john ashbery...his eye into the forest

John Ashbery's poem "Rain" (The Mooring of Starting Out, 82-86) seems to be composed of thought fragments. This makes sense if one is familiar with Ashbery's work. He wrote that he attempts to use language abstractly, like a painter would use paint. The fragments do not seem as disorienting if we think of them as paint splatters. Also, as the title of the poem is "Rain," we can think of the fragmented thoughts as raindrops splashing on the pavement. The structure of the poem--some stanzas centered, some right-justified, some left-justified, some words hanging by themselves--resemble the displaced, unorderly fall of rain.

An interesting dynamic in this poem is the relationship between the natural world and the artificial world. Ashbery often sets up a natural world image, and follows it with an artificial image. My favorite juxtaposition of these images occurs in the first part of the poem:
Light sucks up what I did
In the room two months ago
Spray of darkness across the back,
Tree flowers . . .

Taxis took us far apart
And will . . .
over the shuddering page of a sea
The sofa (lines 8-15)
My eye was immediately drawn to "Tree flowers." I'm not sure why; though I do associate trees and flowers together, I don't really think of them as a single linguistic unit. Ashbery then follows this language unit with "taxis." If I wasn't a perceptive reader, I wouldn't think much of the juxtaposition of these two images. The dynamic between nature and artifice was again emphasized by "page of a sea / the sofa" (emphasis mine). Ashbery referred to a page in the fourth line of the poem: "You see only the white page with its faint frame of red." It seems that the juxtaposition of nature and artifice is often paired with a repetition, or recall, of images from earlier in the poem. This reminds me of rainfall--each drop is a slightly different shape, feels slightly different when hitting the skin. Each drop creates a different splash pattern on pavement, but recalls rain patterning seen before.

It is often difficult to wrap my head around some of Ashbery's imagery. I often find his words strikingly beautiful, yet oddly perplexing. The opening of "Rain" is particularly beautiful:

The spoon of your head
crossed by livid stems

The chestnuts' large clovers wiped
You see only the white page its faint frame of red
You hear the viola's death sound
A woman sits in black and white tile

Why, you are pale


The first line is confounding. "Spoon of your head"? What does that even mean? But already I have used my ingrained "reader skills" to search for something that is not even there. With Ashbery's work, I have to just appreciate the image he gives me. I have learned to enjoy the mental tweak that comes with "the viola's death sound." That image is particularly beautiful, because it reminds me both of violets and of the musical instrument. The idea of a flower having a death sound is intriguing, and morbidly beautiful, in that nature is built on life cycles. To imagine a flower dying with a faint sound is to give it new life. I've never thought of the sounds of a flower, especially dying. Perhaps I go too far with these thoughts, for, after all, Ashbery seems to refer to the musical instrument. However, I am allowing myself to explore thoughts generated from his work. I believe that pursuing these thoughts, no matter how tangenital, is important when reading poetry. If I wanted to be told what to think, I'd read mass-market genre fiction (which, of course, has merit of its own.)

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