For better or worse, John Ashbery looms over the downtown of contemporary American poetry like a gaudy skyscraper: Wherever you wander, it’s impossible to lose sight of him.
Given Ashbery’s aversion to all things mainstream, his dogged experimentalism, and his notorious “difficulty” as a writer, this is perhaps a somewhat improbable state of affairs. Indeed, at the age of 81, Ashbery still divides readers. There are many who’d agree with one reviewer’s verdict that much of his work has “about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower.”
Nevertheless, next month Ashbery will become only the fourth American writer to see his collected works published during his lifetime by the Library of America (the others were Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth). It’s an ironic instance of the establishment appropriating a figure who’s spent much of his life writing from the margin. (Although the poet has always had his champions—the new volume comes emblazoned with a tagline from that most excitable of blurbists, Harold Bloom: “Since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been living in the Age of Ashbery.”)
Ashbery himself is dry, unsentimental, deflating on the subject of literary immortality. His work tends to emphasize the contingent, accidental, and precarious nature of art. The writers of past ages, he says in one downbeat verse, have “disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm./A few are still interested in them.” The casualness, the lack of pretension, the wry acknowledgment that in our mass culture, poetry must jostle for attention with a host of easier, less time-and-thought-consuming pleasures: These are all hallmarks of the Ashbery voice, and no doubt reasons for his popularity. (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award, sold 20,000 copies—in the poetry world, the equivalent of Dark Knight ticket sales.)
Of course, Ashbery’s work is renowned more for its opacity than its plain-speaking. W.H. Auden, who chose Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees (1956), as the winner of the Yale Young Poets Award, later confessed that he didn’t understand a word of it.
Yet Ashbery’s disjunctions and seemingly arbitrary twists and turns represent not mere scatterbrained dilettantism, but an attempt to write—to adapt a title from Stevens—the poems of our climate. Pay close attention to the variety of information we receive in an ordinary day—from television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, books, strangers overheard in the street—and Ashbery’s verse begins to seem more familiar, to represent a modern world that is well-known to us, whose often elliptical and incoherent messages we rarely have time to make sense of properly. Consider also that Ashbery has said that his poetry is an attempt to describe “the way time feels as it passes.” So it’s hardly surprising that his poems should seem to drift in and out of intelligibility.
There’s a passage in the poem “Down by the Station, Early in the Morning” that might serve as a fitting epigraph to the new collection:
[. . .] the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves
Scattering the works of famous authors as well as those
Of more obscure ones, and books with no author, letting in
Space, and an extraneous babble from the street
Confirming the new value the hollow core has again [. . .]
The wrecking ball of time, always mangling and disrupting what we like to think of as the permanence of the canon, is also the agent that allows in “extraneous babble from the street” and thus the possibility for fresh creation. Whereas poets of past ages looked forward strenuously to their own posthumous fame, this one predicts, with his typically unflustered cheerfulness, his own demise.
Library of America, 1,050 pp., $40.
The Men in My Life
By Vivian Gornick (September)
A book in which a critic whose sensibility was shaped by second-wave feminism shares her thoughts on a stable of male authors—including such coltish laureates of misogyny as Roth and Bellow—may not strike one as the most happy marriage of writer and subject. Yet Gornick, a reader of immense sympathy and insight, is not out to expose and chasten the unseemly underbellies of the men in her life, but rather, as she says in the preface to this short, elegant book, “to think more inclusively about the emotional imprisonment of mind and spirit to which all human beings are heir.” MIT Press, 224 pp., $13.95.
Death With Interruptions
By José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (October)
José Saramago, it would seem, does not so much compose as blurt out, ejaculate, or extemporize his novels (as the author himself, with his lust for verbal proliferation, would probably put it). Most of his books have the air of being transcribed on a beer-stained parchment in the back room of some bucolic tavern around the middle of the 16th century, so copious are they in folksy quirks and archaic turns of phrase. Death With Interruptions, the latest from the octogenarian Portuguese Nobel laureate, returns to the unnamed country that in two previous novels has been ravaged by an epidemic of white blindness (Blindness) and a sudden outburst of mass political dissent (Seeing). This time, the plague to be visited on the hapless population is, of all things, the disappearance of death, a far less pleasant turn of events than one might first imagine. Harcourt, 256 pp., $24.
By Glen Pourciau (October)
Beginning a story by Glen Pourciau, the bizarre and quietly eccentric young writer whose first collection won this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Award, is often not the most riveting of experiences: “It was Saturday afternoon, and my wife and I had decided to go to the mall to pick up a pair of pants I’d bought there and had altered.” Like Raymond Carver, to whom he bears a superficial resemblance, Pourciau’s hunting ground is the great welter of American suburbia. Yet he’s not so much a realist as a subtle fantasist of the day-to-day whose stories suddenly shift to the level of nightmare. The way he imbues the most ordinary happenings with an uncanny and ineffable terror is reminiscent of Kafka, Bernhard, and Beckett. Iowa University Press, 120 pp., $16.
Lulu in Marrakech
By Diane Johnson (October)
Part thriller, part philosophical meditation on the nature of deception, Diane Johnson’s new novel extends the tradition—stretching back to James, Wharton, and Hemingway—of books about naïve Americans being flummoxed by the representatives of older, more opaque foreign cultures. Lulu Sawyer, recently arrived in Morocco, has been tasked by the CIA to find out what she can about the connection between wealthy businessmen and Islamic terrorists. Naturally, this rubs certain people the wrong way, and things soon turn very nasty indeed. Dutton, 320 pp., $25.95.
Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun
By Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen (October)
History simply refuses to leave some people alone. The Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal grew up under Saddam Hussein, survived two wars, was forced to live for periods at refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and finally escaped to the U.S. in 1992 to study art. When his father and brother were killed during the latest U.S. invasion of his country, Bilal responded by creating the now infamous art piece Domestic Tension, in which the artist spent a month living in a Chicago gallery where Internet users could watch his day-to-day movements and, if they felt like it, take shots at him with a remote-controlled paint gun. By the end, more than 60,000 people had opened fire. Shoot an Iraqi—a name he initially considered for the installation—combines autobiographical narrative with a discussion of his work and its political implications. City Lights, 240 pp., $18.95.
By Toni Morrison (November)
Toni Morrison continues her excavation into the history of American race relations with this brief, tragic novel. Set in the colonial North of the 1680s, it tells the story of a young slave girl who’s accepted by an Anglo-Dutch trader in payment for a bad debt. Knopf, 176 pp., $23.95.
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles
By Pierre Bayard (November)
Just as the conversation generated by his last work—the wildly successful, not-as-frivolous-as-it-sounds How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—is beginning to dry up, Pierre Bayard has furnished us with another piece of wry intellectual conjecture, namely, that things are not as elementary as Sherlock Holmes—or Arthur Conan Doyle—liked to think they were. His stated aim is to write what he calls “detective criticism,” something that involves being “more rigorous than even the detectives in literature and the writers who create them, and thus to work out solutions that are more satisfying to the soul.” Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $20.