John Ashbery

You can't go home again (?)

The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne served for four years as US consul in Liverpool. During his time in England he wrote the following:

The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.

My mother used to carry this quote inside her wallet, which is when I first came across it, long before I had myself become an expatriate. My mother would not have known when she cut it out of  ArtNews Annual in 1966 (where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery in an article about American painters in Paris) that she was to spend the last five years of her life in London. But something attracted her to Hawthorne’s words, perhaps a sense that she was in some way an outsider, especially during her childhood in Newburgh, New York. She found the invigorating air Hawthorne talks about in Manhattan, a place (with a Native American name) that doesn’t really belong to America, international and cosmopolitan as it is. And I found that invigorating air in London, so I’ve never really believed Hawthorne’s assessment. For years now I’ve maintained that I become more foreign each time I return to the US, and to a certain degree this is true. My accent puzzles people, they can’t place me, can’t work out where I’m from. But in my 28th year as a Londoner, I feel as if Hawthorne’s words are pertinent, and I am going through an identity crisis.

This came to the fore during my visit to SUNY Fredonia, where I had been invited to give a talk and a reading of my work. The students seemed especially curious to know how I ended up in London (most of them were around the age I was when I left the US), if I found British words and expressions creeping into my work, if I thought I had a different view of London than those who’d been born there. During the reading I found myself darting between New York (I read a number of poems from my Jackson Pollock sequence) and London (characterised by Vici’s Formerly photographs). London is my home now, but there is something that continues to draw me to my birth country, especially now that the ties I have to it are increasingly diminishing.

My father would have been 100 earlier this month. I started my trip at his grave, with a copy of Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems, a stone to lay, and some of my mother’s ashes to scatter. Rossetti has been a poet very much present for me over the last few months. If Rossetti has a ‘theme’ (and I believe most poets do) it is mortality and remembrance. It has struck me powerfully in recent days that once someone is permanently gone from your life, your memories are all you have left; selected and constructed from life, but still edited highlights, and therefore often unreliable. I have always loved this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, which for me captures perfectly this condition:

Times Like Places

There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.

And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.

Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat’s wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn’t talk
in sentences any more: didn’t need to,
each knowing what the other would say.

The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory

is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion’s three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.

It is that idea that place, as much as the people who occupy it, also vanishes with time. With this in mind, my husband and I took a drive through Colts Neck, the small township in New Jersey where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. My mother had a framed picture of our house on her wall in London; the house is still standing, but it is much altered, and I found myself wondering if we had come to the right house, even though I knew for certain it was the one. I would have stayed in the car, but Andrew, curious about the place I’d talked about for years, got out and rang the bell. And someone was home, a woman who had lived in the house for the past 26 years, which immediately cheered me – someone loved it enough to invest a good portion of her life there. She asked if I wanted to have a walk around the grounds, and I said yes, even though part of me wanted to drive away immediately. What was strange was the sense of confusion I had in a place I thought I would always be able to navigate, as I knew every blade of grass. But that is because my childhood home has been sealed in memory, and in the land of memory, nothing ever changes. But the memory bank for the house closed thirty years ago, and in real time, much has happened, people have got on with their lives. I found the only way I could really navigate the familiar alien terrain was by certain trees that were still standing; many had gone. But I came away thinking that as much as I remembered, I was not remembered. The house was not sentimental, it would hold whoever occupied it, the same floorboards would creek under different feet. The windowsill in my old room where I’d carved my initials had been certainly painted over years ago.

In her years in London she missed America terribly, the familiar air. As much as she always loved London, her memory of the city stretches back to the early 50s, and the many years she came with my father. The London I live in was sometimes difficult for her, as most cities are when you are older. She used to love the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where she walked for many years. As I walked the towpath for the first time in many years, I thought about why we love places, why they become important to us. Canals are interesting places, a man-made intervention in the landscape  created to connect one body of water to another. Longtime Hopewell resident Paul Muldoon has written about the canal, making the connection between himself, the Irish poet living in America, and the Irish navvies who dug the canal (many losing their lives in the process) nearly 150 years ago.

My mother just thought it was a pretty place to walk. And it is – the long towpath separating canal from river, so you feel as if you are on a island, isolated from the busy world around you. But it is also a place of connections: land to water, water to water. She didn’t know she’d be making the long journey over the ocean so late in life. I realised as I scattered more of her ashes on the towpath that I was bringing her home, to her invigorating air.

