AUGUST 10, 2021
SIX MONTHS AFTER John Ashbery’s death on September 3, 2017, several of his collages and poems were gathered together in a new volume. They Knew What They Wanted “was about to go to press” when Ashbery died, writes Mark Polizzotti, the collection’s editor, though he had thankfully “approved the final layouts” of the book, close to a decade in the making. “These introductory texts, written while John was still alive,” continues Polizzotti, “naturally speak of him in the present tense. Because this volume was for all intents and purposes finished before his passing, we decided to keep them as they are.” As such, They Knew What They Wanted extends the living Ashbery six months into the future, as if the poet were alive and kicking, a feeling furthered by the book’s opening interview, assembled by the poet and critic John Yau, which, he suggests, “gets at the heart of what it is like to talk with John,” as though their conversation had only just now taken place, somewhere across the hall. With the publication, this summer, of Parallel Movement of the Hands, the uncanny sense that Ashbery is still with us continues, as five unpublished (and unfinished) projects are brought into a single volume, lovingly edited and introduced by Emily Skillings, who served as Ashbery’s personal assistant for the last years of his life.
Composed between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s — “Sacred and Profane Dances,” a sequence of prose poems drawn from the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1–13), may well date to the 1950s, according to Skillings’s careful scholarship — the work included here was discovered between Ashbery’s homes in Manhattan and Hudson, boxed in basements, filed in drawers, the majority “kept just several yards from where Ashbery wrote poetry and correspondence,” his study teasingly glimpsed in the collection’s cover photograph: a grisaille collage papering the walls, a row of annotated books, a postcard of Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c.1524) indifferently looking on. There is variety in the collection — “a set of wildly different experiments,” writes Skillings — from the opening poem, “The History of Photography,” in which Ashbery swerves through photographic traffic, passing Daguerre, Mapplethorpe, and Muybridge on the way, to The Art of Finger Dexterity, an unfinished series of poems written in response to a set of instructional piano compositions by Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven’s. Rounding off the collection is The Kane Richmond Project, an antic, listing, hybrid work that charges its batteries with a number of cliffhanger television serials from the 1930s and ’40s (often starring the eponymous Kane Richmond, of whom Ashbery kept a “handsome photograph”), as well as collaging the texts of several popular adventure novels, including volumes from the Tom Swift series (think Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship ), a practice of manipulating found texts that was a mainstay of Ashbery’s six-decade career.
Despite their varying degrees of unfinishedness, the poems in Parallel Movement of the Hands still chirp with the familiar music of Ashbery’s many-textured lyricism, rippling with the same-old “signature patterns that lend his language a living, off-kilter quality,” as Skillings writes in her introduction, a quality which has always resisted being nailed down, though it invites a cool stream of attempts. “Ashbery poems are like involved daydreams from which, as with real dreams, there is no obvious exit,” suggests Rae Armantrout in her tribute to the late poet in The New York Times. “[Ashbery’s] is a fully human poetry,” offers Oli Hazzard, “in which, as it is with us, the marginal is thrust constantly and unexpectedly into the centre of things.” Indeed, as Ashbery writes in “The History of Photography,” “you are never sure of arriving, / or making any progress” in these poems, as “one vignette sheds another, cancels its own credibility / in a fever of slight adjustments,” a constant “froth of activity,” “confusion and unfinished / business,” until you find yourself, somehow, in another place entirely, like the man “battling blizzards to a place he thinks / is the North Pole, but is in reality hundreds / of miles from there.”
Encouraged, perhaps, by their mode of incompleteness, the poems remind me of a comment of John Berger’s about drawing: “In a drawing you add line to line, bit to bit, but you’re never quite sure what the whole is going to be. A drawing is always an unfinished journey towards a whole.” At the same time, not least due to the narrative fragments and snippings of The Kane Richmond Project, Ashbery’s own 1957 review of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation swims to mind, a poem which “gives one the feeling of time passing, of things happening, of a ‘plot,’ though it would be difficult to say precisely what was going on,” “while at other times it becomes startling clear for a moment, as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away.” After all, “[t]he wind blows where it wants. The wind will carry it away,” reads a poem in The Art of Finger Dexterity. “And the / air, the air is rife with possibilities,” concludes “Fried Mackerel and Frozen Peas,” Parallel Movement’s final poem.
With its many references to photographs and flashes of specific scenes from TV shows and movies, Parallel Movement of the Hands takes on the essence of the cutting room, revealing Ashbery hard at work slicing and joining rolls of celluloid, or finding and collecting them for use at some point later on. Indeed, the book itself is almost like a box of unused Ashbery cuttings, presented and projected for the first time here by Skillings. It reminds me of the final scene in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), in which Toto, now a famous director, watches a mysterious roll of film bequeathed to him by Alfredo, the old projectionist whose death triggers a sequence of touching childhood memories. The film turns out to be a beautiful and moving collage of the kisses and embraces taken from the films Alfredo screened during his lifetime, scenes which he was forced to slice out by the local priest. While I’m casting him in the role of Alfredo, I’ve always thought that Ashbery bears a slight resemblance to Jacques Perrin, the French actor who plays the adult Toto in the film.
In his foreword to the collection, Ben Lerner considers the nature of finished- and unfinishedness in Ashbery’s work. “To be finished is to be fixed and already fading,” he suggests, “a museum piece, a dinosaur, but that’s not the fate of all artworks, all poems; poetry can also be a machine for suspending time.” As Lerner sees it, the living, off-kilter quality of Ashbery’s writing — to borrow Skillings’s earlier phrase — is connected to his “genius for deferral,” a constant, gentle waywardness that keeps the ink of his poetry from ever fully drying. For Lerner, Ashbery’s poems “never take their place in the past, but instead invite us into their perpetual present,” setting “the machinery of meaning-making into motion each time we read” — “a recurring wave / Of arrival,” as Ashbery puts it at the beginning of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
In rare moments, Ashbery alludes to this texture of his writing during interviews: “I don’t look on poetry as closed works,” he suggests to Bryan Appleyard; instead, “I feel they’re going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length.” In her introduction, Skillings links this comment to an earlier statement, in which Ashbery conjures the image of “an underground stream […] that I can have access to if I want,” a subterranean flow of poetry forever rushing by, an idea he returns to in an interview for The Paris Review in 1983: “I’ve conditioned myself to write at almost any time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but on the whole I feel that poetry is going on all the time inside, an underground stream. One can let down one’s bucket and bring the poem back up.” It is tantalizing, given the incomplete nature of the poems in Parallel Movement of the Hands, to imagine the buckets that never got dropped. At the same time, Lerner reminds us that the river of Ashbery’s poetry is always on hand to refresh us. “The Ashbery poem, no matter how carefully composed […] has to be left a little unrealized, open to the participation of future readers,” he writes, “that’s how it cheats death.” “There is no last page to the poetry,” he concludes. “You will have had the experience; you can always have it again.” It is just as Ashbery writes in “21 Variations on My Room,” right at the heart of Parallel Movement: “Still hungry? Read on.”