“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.”
This is one of the monumental specific collections of poetry in the second half of American 20th century poetry. John Ashberry was a legend and titan, and only recently died at 90. This is often considered a masterwork, culminating in the long title poem.
The poetry here is often refracted a little, meaning, while it’s about something, it’s not directly written in reaction to it. There’s a tension throughout the collection between language and form, which is true about every single piece of literature that’s ever been written (the content and the form), but here it’s brought to bear specifically in the poems. Beyond the title poem two that really stand out for are “Grand Galop” that really begins to address some of the key questions about what language is able to convey and the impact of language on its subjects. I also really like the poem “Mixed Feelings” that I’ve printed below.
It’s obviously the long title poem that stands out primarily here. Poetry is not a camera or a mirror, but a camera and a mirror and a poem all share the ability to look at something, but also, all of them are both limiting and distorting. By focusing up close, you not only miss larger elements, you distort the image, and narrating too closely you do the same in a poem. At the same time, pulling too far is distorting in its own way. Too far away is anonymizing. Even close in frame loses the nuance. There’s the fear that a poem, like a mirror or a camera can have a flattening effect or create a too “holistic” sense of something, turn a subject or a person into an object by even speaking about it.
A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they knew, except
That it’s so hard to see them, it’s hard to figure out
Exactly what kind of expressions they’re wearing.
What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,
One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.
Let’s go on and out, somewhere
Through the canyons of the garment center
To a small café and have a cup of coffee.
I am not offended that these creatures (that’s the word)
Of my imagination seem to hold me in such light esteem,
Pay so little heed to me. It’s part of a complicated
Flirtation routine, anyhow, no doubt. But this talk of
The garment center? Surely that’s California sunlight
Belaboring them and the old crate on which they
Have draped themselves, fading its Donald Duck insignia
To the extreme point of legibility.
Maybe they were lying but more likely their
Tiny intelligences cannot retain much information.
Not even one fact, perhaps. That’s why
They think they’re in New York. I like the way
They look and act and feel. I wonder
How they got that way, but am not going to
Waste any more time thinking about them.
I have already forgotten them
Until some day in the not too distant future
When we meet possibly in the lounge of a modern airport,
They looking as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.