The painter and his wife (a study in metaphor)

One thing I learned as an undergraduate art history student sitting in a darkened lecture theatre as Dr Forte projected endless slides of Renaissance Italian altarpieces onto the screen is that a rose is never just a rose. I was reminded of this yesterday while listening to a radio discussion on flower symbolism in Victorian times, and how even a slight modulation of hue could send a subtle message; for example, everyone knows a red rose symbolises love, but a deep red rose is the symbol of shame. At one time everyone understood a common symbolic language, in the days before absolutely everything could be stated, and whatever could be said (or overheard, considering the current phone hacking scandals) could also be broadcast in all forms of media.

For many years I’ve been fascinated by the painting of the Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck. From the time I first saw it, projected onto the lecture theatre screen, I was intrigued by what I’ve always understood as the subtext, in other words, the stuff going on around the couple. There is so much to take in: the dog (fidelity), the clogs (faith), the oranges on the window sill (wealth), the single candle in the chandelier (the marriage ceremony). There is also the burning question as to whether the bride is pregnant (which I even covered once in a poem); although I suspect she isn’t, her pose suggests that of the Madonna, and the possibility that in the not-too-distant future she will be with (Giovanni Arnolfini’s) child. They are, after all, posed next to a bed draped in bright red (no mistaking the meaning there). But the most striking feature is the convex mirror, which sits dead centre in the picture, actually coming between the happy couple. In it we see the reflection of their backs and of two other figures, one of whom was no doubt the priest, the other the painter himself, and above it, his signature and the date, like graffiti on the wall. A simple way of demonstrating that the artist was witness to the ceremony. But an odd intervention nonetheless, and one which shows the dexterity of the painter, to show all four figures present in such a small space. I think of that other convex mirror of Parmigianino and Ashbery’s famous lines: the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

The Master of Frankfurt painted the double portrait of himself and his young wife some 60 years later. When I saw it a few weeks ago at the MAS in Antwerp, the first thing I noticed was not the faces of the couple, but the beautifully-rendered fly sitting on his wife’s wimple. It is possibly the finest fly in the whole of the history of art, and very large indeed in proportion to the figures. There is another fly and a smaller insect inspecting the plate of cherries in front of them (I’ve already done cherries in a previous post; we know what they mean), but the Master wants us to notice this one, standing proud against the pure white wimple. Of course it was common in Netherlandish art of the period to include insects and reptiles in paintings, especially in still life scenes, partly to show off the talent of the artist; it has been suggested that the artist painted the fly so that it looked as if it was on the surface and at its actual size, so the viewer might be tricked into thinking it was a real fly that had alighted on the canvas. A clever deception, a trompe l'oeil. But I suggest this fly means something more. The artist’s wife bears a sprig of violet; there are violets in the vase at her side, and in the gilt foliage above their heads (which also holds the emblem for the painters’ guild of St Luke). The violet is a symbol of fidelity and modesty, thought to ward off evil spirits. So perhaps the fly is present as a symbol of death, decay, threat, and the violet is an offering to keep the couple safe. Death was never far away in the 1400s (I’ve often wondered about the single candle in the chandelier above the heads of Mr and Mrs Arnolfini) but despite the fly, the Master and his wife seem happy and in love, the violet held forward as their declaration.

A box of dreams

We are discussing the sonnet in my Tuesday night class, the merits of Petrarchan versus Shakespearean, rhymed versus unrhymed, and where the all-important turn should occur. I go back to Don Paterson’s introduction to his 101 Sonnets: from Shakespeare to Heaney, where he describes the sonnet as ‘a box for [poets’] dreams.’

And that phrase always makes me think of Joseph Cornell, whose boxed collages Bonnie Costello describes as ‘physical poetry’ which ‘invite the beholder to dwell in the work as he would in a poem.’ Cornell was an admirer of poets such as Apollonaire, Mallarmé, Dickinson and Rilke; and in turn, poets such as Marianne Moore and John Ashbery admired him. What Cornell did was to collect random objects, which were truly from the rag and bone shop, and catalogue them; by assembling them he made sense of them – a scrapheap cabinet of curiosities. Ashbery said of his collages that ‘he establishes a delicately adjusted dialogue between the narrative and the visual qualities of the work in that neither is allowed to dominate.’ He goes on to say, ‘Cornell’s work exists beyond questions of “literature” and “art” in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable.’ This is poem as diorama.

So back to the sonnet, which Don Paterson says ‘represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take.’ It is a gathering of ideas into a small, perfectly-formed space. Or maybe the sonnet is more a window than a box, a window onto understanding (because the best sonnets set up a conflict or argument, and seek to find a resolution), just like Cornell’s collages are a window onto the unconscious, onto memory. I hate when artworks are described as “poetic”, and Cornell’s work often is, but perhaps it’s better to say that the logic of his work operates in the same way as a good poem (and the poetic form his boxes most resemble is the sonnet) in that it brings together disparate images, which, collectively, take on a new meaning.