousness.  It’s as if Ashbery, forever the devoted phenomenologist, is saying, “this is how we experience our country, as a kind of imaginative rushing in.”  These sort of compound experiences – of the meaning of jokes and rain, of dreams and wind – serve to describe what seem to me as richly textured interior states of imagination and experience.  The effect of these descriptions for and on the reader is difficult to describe, although they are surrounded by a kind of aura of what we might call “impressionism,” a kind of felt-sense.  As we enter more deeply into the third stanza, this felt-sense widens to include a very remarkable kind of landscape.  Ashbery writes,

           The land wasn’t immediately appealing; we built it

            Partly over with fake ruins, in the image of ourselves:

            An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling stone pier

            For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed

            And only partially designed.  How are we to inhabit

            This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,

            As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,

            In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet

            Unrealized projects, and a strict sense

            Of time running out, of evening presenting

            The tactfully folded-over bill?  (496)

This is my favorite part of the poem, this amazing description of a landscape suggestive of De Chirico, “built…/ in the image of ourselves”.  It is a visionary image of incompleteness, unfinishedness, as if suggesting that consciousness itself is only a kind of sketch, that even in this literary sphere in which a greater completeness can be sought, there is still at the heart of the project a deep sense of incompleteness, of “time running out, of evening presenting / the tactfully folded-over bill.”  This also seems like the moment at which Ashbery most directly and honestly confronts the notion of landscape head-on, though what we are given is of course neither idyllic nor rustic but rather a kind of surreal inner image of “fake ruins”.  Yet as soon as Ashbery imagines this somehow disturbingly enchanting scene, he moves into ethical questions about how we are “to inhabit / This space”.  The suggestion is that we first imagine the spaces in which we move, breathe and live, and then we are victims of that imagination, for “we fit / Rather too easily into it, become transparent, / Almost ghosts.”  Ashbery seems to be calling our attention to the way in which, like language, our imaginary constructions may also trap us, may also become too rote, too conventional, too close to the bone, so that we forget that our conditions are more malleable, more able to change.  

As we begin the second-to-last fourth stanza, Ashbery again writes a line that seems to echo the experience of the reader reading the poem, while also placing the reader in a broader history: “A long period of adjustment followed.”  At this point we are dipped into a kind of alternate, nostalgic history of the country:

            In the cities at the turn of the century they knew about it

            But were careful not to let on as the iceman and the milkman

            Disappeared down the block and the postman shouted

            His daily rounds.  The children under the trees knew it

            But all the fathers returning home

            On streetcars after a satisfying day at the office undid it:

            The climate was still floral and all the wallpaper

            In a million homes all over the land conspired to hide it.  (496)

What is “it”?  Why is Ashbery suddenly invoking the iceman, milkman, and postman?  I think the passage is intended to create a kind of Norman Rockwell-ish vista of imagination, while at the same time subtly poking this vista, subtly calling attention to the way in which it is imagined, and not necessarily real, if only because it doesn’t include “all [the] unimportant details.”  Therefore, I think “it” is the imaginary construction of the country, and the awareness/knowledge that this construction can change over time, how it is kept underneath our communal breast like a secret.  But why, then, do the “fathers returning home” undo it?  Perhaps, at the risk of appearing overly clever, Ashbery is punning on the word “tie” – that is, the fathers are undoing their ties, meant to call attention to the way in which our imaginary constructions of the country do tie us together, do serve as communal glue.        

Ashbery returns to his earlier question, “How are we to inhabit this space”, with the ending of the fourth stanza.  In doing so, he delivers a typically Ashberian scene: one in which his imagination becomes larger and larger, giving us a scene that becomes more and more complicated, with the intention, it seems to me, to provoke in the reader a sense of wonder at the world.  We read,

                                                Therefore, since we have to do our business

In spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?

