Louise Glück’s new poems have the simplicity of fairy tales. Winter Recipes from the Collective is an ungainly title for a book of fifteen poems ghostly, spectral, and often attenuated. They’re apparently rough drafts for Hans Christian Andersen or the Grimm brothers. The tales are told simply, acidly, with a psychological weight only a writer like Glück, who says so much by saying so little, could manage—or bear.
Day and night come
hand in hand like a boy and a girl
pausing only to eat wild berries out of a dish
painted with pictures of birds.
They climb the high ice-covered mountain,
then they fly away.
A “you” and “I” enter. The boy and girl return. Things happen. Nothing happens. These sneaky, daring little pieces hold out the promise of a completion that can never be complete, even when an ending is offered. Like fairy tales, they don’t say what they mean; they mean what they say—or don’t say. A monster always lurks behind the arras but never shows his face.
Glück has been masterful at refusing to bare her soul, always a good way to bare it. She has revealed the grotesque in the ordinary as well as that much rarer thing, the ordinary in the grotesque, while maintaining a demeanor that approaches absolute zero. If this is confessional poetry, it’s utterly alien to what Lowell and Plath and Berryman were doing—and what, in watered-down versions, most poets are doing still. Glück’s strength lies in the shadow lands between myth and reality. Though her use of Greek myth has often been strained, the fairy-tale motifs have stripped off a layer of the psyche, all while denying—in style, in presence—that she’s doing anything of the kind:
And how small
I must have been, suspended
in my mother, being patted by her
What a shame I became
verbal, with no connection
to that memory. My mother’s love!
All too soon I emerged
my true self,
robust but sour,
like an alarm clock.
It’s hard to believe that lines could be pared any further and still exist. The reader who thinks all Glück’s poems are about Glück is mistaken, as is the reader who believes none of them is. Her precursors are not the Modernists—Coleridge, however, a poet with the same attraction to the uncanny, bears similar psychic wounds. Glück’s cunning keeps the reader away from the windows, standing before a locked door.
Since Life Studies (1959), American poetry has been devoted to confessing even its confessions, whether the self is naked or wearing a three-piece suit and a bowler hat. Glück’s spare and contrary style, rarely concretely located in time or space, gives these new poems an extremity long desired. If her earlier work could appear feigned, feigning has now been perfected. Perhaps the poems that gorged on Greco-Roman myth, some more successfully than others, recommended her to the judges of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she won last year, the first American poet—Bob Dylan excepted—since T. S. Eliot in 1948. Her new poems go beyond myth into the lurking subconscious. If you take Glück with her limitations (or, worse, for them), you end up thinking you’ve overburdened her poems with your enthusiasm. If you don’t, you think that there wasn’t much there to begin with.
In “The Denial of Death,” the longest poem in this book of short receipts, what begins as the loss of a passport becomes the noche oscura del alma of St. John of the Cross. Plain sentences, laid out like floor plans—always pointed, always unsentimental—slide from happenstance to horror. The self is restricted, a no-fly zone, and therefore always in view. Glück makes the case, not that fiction is better than truth, but that fiction substitutes for whatever truth is missing.
On either bank, the tall marsh grass blew
calmly, continuously, in the autumn wind.
And it seemed to me I remembered this place
from my childhood, though
there was no river in my childhood,
only houses and lawns. So perhaps
I was going back to that time
before my childhood, to oblivion, maybe
it was that river I remembered.
Glück has always been a fabulist. Her neutral tone and arctic detachment were there in her first book, but now she knows how to turn Freud’s couch into a creepy piece of furniture. These poems have the contemplative force and invitation of haiku. They start deep and sink deeper, happy to be as prosy and plain as a Midwestern summer. This is a brilliant, scary book.
