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The Clown Prince of Postmodernism : APRIL GALLEONS by John Ashbery (Viking: $15.95; 97 pp.)

January 03, 1988|Calvin Bedient | Bedient's most recent book is "He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist" (University of Chicago Press). and

"April Galleons," John Ashbery's 11th volume of poetry not counting his recent "Selected Poems," sails in the postmodern waters whose nauseous chop and spooky fog this poet loves so well. His skill and cleverness (and something more) are such that he makes the reader appreciate, if not the waters, then at least the navigator's talents. How can you not like a gifted poet who wants you to have a good time sliding around on his deliberately slicked decks?

Ashbery's game is not to make good sense while hinting that good sense is not, after all, that good and that he may be able to surprise out something better, so hold on. He knows how to calculate the reader's interest in finding out what will happen next: He baits the trail with bits of fresh-killed narrative. Then, too, his non sequiturs lead, sooner or later, to a few consecutive sentences that cluster like a slippery ball of meaning. Things, you think, are looking up! Then the process repeats itself until the poet's sense of the slithery musical logic of his illogical discourse tells him he can now make his most pungent or clipped statements, having arrived, somehow, at the close.

"April Galleons" exceeds much of his earlier work in choking sequential development. The ends of the poems drift far from the beginnings. As for the middles, they have little of the ripe fresh-cut-cantaloupe odor of inner discovery that I find still delightful in his recent book, "A Wave," to go back no farther.

Yet this is Ashbery we're talking about, and the poems are dotted with his unique enchantments (as well as with forced simulations of them). I mean the jokey but arresting clauses: "the relationships/ Had gotten strangely tilted, like price tags"; "The Lake Havasu City of our dreams where London Bridge eyes the sands/ Nervously, and vice versa"; "emptying/ Us out of sleep's dustpan into the little pile of question/ Marks." Then, too, the descriptions of nature that are like Emily Dickinson brought up to date: "the old gold of twilight . . . the bargains/ In knotted ribbons in the sky." And the unexpected, thoughtful formulations that tease thought into going bananas:

One must always

Be quite conscious of the edges of things

And then how they meet will cease

To be an issue, all other things

Being equal, as in fact they are.

("October at the Window")

The pervading assumption is that human will is a niggling, irrelevant affair, because everything miscarries anyhow. What, then, is left? A constrained spectatorship: "The cohesion may have happened already," advises the prose poem "The Ice Storm," "and we are no wiser for it, despite being positioned around to comment on it like statues around a view . . . ornaments on a structure whose mass remains invisible or illegible." Or, campily, one can try hope: "I tell myself it all seems like fun and will work out in the end. I expect I will be asked a question I can answer and then be handed a big prize. They're working on it."

Postpoets suppose that the great narratives are dead. Ashbery's implicit make-do is to set the adrenaline of poetry flowing a little by throwing snowballs at it--a wintered person's game of impertinence. So he replaces the historical goals of "emancipation" and, even, historical crimes (no "songs about uncompromising Nebuchadnezzar finding it difficult to reestablish contact/ With the court and so on") with daffy little pseudo-stories, or simply a confessed lack of news:

Not a good drying day. And I hung the laundry out

On the clothesline, all black and white

And the news got lost somewhere inside. My news.

("By the Flooded Canal") "Black and white" like, presumably, a printed page. Language as the soilable clothing one is required to wear and wash. Meaning lost in it like something left in a back pocket and now soggily unreadable. Or should one pour over Ashbery so--well, attentively? Perhaps his lines are meant to buzz about us in a mild pathos of softened regret--regret softened, for starters, by a depersonalizing obscurity.

Insofar as life really is disappearing into its own simulacrum, into a mediascape , as certain postmodernist theorists put it, Ashbery is a skeptical abettor, not a revolutionary (or a conservative: In this situation, the two converge), Flamingos? "They're just statues one can take along,/ If one wants" ("Bilking the Statues"). The "radical relationalism" (in Jean Baudrillard's phrase) of computer culture marginalizes embodied experience. And Ashbery is the wizard of an abstractly relational pseudo-discourse in which everything concrete whines.

But the issue of his serpentine accommodation to the times is vexed. On the one hand, though he complains of belatedness--one of his new titles reads "Not a First"--his poetic manner is a first, "revolutionary," a historical turning of a corner. Moreover, he deconstructs the conventional sentiments of "art," mocks common fantasies--in other words, creates an "anti-art," which is how really new art is always, at first, perceived.

On the other hand, his sentiments--the part of the "content" isolatable from the style--says to dither on between polite resignation and still politer good humor. And because of this emotional wallflowerism, Ashbery doesn't set floating any April galleons. He is more partial, perhaps, to the "great, rusted ship" of postmodernism. But he is grateful, all the same, for "the churning, moving support that lets us rock still," as he put it, with double meaning, in "A Wave." He rocks on.

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