That way, maybe the feeble lakes and swamps

Of the back country will get plugged into the circuit

And not just the major events but the whole incredible

Mass of everything happening simultaneously and pairing off,

Channeling itself into history, will unroll

As carefully and as casually as a conversation in the next room,

And the purity of today will invest us like a breeze,

Only be hard, spare, ironical: something one can

Tip one’s hat to and still get some use out of.  (497)

 

This seems like a return, thematically, to the “recurring tic” from the second stanza, behind which lies and occurs so much.  Maybe, Ashbery is saying, we can enlarge our understanding and imagination to include more things and experiences, maybe we even do do this unbeknownst to ourselves!  So that all of this unrecorded history might appear in a different form, in a magical, casual way, in the slightest of conversations, overheard from another room.  But again, Ashbery doesn’t seem to be clear about how sentimental or ironic he wishes his statements to be – he sort of wonderfully loses (or finds) himself in this expanding description of including more things in our repertoire of understanding and knowledge and appreciation, but then adds somewhat covertly that “the purity of today will….be hard, spare, ironical.”  This should alert us to the fact that, while we often view Ashbery as our most imaginative of poets, he is also perhaps our most skeptical.  This might explain why it is so hard tonally to place the lines, “something one can / Tip one’s hat to and still get some use out of.”  Is Ashbery being ironic here?  (I think so, though it is complicated.)       

In our final stanza, sounding somewhat like Elizabeth Bishop in the first two lines, Ashbery sums up his poetic “argument,” this notion of our imaginative construction of our country needing to be as idiosyncratic as ourselves, needing to include as much as possible to possibly represent ourselves:

The parade is turning into our street. 

My stars, the burnished uniforms and prismatic

Features of this instant belong here.  The land

Is pulling away from the magic, glittering coastal towns

To an aforementioned rendezvous with August and December.

The hunch is it will always be this way,

The look, the way things first scared you

In the night light, and later turned out to be,

Yet still capable, all the same, of a narrow fidelity

To what you and they wanted to become:

No sighs like Russian music, only a vast unraveling

Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond

To these bare fields, built at today’s expense.  (497)

A parade, perhaps a 4th of July parade, is turning into “our street.”  “My stars,” Ashbery exclaims in a pun, echoing the colloquial sound of “Out here.”  And suddenly we become aware of how Ashberian this moment is, which is to say, we are given a moment absolutely imbued with what might be called Ashbery’s “sly optimism.”  He writes, as if chuckling to himself, “My stars, the burnished uniforms and prismatic / Features of this instant belong here.”  But then we take a detour into great lyricism, and Ashbery takes us, like Freud, all the way back to our childhoods, when he invokes “the way things first scared you / In the night light”.  Our understanding of our country, Ashbery is saying, is and should be as idiosyncratic as our first experiences as children.  Such understanding leads to a “fidelity / To what you and they wanted to become”, i.e. an important feature of our consciousness related to our hopes for our country.  And in the final lines, Ashbery manages to incorporate in his sentence a great barrage of qualities, invocations, and feelings:

            No sighs like Russian music, only a vast unravelling

            Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond

            To these bare fields, built at today’s expense.  (497)

I think one element of Ashbery’s mastery as a poet is his ability to end poems.  So let’s look carefully at this ending.  It’s as if Ashbery is trying to distinguish the American imagination from the Russian, say.  “No sighs like Russian music,” he is saying.  Instead, invoking our imaginative conception of the dark Western frontier, we hear of the “junctions” and the “darkness beyond”.  Yet we don’t end here, but instead this “vast unravelling” takes us “To these bare fields, built at today’s expense.”  The bare fields are simultaneously aspects of the landscape of America, and the poem itself, both “built at today’s expense.”  And so, like pretty much every single Ashbery poem, “Pyrography” winds up being many things: a (skeptical but respectful) paean to our country and the way we imagine it; a mediation on what various forms of landscape mean; an intense imagining of our private and public lives; and (like every Ashbery poem) a very complicated and wonderful ars poetica.  These are some of the indelible impressions caused by “Pyrography.”       

 

 

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