August Kleinzahler isn’t the tough-guy poet he’d like to be, the sort who reads too much Bukowski by day and binge-watches The Wild One by night. Frank O’Hara has long been his domineering influence—Kleinzahler’s version of the “I do this I do that” poems pays homage to the New York curator and typewriter fiend but revels in the O’Hara whose work rarely exposes the aesthete beneath. Kleinzahler’s poems hang loosely together, and fall loosely apart:
—Elvis is dead, the radio said,
where it sat behind a fresh-baked loaf of bread
and broken link of kolbasz
fetched only lately from Boucherie Hongroise:
Still Life Without Blue Pitcher.
I read that piece of meat as if I were Chaim Soutine,
with its capillaries and tiny kernels of fat,
bound up in its burnt-sienna casing.
Snow Approaching on the Hudson is an often scatterbrained trot through time, travel, and temperament. In those eight lines we have the swivel-hipped King, Hungarian sausage, a Quebec charcuterie, Max Weber’s still life—and Soutine’s beef carcass, painted as it gradually rotted before him. Soon after, we’re offered Parcheesi, Tuinal, Presley’s Blue Hawaii, and Satie. The poem is largely about soup.
Such a piece can ramble on for fifty lines, throwing more gimcracks and geegaws into the pot, doing nothing but evoking a day and a place far more important to the poet than to the reader. The writing is strongly rendered, full of controlled flourishes, never cheap or meaningless—though the infestation of rhymes can be like bedbugs in a pricey hotel. The torrent of bookish allusion conceals a dogged shrewdness. Beneath the mannerism lies love of craft.
Kleinzahler’s poems suffer from long lines that refuse to quit, from an outlandishness that would embarrass anyone but Thomas Pynchon. Snow Approaching is at times a Grand Tour of the poet’s life without discrimination or revelation. These poems sit hard by others that seem by Browning out of Browning, written by a poet trapped in a library who has read everything in sight:
Galleys bob out on the Marmora, oars dipped,
dragon-headed prows making ready to spit fire.
Siege engines take up position outside the gate of St. Romanus.
Sappers burrow below.
This must be the siege of Constantinople, which fell in 1453, Christian defenders supported by Muslim defectors, attacking Muslim troops swollen with Christian slaves. The fire must be the infamous Greek fire, whose recipe has long been lost. This is not the first book where Kleinzahler has dipped into and out of the past like a man who pinched H. G. Wells’s time machine but forgot to grab the manual. Sometimes I have no idea what the poet’s writing about, and sometimes I’d rather not know—his style is the point. The content exists merely to carry the freight of manner.
If you’re put off by Kleinzahler’s posturing, you’ll have trouble appreciating his graces. When he isn’t just dithering, he can be a poet of elegant control and impressive force. Still, too many poems are junkyard collections of things, things, things, the lines stretching to the horizon, without an end in view:
Windshield wipers slapping back and forth, Murph’s Celebrity Sedan
hugged the curve as it sped onto the Edison Bridge, Super 88 4 barrel
High Compression 394 Rocket V8, Roto Hydro-Matic transmission, power steering,
Pedal-Ease power brakes, the rolling black cylinder speedometer
flashing green, yellow, and red, holding steady at 65 mph, midnight-blue frame
encasing me in terror, where I remain still, sleeping or awake.
And so on. And on. Somewhere in this particular avalanche of detail is a convincing portrait of a teenaged Kleinzahler and his unofficial, taxi-driving, Hart Crane–spouting guide. (Virgil, he’s not.) It’s a road movie that never gets off the road—the poem rattles on for four pages without a highway turnoff in sight. There’s a modicum of self-indulgence in the gross surfeit of these poems, many of which lack a point.
Kleinzahler is the current heavyweight champ of bizarre lists (“He stands before me, festooned/ with pneumatocysts, red, testosterone, blue, cortisol,/ pompadour and cowlick rigid with gel,/ orange knee socks, ‘laser green’ running shoes”); and once he starts an inventory he finds it hard to quit:
The sun now above the tree line, the world again renews,
bicycling from point A to point B, a box lunch of Brie and
ham on a kaiser roll, twelve grapes, a Fanta, attached to the rear rack.
