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John Ashbery, PARALLEL MOVEMENT OF THE HANDS – Five Unfinished Longer Works. Edited by Emily Skillings.

265pp. pub. Carcanet (UK) Ecco (USA)

These days the John Ashbery phenomenon, somewhat thanks to the internet, is even more of a phenomenon than it might otherwise have been. As if an Ashbery academic/critical industry keeping lots of sometimes probably quite dull people in university positions were not enough, thanks to today’s technology one is able, among other things, to take a virtual tour of his house in Hudson, which is kind of fun, and might give you some ideas for interior décor. I often think back to the mid-1980s when I wrote my Masters dissertation on the New York School poets and their relationship to English poetry, and there was just one book of critical essays about Ashbery to which I could refer, which was one more than there was on either Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch or James Schuyler. These days, with Google and all the rest, I don’t know where one would even begin with the background research.

But enough of that, except that this posthumous publication of five “unfinished” long-form works adds to what is already a huge body of work, and as such probably needs to justify its existence beyond simply giving us some Ashbery we haven’t seen before. We already have a lot of Ashbery poems. One might be excused for raising an eyebrow at the publication of something unfinished that dates back to the early 1990s (30 years!) even if the editor (Emily Skillings, Ashbery’s assistant from 2010 until his death in 2017) goes to great pains to point out that all the pieces presented here were “stored and kept just several yards from where Ashbery wrote poetry and correspondence” and “Though these projects hadn’t been prepared for publication . . . they also hadn’t been sent to the archives or put into storage. They may have been suspended – paused on their way to inclusion in a book – but they hadn’t been abandoned.” The cynic may ask, How come this stuff, which is so old, was never finished? Perhaps deep down the poet felt it wasn’t quite up to scratch but for some reason was unwilling or unable to let it go? But the editor has that one covered, too, by stressing how important the notion of art as “unfinished” is in Ashbery’s life and career. That’s fair enough, but there’s “unfinished” and then there’s “30 years unfinished”. It has to be said that Skillings deals further with the cynic’s concerns, saying that “In the absence of any explicit instructions from Ashbery regarding these poems, and after consulting with many friends of the estate, I arrived at the conclusion that these projects . . . deserved to be seen”. Given that those “many friends” included David Kermani, Ashbery’s husband, and others who were very close to the poet, we should probably usher the cynic from the room, even if we can still hear some mumbling.

The chief merit of this book, I think, is the insight it gives us into Ashbery’s working method, or methods. As long-form pieces, they sit in sharp contrast with the shorter poems that dominate Ashbery’s later books, those after Girls on the Run (1999), books that critics have spoken of in terms of the poet’s oft-quoted remark about occasionally snipping off a length from a constantly flowing underground stream of poetry in his mind. The long-form exhibits a different process, and Ashbery’s habit of dating his work by the day, and even noting in the margins of his working text where collaged items came from, often right down to the book, edition, and page, allows the researcher, should they wish, to examine in fine detail if not exactly how the work was done, then at least most of the ‘when’. The building of what may turn out to be a very long work is not so much about snipping off a length but adding another chunk or episode to the growing piece. On reflection, I wonder how much of a surprise this is: while many of the later shorter poems give the distinct impression of having been fairly ‘quick’, a book-length work is obviously going to be put together differently. Perhaps we’re not learning so much after all.

The notes in the appendices to this volume go into a lot of detail, including the sources of collaged text and, when known, specific dates when certain lines were written. Being bothered in as much detail as this is beyond me, to be honest. At one point, we are even told what kind of paper Ashbery liked to type on. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the cheapest in the shop.

And, at last, what about the poems? I’m no Ashbery scholar, but I have almost all his books, though I haven’t read every word in them. That said, I’m more than a little doubtful about some of what we are given here, “unfinished”. Occasionally there are flashes of Ashbery at his entertaining and bewilderingly brilliant, but just as often, and perhaps more often, he’s not really doing anything he hasn’t done before. That means it’s alright, but I already have a shelf-full of Ashbery, a lot of which is way, way better than alright.

“The History of Photography”, which is probably the poem closest to being finished, and perhaps actually is, dates from 1993, and kicks off the book (once the Introduction and its various explanations are out of the way). Unsurprisingly, it’s not a text that’s much use if you want to know about the history of photography. On the other hand the poem, which stretches to 30 pages, while it may or may not, to quote Skillings, “consider the role of the captured image in . . . personal and broader cultural terms”, makes enough references and allusions to significant moments in that history, and to important photographers, that there are times when it’s rather laborious going, especially if, for instance, a passage like

Francis Frith released the pyramids.
Nègre produced the ogival mysteries,
Mapplethorpe the dissenting penis . . .

means you feel compelled to seek out the references, which is not something I really want to do when reading a poem, never mind an Ashbery poem. More importantly, there are other moments, like
The invention of Technicolor redeems
folds that were medians, plains too narrow for settling on.

that are rather tedious because they seem to be trying too hard to tether the poem to its title, plus, like that one, they’re dull, period. One could, I think, pull enough lines out of this poem to make a readable, intriguing, and recognisable Ashbery poem :

Oh, the legions of seagoing fish!
Like sonnets marching in order, each with its placard
and assigned colored ribbon. You dazzle me.
I’ve been circumspect these last hundred
years. My tailoring is correct,
I think.

