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« In Which We Address The Skaters »

My Own Invention


The usual anagrams of moonlight — a story
That subsides quietly into plain historical fact.

– John Ashbery, “The Skaters”

Late last August I crossed a bridge over the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana, and, looking east, saw a dense cloud swelling behind the mountain. I couldn’t tell whether it was a thunderhead or a plume from the huge forest fire that was growing through the nearby Blackfoot Valley. There had been rain and there had been fires in the mountains to both the east and west of town so the air just sort of hung there, heavy with water and smoke.

A lot of things were ending. The short Montana summer — properly spent drinking in public and idling down majestic rivers in an inner tube — was ending and along with it, more or less, my life. In spring I had finished a graduate program in creative writing, and I managed for the summer to postpone my departure from writer-land. But fall in Missoula was closing in on me, and I wandered from coffee shop to burrito shop to bar feeling uniquely unsure what to do with myself. Post-graduation ennui is not original — it afflicts everyone with nothing better to worry about. But to go from happily aimless to unhappily aimless, following an experience that in retrospect was both profound and pointless, to stand alone on the cusp of a cold gray season, it can seem quite convincingly poetic.

It was around that time that I found a recording of John Ashbery giving a reading at the Washington Square Art Gallery in New York in 1964 of his long poem “The Skaters,” which became an object of minor obsession for me. Poetry at its heart is a game of endurance, and through his sixty-year career Ashbery has become the unlikely patriarch of the American poetry establishment, winning every major literary award, including most recently the National Medal of Arts — all in spite of his work’s utter bizarreness. Influenced by the Surrealists and the Symbolists, his poetry evades traditional demands for subject and narrative, moving liberally from image to image and speaker to mysterious speaker.

Ashbery was far from his future eminence at the time of the recording, one of a vanguard of strange young poets that would come to be known as the New York School, along with Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Kenneth Koch. He had published his second book, The Tennis Court Oath, two years before, and it is maybe still the most difficult of all of his twenty-five collections, containing poetic experiments that are, in Ashbery’s words, “so fragmentary as to defeat most readers.” The time following the release of The Tennis Court Oath was a pivotal one in his career. In his speech upon receiving the Robert Frost Medal, Ashbery said that the poems of The Tennis Court Oath were “a stage on the way to something else, which I knew nothing of then, when I would be able to reassemble language into something that would satisfy me in the way my early poems had once done but no longer did.”

That “The Skaters” was written in a period of artistic in-between-ness does something to explain my attachment to it in the fall. The recording is forty-seven minutes long, meandering in the poem’s four sections through a strange repertory of places and voices, wondering about the weather, travel, and the use of narrative. The original setting of the reading is very present in the recording, which is one of its pleasures — cars honk their horns, trains rumble by, and his lively audience laughs at lines as tame as “Mild effects are the result.”

I listened to “The Skaters” so many times that it took on a kind of Ouija-board mysticism for me. I felt I was one of the characters materializing and dissolving in the kaleidoscope eye of the poem — Helga in Jersey City, maybe, or the apartment-dweller who feels “cut off from the life in the streets,” or a figure in the sad old-fashioned vision of poverty, with its geranium in a rusting tomato can. “All this, wedged in a pyramidal ray of light, is my own invention,” writes Ashbery; it was invented, but it couldn’t have been a false vision, because I was living in it. My studio apartment in a converted motel in downtown Missoula, with hotplate and mini-fridge for a kitchen, heavy brown curtains and olive shag carpeting, was the poem’s adopted home, as much the true setting of the reading as the Washington Square Art Gallery in 1964.

“The Skaters” is a beacon when I try to reconstruct my memories of this fall. I remember mostly the weird and sad things — I got pneumonia right before Halloween and didn’t feel better until Thanksgiving. I had a job selling coffee in an outdoor outfitting store and once one of my co-workers detailed to me the circumstances of all of the boating deaths in the state that year. I used to listen to the poem while I was making dinner and one time I broke down in tears, crying into my cutting board. “You look like you’re in a movie written by a man,” I said to my reflection in the mirror on the wall in front of me, a woman crying while chopping vegetables.

Something came up over the mountain and I couldn’t tell if it was rain or smoke and this is all I remember about it. “Nature is still liable to pull a few fast ones,” Ashbery writes in “The Skaters,” and this is one main idea — the activities of nature, particularly storms and fires, are figures for impermanence in the poem. Rain and snowstorms appear in every section, always threatening forces that impede action. In the second section an oracular fire fountain is created, displaying a detailed spring scene. The action of fire is to consume, and the fountain devours its own images, leaving the outline of a landscape in ashes, until “this vision, too, fades slowly away.”

Fire, weather, sex, and everyday experience: these are the models of a kind of movement which has no beginning or end point, which erases itself with repetition, whose rhythms are its meaning. Opposing this is movement with a reasonable trajectory — progress toward a destination or the single consequential gesture, as exemplified by travel, romance, or history. The second section of “The Skaters” discusses travel, associating it with the projections of fantasy. “This cruise can never last long enough for me,” Ashbery writes. “But once more, office desks, radiators — No! That is behind me./No more dullness, only movies and love and laughter, sex and fun.”