It continues on like this until the leaves begin to fall
and the first snow arrives, but much the same, different footwear.
Off they go to the groovy software design studio and columbarium,
enorbed by their things-to-do lists and amorous set-backs.
Kleinzahler plays the lout but knows what a columbarium is and can probably distinguish it from a mausoleum, though perhaps he means “inorbed,” not “enorbed,” and elsewhere “imposture,” not “impostiture.” (Browning used “enorbed,” but almost no one else.) I lament the frequent attacks of logorrhea and suspect that the poems read much better after a third bottle of Old Crow. Despite the rough-edged gossip and historical noodling (one poem brings Kwakiutl to Ocean Beach), Kleinzahler’s a raconteur of the old school, one who doesn’t know when to shut up. These accumulations of happenstance are half amateur history and half Jerry Lewis comedy. It’s sometimes hard to tell one from the other.
Rita Dove has been a brand almost longer than she’s been a poet—and having become a brand she no longer found it necessary to write poetry, just a pasteboard-and-tinsel version that makes readers ooh and aah if you say the right things about the right things in a style that would not trouble the average high-school student (or a particularly brainy toddler). That would drive to distraction, however, anyone who expects poetry to possess subtlety or the memorable use of language.
In Playlist for the Apocalypse, Dove begins with either an argument or an apologia for the difference between prose and poetry, composed in a prose I’m almost embarrassed to quote:
It’s supposed to be prose if it runs on and on, isn’t it? All those words, too many to fall into rank and file, stumbling bare-assed drunk onto the field reporting for duty, yessir, spilling out as shamelessly as the glut from a megabillion-dollar chemical facility, just the amount of glittering effluvium it takes to transport a little girl across a room.
The little girl is probably Dove in childhood, but what she’s doing amid that effluvium with all those bare-assed soldiers, well, I don’t know—her images are often shifty if not makeshift, cobbled together from polystyrene, zip cord, and old car-parts.
Despite this little gush in prose about prose, she manages to say nothing crucial about the distinction between the genres, except, perhaps, that prose “applauds such syntactical dalliances.” Take that, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Pound, Eliot, Bishop, Lowell. Yet what could be prosier than this?
Thirty seconds into the barbecue,
my Cleveland cousins
have everyone speaking
and dropped consonants,
whoops and caws.
It’s more osmosis than magic.
I’ve been to barbecues and never heard Southerners or Northerners descend into whoops and caws, or anything passing for a Southern accent if they didn’t already possess one. What I admire is how alert Dove is to black culture, which infuses her poems in a way so natural it’s not always evident. (She courageously reveals in the notes that she has MS, a secret she has kept for more than two decades.) Unfortunately, the poems are often just prose pretending to be verse: “If loving every minute spent jostling syllables/ while out in the world others slog through their messes/ implies such shuttered industry is selfish or irresponsible.”
Dove has a surprising gift for writing without any sense of freshness or shock. Once you know the subject, you can predict her response, which seems middle-aged and middlebrow, even when it’s neither. Consider her version of Woodstock:
Year of the moon, year of love & music:
Everyone in batik, dripping beads & good will;
peace to the world, peace to the Universe!
Sing along, kiss a stranger; blankets quilting the hill.
There may have been a little batik at Yasgur’s Farm, but mostly it was tie-dye. If the most famous rock festival ever staged had been so banal, the audience would have slunk off, ashamed. Still, “Dripping beads & good will”? Why write poetry if that’s all poetry can muster? (I love zeugma, but really!) Joni Mitchell’s song about the festival (“And we got to get ourselves back to the Gar-uh-ar-uh-ah-den”) was the worst piece of Woodstock-lit I could imagine until Dove came along.
The poem is part of a song cycle, A Standing Witness, written on commission like many of these poems. The cycle whizzes through half a century of America from the Sixties through Trump. Does she do better with Muhammad Ali?