- but then it wouldn’t be “The History of Photography”, though I would perhaps have been able to read it twice, instead of the one and a half times I managed before abandoning the project, unfinished.

“The Art of Finger Dexterity” (2007) takes its title from a work by the Austrian composer Carl Czerny (a student of Beethoven and a teacher of Liszt, apparently) and is a set of 26 poems that, had it been completed, would have been a set of 50 poems based on the 50 variations of the composer’s “Op. 740”, a work described elsewhere by Ashbery as “written to torture piano students.” Each individual poem takes its title from one of those variations. If this makes it sound as if one needs some kind of musical background to appreciate what’s going on, relax. You don’t. Here is “The Passing of the Thumb” in its entirety:

Noon on the busy airplane
and besides this may never happen:
perspective, misunderstood

The poems in this sequence have the distinct feel of snippings from the “constantly flowing underground stream”.

“Sacred and Profane Dances” is three short prose pieces. They are undated, but are probably very early, perhaps even as early as around 1950 (and you thought 30 years was a long time!). The first two are connected, in that each is loosely based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins in the Gospel of Matthew. They are not desperately interesting, and certainly not as interesting as the Gospel. The third piece is included because it seems to date from a similar period and, according to Skillings, has “charm”. It’s a charm that definitely belongs in the eye of the beholder. All three pieces seem to be the only work in the book included purely because of who wrote them, rather than for their literary quality. Frankly, I doubt they would garner much notice, if any, had you or I written them.

With “21 Variations on My Room” (2002) we’re back in more familiar Ashbery territory. This unfinished poem in 18 sections seems to have been included chiefly because parts of it resurfaced in a poem in the 2007 collection A Worldly Country, so the poem here is interesting mainly for the light it throws on Ashbery’s process and, as Skillings puts it, his “habit of self-recycling”, which can also be called using the good bits from old poems that
didn’t really work, which is what it’s called when I do it.

By the time we reach and delve into the fifth and final unfinished work here, one problem I’m having with this book becomes clear. “The Kane Richmond Project” (2002) stretches over some 60 pages of poetry and prose divided into titled “chapters”. Kane Richmond was an American film actor of the 30s and 40s, his films being predominantly ‘B’ movies and serials. The work apparently uses the storylines of two of those films as a background, references several other films from the same era, and also extensively collages text from some children’s adventure books from the 1950s and 60s, books that will probably be more familiar to American readers than British. As the editor’s introduction points out, Ashbery used similar children’s book sources in the poem “Europe” in The Tennis Court Oath way back in 1962, and again in “The Skaters” in Rivers and Mountains (1966). As might be expected, there are times during these 60 pages where one might wish that this or that passage had just been snipped off and we had encountered it on its own -

Soon the war would be over.
There would be April in Paris, sad
with the foreknowledge that all this was coming to pass.
How do you get out of it? I mean, there’s a job to be done
and not much you can do to get out of it. Besides,
would one want to? As April is succeeded, daintily, by May
with hawthorn and crabapple blossoms
and a feeling that you’re going to throw up, though you never do of

- and not weighed down by all we are told about how the whole thing has been constructed. The work comes so heavily laden with its history, background, and sources, and often even brief summaries of the plot of a film being referenced, that it’s difficult to get far without reading a line and somehow finding yourself thinking, ‘Oh, that must be from one of those books!’ or ‘That sounds like it’s from a movie! Let me check. . .’, and you’re turning to the Appendix even though you know you shouldn’t, and you find yourself spending more time in the Appendix than is healthy. In the 60 pages of “The Kane Richmond Project” there is, for sure, good stuff, but you have to read a lot of something else to find it, and one can be forgiven for wondering if it’s really worth the effort.

And there is the main problem I have with this book. Interesting as it is to have some further insight into Ashbery’s compositional processes – and I’m really interested in that – one is left with the feeling that the work here, unsurprisingly startling at times, is Ashbery only occasionally at his remarkable best. For completists and interested academics the book is obviously essential. For admirers of Ashbery who may feel they already have the ground-breaking and astonishing work that made his name, it’s not only not essential, it will likely come as something of a disappointment.

This review was first published at Litter


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