Sunday, December 13, 2009

Palming John Ashbery

Predictably, there's a lot of buzz about John Asbery's latest poetry collection, Planisphere. When you're John Ashbery (which is the case for only one person alive today, readers), everyone wants to chime in—and loudly so—on your work. But, and here I take a bold risk, everyone is missing the point.

Everyone? Yuppers. Everyone except me.

The point is, ahem, not that John Ashbery enchants with fluid association and disassociation of verse but that he has soft hands. Really soft hands. Yuppers. I know this because I shook one of them this October in the New School Auditorium.

I was there to hear a friend in the Best Poets reading. My friend was the only reason I was there. My first memory of the New School auditorium (ground floor) is painful. It was in 1996. I was fairly new to New York. Had lived in Seattle for about ten years and enjoyed the city's open and relatively inclusive writing community—at least that was my experience.

The Poetry Society of America was hosting some event in which various members of the Poetry Society of America were being honored by other members of the Poetry Society of America as audited and voted on by the Poetry Society of America. What I encountered was an auditorium of men in suits, many with impossibly skinny women by their side. Glad I wasn't on trial, because this was not a jury of my peers. Nothing wrong with being a man or having an inclination to date a status symbol (or beard). Still the room was not was I had grown accustomed to, which was varying hues of skin tone and dress. Oh poor me, I felt alienated. In New York City? Imagine that.

The Best Poets 2009 event attracted a similar group. David Lehman, who contributes an enormous amount to poetry, I really admire him, is creator, executive editor, driving force behind the Best Poets series. I don't know him but I have to assume he's heard the complaints. A friend pointed out to me that the "Best" series a financially going concern. I don't know what else to say about that, right now.

On the night I mention I saw only one nonwhite person or person of color in the audience, although the next night I featured at a reading and a student in the audience told me he'd been there, too. That makes two. Whatever the reasons, I felt a little lonely. I'm a little tired of my own tender affection for my own tender feelings so if you're annoyed with me, pal, I hear ya. The friend I'd come to see was with old friends of his and his wife. (We reconnected recently, after a thirty-year gap. We're not close but we have history on each other which can be a comfort.)

I spotted Mark Doty who I know in passing; told him I'd liked his poem. He was warm. He is warm. But had to rush off. I went back into the auditorium and there in a miscellaneous row of seats, with a small coterie of disciples, sat Lord John of Ashbery, St. John, John Ash Wednesday Bery.

I wanted to speak, to tell him I'd brought his books to Bellevue Hospital outpatient last November and December when I was fighting my way to normalcy. I was at Bellevue to get a scrip for Zoloft which, for me, is the difference between life and oblivion. I wasn't standing on street corners preaching the end of the world--which would be a honest activity, all globally considered; I just wasn't sleepin--to a remarkable extent. That I rescued some good poems out of that time—"Hockney at Bellevue" will be in Parthenon West Review, and a few others I owe to Ashbery. I would bring one or two of his collections with me during the long waits while we got my situation sorted out. (They don't just write you a prescription although, ultimately, that's what they decided to do, in my case.)

At one point a Bellevue security guard mistook me for Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory—"she's writing!" I would wander away from the waiting room with its blaring television and work on a draft of a poem in my trusty spiral--not the fancy kind from France but the $3.98 kind (which seems outrageous). I hate ads and daytime t.v. The regular guard would smile and wave me through the metal detector. I wished him a Happy Birthday on his day.

St. John at the New School auditorium would have understood, but I couldn't manage to say anything. He probably already understood. John Ashbery subsumes my experience and imagination. I asked if I could shake his hand. He smiled sweetly and widey—my telegraphed way of saying the clouds in Creator's blue firmament parted and Michelangelo's hand of God reached out.

And I shook hands with John Ashbery. What a soft and warm palm. What comfort. I was a sea shell curled into it. Ashbery's energy--the energy I felt in his palm--is strong, kind and balanced. I've been in and out of energy work since the late seventies (remind me to write about that), trying to heal the body (much of which I did heal) and I can feel energy, whether it's stuck or swirling. Trust me.

So all this talk of imagery in Planisphere,Helen Vendler's review in the Sunday Times, countless other reviews--beside the point.

John Ashbery, American's cherished poet (not necessary our best), feels good. In this wickedly competitive poetry arena, what better compliment?


  1. Yuppy, this is hilarious and wonderful and I'm glad you got your meds and returned to yourself and shook the hand of the god-figure-male...

  2. oh, dog, I meant yuppers...I would never hint that you're a yuppy...apologies all around...