He flicks those angry eyes,
then flings out a rhyme
quick as tossing a biscuit to a dog.
He’s our homegrown warrior, America’s
toffee-toned Titan; how dare he swagger
in the name of peace? No black man
strutting his minstrel ambitions
deserves those eloquent lips.
Quick as tossing a biscuit to a dog? Toffee-toned Titan? His minstrel ambitions? A poet can’t survive on terrible metaphors—not as a poet, at least. I could go on through her poems on Nixon (“I’m not a crook he crowed, and people believed him,/ persuaded by flags and honor guard”), on Roe v. Wade, aids, and 9/11, all perfectly terrible.
Dove is addicted equally to blather and sentiment. Many of her poems serve up dollops of the stuff like so many scoops of poisoned whipped-cream:
A day like this I should count
among the miracles of living—breath,
a heart that beats, that aches and sings;
even the ecstasy of thirst
or sweat peppering my brow,
fanned by the mercurial breezes
crisscrossing this reserve,
our allotment on earth.
This is part of another commission, a series of poems on the half-millennium anniversary of the forced isolation of Venetian Jews in the Ghetto, once an island dump for foundry slag. A group of writers and artists were asked to “reflect on the evolution of the word ‘ghetto.’ ” The project was noble, but it’s hard to take seriously a poet who humble-brags that “I spent a month in La Serenissima, overlooking the Canale Grande from a magnificent apartment in the Palazzo Malipiero,” rather than, say, windowless rooms in the Ghetto itself. She might as well have said, “I was so grateful, while working in Paris on my Holocaust poems, to have been gifted a richly decorated suite at the Ritz and a chauffeured Rolls.” Her Venetian palazzo was the “very building where a young Giacomo Casanova began solidifying his scandalous reputation.” Solidifying?
This embarrassing book, the poems so bland and dispiriting, shows that a poet can make all the politic gestures against racism and violence yet never write a line worth remembering. Dove has won the Pulitzer Prize, been Poet Laureate twice, and received the National Humanities Medal, the National Medal of Arts, the Gold Medal for Poetry, and the Golden Plate Award. The robes from twenty-eight honorary Ph.D.s hang in her closet.
Valzhyna Mort’s brutal, brutalized poems revisit a family history, and a country, littered with corpses. Born in Minsk (the capital of Belarus, former Byelorussia), she came to the United States in 2005. Russian was her first language, perhaps inflected by the “heavy-handed pigeon [sic] of Russian, Belarusian, and Polish” spoken, as she said in an interview, by the grandmother who raised her. (“Pidgin” may have been mistranscribed.) Mort learned Belarusian only in middle school. She has the virtue and responsibility of a poet whose language is silently infiltrated by other languages—the occasional off-note may be a dissonance calculated or unwilled.
Music for the Dead and Resurrected, her third book in English (the first appeared in translation), returns to the shattered scenes that have come to consume her work. She has forced herself to address the oppressive governments, murderous politics, and shifting borders that characterized Mitteleuropa from the Russian Revolution into the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current president of Belarus, called by the bbc “Europe’s last dictator,” has been in office since 1994.
Here, history comes to an end
like a movie
with rolling credits of headstones,
with nameless credits of mass graves.
Every ditch, every hill is suspect.
Pick me for a sister, Antigone.
In this suspicious land
I have a bright shovel of a face.
Mort slaps down her images like trump cards, making her arguments with bullet points. (Is the shovel bright because new, or because polished after every grave?) This isn’t a poetry of nuance—the sentences are sharp as stakes, with an occasional shudder of black humor. The tales of her family would have been too grim for the Grimms.