With increasing self-consciousness, travel becomes a metaphor for the idealized course of life — “Here I am, continuing but ever beginning/My perennial voyage, into new memories” — and modes of travel elide as the symbolic meaning inflates. “The train we are getting onto is a boat train,” declares the speaker. “And the boats are really boats this time.” It is clear in the poem that travel as a notion is inconsistent with reality: the more elusive fluctuations of nature, the humdrum grief of modern life.

Nor in fact is this movement consistent with the ever-turning mechanism of poetry. This is where “The Skaters” functions as a covert poetics, as good a statement as I have found on how Ashbery’s famously enigmatic poems work. The central image, a group of ice skaters on a winter day, illustrates the kind of spontaneous coordination that he is replicating, with each skater “elaborat[ing] their distances” and then returning to the mass of other bodies, indistinguishable from the next. This alternating motion speaks to a poem like a snowstorm, a poet whose genius is to recreate this effect. “Neither the importance of the individual flake,” he writes, “nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is what it is,/But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract.”

The mission, it seems, is to create a poem that is closer to the true experience of perception. “The carnivorous way/Of these lines is to devour their own nature,” the poem says of itself. “Leaving/Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still.” This is why Ashbery’s poems are often so difficult to decipher; the lines seem to evaporate the moment they are read, like a dream or a season leaving the mind with a determined impression but few specifics. The contours of a cloud, a one-room apartment tracing its angles, a feeling weary as a white sky.

I spent much of the fall trying to write a poem called “Hard Feelings,” collecting unusable phrases like “I’m as sad as I can” and “You just want to have someone else around.” Then as now, I wanted to create a testament to that indeterminate time, to feeling dissatisfied and confused, to not much happening. But to do this requires a return to the kind of travel-movement. Sentiments are monumentalized; certain details are exaggerated and others are left out. What speaks more to this romanticism than my effort not only to know “The Skaters” but actually to be in it?

“The Skaters” is preoccupied by the idea of “leaving out” and of which details survive — that narrative requires the intentional selecting of what will evoke feeling, and history, the “natural” erosion of what is unimportant. Both create inaccurate accounts, not because they are incomplete, but because their emphasis on particulars distracts from the anonymous repetitions that carry life’s true meaning. As Ashbery writes, “There is error in so much precision.” It sure is cozy, though, the cloak of memories and fantasies and possessions — “Through the years/You have approached an inventory/And it is now that tomorrow/Is going to be the climax of your casual/Statement about yourself,” he says in the last section of the poem. To make and remake ourselves. It’s only human.

Indeed, for all his proclaiming in “The Skaters,” Ashbery seems ambivalent about any attempt to escape the bounds of narrative, though he does want to rework it. “I am fascinated,” he writes, “with the urge to get out of it all, by going/Further in and correcting the whole mismanaged mess.” The poem resembles Ashbery’s description of Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealist novel Hebdomeros, with its central character, “a kind of ‘metaphysician’ who evolves through various landscapes and situations.” “In this fluid medium,” Ashbery wrote in his 1966 review of the novel, “trivial images can suddenly congeal and take on a greater specific gravity, much as a banal object in a de Chirico painting — a rubber glove or an artichoke — can rivet our attention merely through being present.” In the same way, the people and objects that occupy “The Skaters” don’t dictate the meaning of the poem, instead acting as momentary resting places for the reader’s attention.

Recently I found tucked under my mattress a page of lists I made in September: “Goals for This Week,” “What I Want To Happen This Week,” “This Week I Will….” I’d begun writing a lot of these letters, lists, and reminders to myself to allay existential panic. My favorite of that week’s lists is at the bottom of the page: “Uncertainty I’ll Allow For,” with its three items, “employment, friendship, love.” In post-grad school life as in poetry we must allow for some ambiguity; there is more than one right answer, if there’s an answer at all. The angst just doesn’t end.

It is lucky, then, that memory is as unsound as history or narrative — it helps provide the impression that things eventually get resolved. Even if I’m still living with the same unknowns, still crossing the same bridges and bumming in and out of the same coffee shops, looking back now, the fall’s uncertainty only says a cryptic but profound certainty. My memories point, if not at something, at least in the same direction. “Scarcely we know where to turn to avoid suffering,” writes Ashbery. “I mean,/There are so many places.”

Considering the geography of Missoula it is a lovely coincidence that “The Skaters” is in a collection titled Rivers and Mountains. The title refers to Chinese landscape scrolls; in an essay about space in poetry, Ashbery wrote of the perspective in these scrolls, “The incorrectly rendered space [turns] out to be something far more enchanting than space in the world could ever be.” This is something close to my purpose in stockpiling memories of this fall: to say something more precisely but less accurately, to see the whole expanse from one vantage. Hard feelings and uncertainty I’ll allow for. Something about a whiskey sky turning through the valley. A bench by the river in the sand-colored grasses.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Bachelor.

Photographs by Zoey Farber.

"Aurora Lies" - Work Drugs (mp3)

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"Ice Wharf" - Work Drugs (mp3)

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Reader Comments (4)

Great stuff, great poet.
February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen
Feel it, love it.
February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK
Mmm, really interesting piece, lovely photographs too.
Note to self for this spring: buy John Ashberry collection.
Thanks so much. x
February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee
“You look like you’re in a movie written by a man,” I said to my reflection in the mirror on the wall in front of me, a woman crying while chopping vegetables.

I love the way you always find room for a little levity. I am jealous of how smart and fluid this writing is. (jealousy = highest compliment ever!)
February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

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