John Ashbery, one of America’s most innovative and well-regarded poets, died this past Sept. 3 at the age of 90. As the title of Rae Armantrout’s Sept. 6 op-ed piece in the New York Times suggests – “Ashbery’s Avoidance Of the Easy” – most readers consider this poet’s work difficult … or extremely difficult.
To be honest, I had never read an Ashbery poem until I was inspired by Armantrout’s perceptive appreciation. It’s not that I hadn’t tried. About 40 years ago, I purchased a book of literary criticism by Paul Carroll, “The Poem In Its Skin” (Big Skin, 1968), in which the author examines one poem from each of 10 American poets, all of whom were in their early 40s at the time of publication.
Because Ashbery starts with A – the essays are arranged in alphabetical order, using the last names of the poets – it was his poem “Leaving the Atocha Station” that I jumped into first: jumped into and jumped out of very quickly. As far as I could tell, this so-called poem is pure (or impure) gibberish, to which its first four lines attest: “The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness / And pulling us out of there experiencing it / he meanwhile…. And the fried bats they sell there / dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds ….”
Though Carroll devotes 20 pages to attempting to explain “Leaving the Atocha Station,” he is honest enough to admit near the beginning of his essay that the poem “appears to be an exasperatingly incoherent kaleidoscope of phrases, words, snatches of talk, images and metaphors.” No wonder I wound up waiting decades before reading the rest of the poem.
The remaining 65 lines are every bit as “exasperatingly incoherent” as the first four, but Armantrout’s tribute makes clear that it has been my loss to have avoided reading Ashbery for all these years. She points out that to read an Ashbery poem is “a visceral experience of the passage of time,” citing a phrase from “The Other Tradition”: “… the roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices ….” These nine words alone have been enough to send me off to read several of Ashbery’s poems. How much I have been missing!
My excursion into Ashbery’s poetry led me to one of his most celebrated and ambitious poems, “Self-Reflection in a Convex Mirror.” First published in the magazine Poetry in 1974, it runs to almost 13 pages in the anthology in which I found it. The poem takes its name from the 1524 self-portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter commonly known as Parmigianino (1503-1540), who was only 21 years old when he executed this small circular work, just 9.6 inches in diameter. Because of the distorting effects of the convex mirror, the artist’s right hand, thrust in front of him, appears to be larger than his head.
Ashbery’s poem is an exploration of the slipperiness of time – “A peculiar slant / Of memory that intrudes.” The poem slips back and forth between the poet’s act of composing it in the mid-’70s and Parmigianino’s act of painting his self-portrait in 1524.
Reading “Self-Reflection in a Convex Mirror” brought me back to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to when I was a young boy sitting in a barber’s chair with a mirror in front of me and a mirror behind me, so that I could see myself in mirror after mirror after mirror, getting lost in the infinite regress of reflected images.
Adding further to the distortion of time in Ashbery’s poem is the contrast between the survival of Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait” over the centuries and the brevity of the painter’s life – indeed, the brevity of even the longest of human lives when viewed from the perspective of eternity. As Ashbery writes, “Our time gets to be veiled, compromised / By the portrait’s will to endure.”
The poem, then, concerns the ongoing dialogue between time and mortality. Were it not the case that, in a certain sense, each of us is doomed – that each of us is born to die – time would be a desert wasteland: measureless, empty, devoid of purpose. It is the undeniable fact of mortality that gives structure and meaning to the time that has been allotted to us – “a focus sharpening towards death.”
As we Jews have moved through Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur and onto Sukkot and Simchat Torah, “the roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices” has been especially insistent. While we mark our personal time by our individual birthdays and anniversaries, we celebrate our communal memories through our three harvest/historic festivals: Pesach, the memory of the Exodus; Shavuot, the memory of matan Torah, the giving of our Torah on Mount Sinai, however we might interpret this central revelation to our people; and , the memory of our 40 years of wandering through the soul-transforming midbar, that wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
By way of contrast, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are bidden to step out of historical time and to dive into the mysterious depths of our own souls – to do nothing less than to plumb the meaning of our mortality. If we open our minds, our hearts, our souls to the words of our machzor, our High Holy Day prayer book, we are forced to confront that essential question: Mi yichyeh u’mi yamut? Who shall live and who shall die? What we have heard, what we now hear, and what we shall continue to hear is “the roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at Rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.