At best the poet’s experience provides her objective correlatives where mere recitation of history’s facts would seem untethered. Her bright, off-kilter images show the tea-table influence of the Surrealists:
In the temple of Supermarket
like a candle
in the line to the priestesses who preserve
the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity
of milk cartons. My future, small
The images are striking, even when they outshine the poem. (“A Supermarket in California” is still the only supermarket poem worth reading, but Ginsberg had to frogmarch Whitman in to help.) Mort’s poems often judder along, rimshot to rimshot, with too many stanzas capped, Ba-da-boom!, by a desperate simile or overwrought metaphor, more than a few of them stunning: “I pray to the trees and language migrates down my legs like mute cattle,” “An air-raid warning rings/ like a telephone from the future,” “Your straight hair/ falls like currency in a counting machine,” “She stands inside,/ as at the bottom of a river, her heart an octopus.” (The freshwater octopus is sadly unknown to science.) In such lines, the Martian School rises again. However darkly comic, however scouring, the images time after time stop the poem cold.
Mort’s country, that shadowy, dangerous landscape that withstood invasions by the Huns and Avars, was devastated during the last world war. Now it seems secretly inhabited by trolls or Beowulf’s dragon—it’s the place even fairy tales are afraid of. The poems are piecemeal by calculation, fragments not shored against the ruins but composed of ruins themselves. They offer riddles without answers, grief without resolution, remarks of little depth that nevertheless make the skin prickle: “Our famous skills/ in tank production/ have been redirected/ at students and journalists.”
If many of her poems wander between Beckett’s desperation and Barnum’s empty promises, if Mort’s taste for mismatched parts plays to her weaknesses rather than her strengths, the broken stories tremble with ravaged power amid destructive loss. Mort is a poet of attractive intelligence whose family history has dragged her into realms where hope glints only rarely, yet without the pressure of history she could easily have become a poet of empty images. Her voice is so troubled, so haunted, her language so compelling, I’ll look forward to whatever she does next.
Paul Muldoon has been our Puck for so many decades, it’s difficult to remember the modest, restrained, Heaney-esque poet he was at the start. Howdie-Skelp (the midwife’s slap) is the latest of the tent shows he’s put on, and it’s a humdinger. For jumble sales and lucky dips of cultural artifacts from here to Timbuktu, for rhymes that would have dizzied the bedizened ancients, for loopy goofballery no other poet could get away with, for all the thats of thisses, and thisses of thats (if this sounds like Dr. Seuss, so does Muldoon at times), well, he’s your man. Muldoon is our most boyish, talented, and frustrating poet, his great gifts left to rust just to see what happens.
This new book, almost longer than the Yellow Pages, is anchored by four sequences, the first a rewriting of The Waste Land, because, well, why not? With his usual waggle of wit, Muldoon calls it American Standard—that is, the brand of toilet; and, indeed, a lot of things get thrown in before he flushes. (If the toilet is a sidelong reference to Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, exhibited five years before The Waste Land was published, it doesn’t pass unnoticed.)
By the mud walls of an ancient city, where Escort Drive runs into Sunup,
a construction worker finds a packet wrapped in clear
plastic and lined with Egyptian papyrus.
A frog chorus. Backup beepers.
As for the dog that lies by the gate,
you may be sure the horse at whose heels he’s wont to snap
is a horse of a whole other color.
This skitters from, perhaps, Aristophanes’ Frogs to Odysseus’s dog Argos while mingled with shreds from the first stanza of “A Game of Chess.” The shenanigans are relatively restrained, perhaps out of respect for Eliot’s masterpiece; but at times the horses still run out of the barn with their hooves on fire (“The killers of Khashoggi musta had nerves of steel/ when they stopped him from showin’ a clean pair of heels” or “Some presidents seem to say ‘hi.’/ Some presidents seem to say ‘howdy.’/ Some are in bed with a Soviet spy./ Some are still in bed with the Saudis”). Eliot left a lot of grist for Muldoon to mill, and he goes at the grinding with a vengeance. This is an old man’s poem (Muldoon’s in his seventies but acts like a stripling) about a young man’s (Eliot wrote in his early thirties, sounding like an aged god).
Paul Muldoon has been our Puck for so many decades, it’s difficult to remember the modest, restrained, Heaney-esque poet he was at the start.
If our culture were one day destroyed, future scholars might pore over this poem to see what they could salvage. In a gobbet of three pages, we have High Noon, Game of Thrones, ussTheodore Roosevelt, Governor Cuomo, the Brooklyn Nets, Elton John, FedEx, and Dionysius the Areopagite. In just a couple of stanzas, we get Captain Beefheart, Cap’n Crunch, Charlemagne, William Tell, William Holden, Cyrano de Bergerac, Frank Zappa, The Man in Black, Preston Sturges, Jenny Lind, and two dozen others. You can imagine Muldoon listening on auto-repeat to Billy Joel’s often ridiculed “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
However wild and wayward Muldoon must be to turn Eliot’s famous ending, “Shantih shantih shantih,” into, among other things, “Shandy. Shandy. Shandy” and “Shinto. Shinto. Shinto,” filling every rift with Kulturdreck seems a sad way to pay homage to the most important poem of the last century. On one hand, American Standard is a tour de force; on the other, it’s so cutesy and contrived and patently ridiculous, it seems worth doing only if you have nothing better to do. That’s the problem with Muldoon—the cocksure brilliance sits closer to Disney than Dryden. Wendy Cope’s “The Waste Land: Five Limericks” is shorter, sharper, and very much funnier.
The Irishman’s giddy rhymes are only part of the problem. Rhyme is the poison in the poisoned pen—much of the invention here comes directly from the randomness rhyme can offer, but the poems often end with little but frillery or fritillaries.
I don’t suppose a bandit often achieves his goal
of swapping a bedroll for lath and plaster.
Many’s [sic] a storefront has caved in. Crumpled like a blouse.
Rarely is a mainstay made manifest.
That’s why I check out each and every gopher hole
for the mink stole that eluded J. J. Astor.
The varmints back in the boardinghouse?
They, too, wanted to pin a star on my chest.
Despite the iffy construction of “Many’s a storefront has caved in,” the tricks and torments in these abcd quatrains are straight from the Muldoon playbook—the inspired twist (“swapping a bedroll for lath and plaster”), the crooked smile of simile (“Crumpled like a blouse”), the itchy wordplay (mainstay/manifest), and the out-of-left-field reference (to John Jacob Astor, the fur trader, not his great-grandson, the richest man in the world, who died on the Titanic).
Seamus Heaney is ever-present in his absence. Very few of these poems reveal his major influence on Muldoon’s early work; but those that do, however infiltrated by the later insect whine of style, show the courtesies and slow-burning feeling that made such a mark when Muldoon was still in his twenties. The most moving piece in Howdie-Skelp is an elegiac sequence for the Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who died two years ago. The depth of feeling forces Muldoon to curb his endless capacity for improv, limiting, if not eliminating, much of the window dressing that now makes up his poems.
Back in the day when our political representatives at least showed up at the Althing
you drove my Triumph Herald convertible from Notting Hill to the Beeb
to buy cigarettes from a vending machine. The car roof flapped like the wing
of some bird of death as we passed the shuttered shops and pubs.
If Puck is rarely drawn these days to subjects that test the emotional rigor of that devious imagination, poetry must bear the loss. He can only rarely turn off the cleverness switch even when the poem doesn’t need the little fits or frenzies. Cleverness can be a curse. Muldoon’s late poems could be mistaken for those contraptions that preceded the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, bouncing along until the wings collapsed or the wheels fell off.
When John Ashbery died in 2017, I thought the arcane machines of his invention, which produced poetry of such an astonishing but mechanical sort, had stopped. No way. In the thirty years before his death, he published over eighteen hundred pages of poetry. Parallel Movement of the Hands gathers five long poems dragged from the dust heap, poems unfinished or abandoned.
Ashbery had a free-floating imagination, closely resembling free-floating anxiety, that let him bash out poem after poem without relying on sense or logic, leaving just silly sentence after silly sentence, some making sense, but few glued to the ones before or after. He churned out brilliant guff like a butter factory, stick after stick, boxcar after boxcar of it.
The first sip of intelligence
splits the diapered sky, already crackled
with the losses that events are.
At the old treehouse one is clogged
with sleep in any case. Dust garlands that sway
like chains of mice. And up from under
the palaver there is golden food.
Words other poets would have trouble using these days (garlands, palaver) were, well, bread and butter to Ashbery. He thrived on narratives that weren’t narratives, misleading clues, random incidents, obscure references, and a truckload of kitchen sinks—yet the poems, in their infinite solicitation and refusal, their smirking and sniggering, could be delightful when you didn’t feel furious.
The poems didn’t need to start where they did or end where they did. Ben Lerner, who wrote the foreword to this book, recalls that at a reading fifty years ago Ashbery found that he’d forgotten something. “Oh, I don’t think I have the last page of it with me,” he said, referring to a long prose poem. “Well, it doesn’t matter, actually.” That was true of much of his work. You could drop the beginning, the end, or anything in between, and still have an Ashbery poem—campy, entertaining, slightly deranged, but hardly ever meaning anything but what the reader forced upon it. Lerner calls Ashbery “American poetry’s Scheherazade,” which is true only in the most tortured sense—he never told stories, but whatever he did tell seemed to break offin medias res, having started in medias res, too.
Ashbery was like a man drugged or daydreaming and spouting whatever popped into his head, goofy oddments mixed at times with the darkly philosophical. He was an Automat poet—you popped in a quarter and out came a freshly baked poem. At worst it was childish nonsense:
Would Siamese persons
now curly wrinkles blend
summon to an earthshower
the woken dresses?
Good luck sussing that out. The best had a lot of charm, however:
Only children and dinosaurs like endings,
and we shall be very happy once it all gets broken off.
The others, then—no, no, you missed the turnoff>
into the driveway.
Ashbery was a poet of hit and miss, or miss and miss and miss once more. His genius was for suggesting meaning where none existed—or only a little. Born in another time, he’d probably have been asked to read bird entrails, weird clouds, or mud patties. He could have interpreted dreams at least as well as Joseph for Pharaoh. A much later Joseph, Joseph Cornell, was the poet’s kindred spirit, and many Ashbery poems seem like Cornell boxes, made of scrap wood, pretending to be games or miniature panoramas, full of teasing implication.
I suppose it was inevitable that Ashbery’s posthumous poems would be overburdened with a foreword and introduction more than fifty pages long, as well as nearly a hundred pages of notes, photographs, and reproductions of drafts. The apparatus is longer than the work itself. Of the five abandoned poems in Parallel Hands, the most convincing are The History of Photography and The Kane Richmond Project, the latter based on Thirties and Forties movie-serials and the minor actor Kane Richmond. None of the poems, unfortunately, begins to compare with Ashbery’s masterpiece, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which has the focus and concentration his work never again possessed.
Edited by his former assistant, Emily Skillings, these unpublished poems, apart from one left undated, were written between 1993 and 2007. Her notes are thorough, especially about Ashbery’s sources and the confusion—really, dog’s dinner—of drafts he left. I have some questions about the texts: did he really intend to write, “I said your coming over/ throw money at the rat” (instead of, say, “you’re,” with a comma or semi-colon after “over”) or “Nobody can go in./ This are is off limits”? Surely he meant to type “area” instead. Ashbery left file drawers and boxes of unpublished and uncollected work. Several more books are threatened.
1Winter Recipes from the Collective, by Louise Glück; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 45 pages, $25.
2Snow Approaching on the Hudson, by August Kleinzahler; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 85 pages, $25.
3Playlist for the Apocalypse, by Rita Dove; W. W. Norton, 114 pages, $26.95.
4Music for the Dead and Resurrected, by Valzhyna Mort; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 95 pages, $25.
5Howdie-Skelp, by Paul Muldoon; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pages, $27.
6Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works, by John Ashbery; Ecco, 268 pages, $29.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 77
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