I have a hard time with John Ashbery’s poems, but I keep trying anyway. I think the problem is that I like to read poems that are more recognizably set in this world; I like poems that are “about” everyday life but told in a way that focuses on luminous detail, or that somehow makes things sing—I’m thinking of poets like David Lehman and Mark Doty, who are stylistically different but who both, I think, do this. Ashbery’s poems are doing something else, and I’m not sure what. His tone is often conversational, and he’s got a great ear for speech patterns, for everyday language; he sometimes uses bits of other texts (from a line from Gammer Gurton’s Needle to a phrase from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). But poems that start by feeling straightforward end up going elsewhere. Look at the first poem in this book, “Words to That Effect”: that great “slow then fast,/then slow again,” and the image at the end of the first stanza, and how at the end, in the third stanza, things veer weirder.

There are some striking passages in this book, things like this, from the title poem:

the landscaped sucked in its breath,

taking its time as always.

And there’s humor, like this, in “Recent History”:

They were early, as usual. Can’t you guys ever
be late, we wondered, though one wouldn’t
necessarily want that either. [...]

My favorite poems in this book are probably “How I Met You” and the prose poem “Homeless Heart”. I smiled at the wordplay elsewhere in the book, “census” and “sensory” in one poem, and “cavity” and “caveats” and “tocsins” and “toxins” in the poem called “Far Harbor,” which ends with this:

[...] The broad petals of language
are stiff and may get very bad.
They make it very bad
in our language tutoring.

but I often felt like, in any given poem, I couldn’t quite find my way in. “Everything remains invigoratingly at sea,” writes Charles Bainbridge, in this review in the Guardian, but I’m not sure I found it invigorating.

This book takes its title from a phrase from Henry James, which features as the book’s epigraph: James wrote, in The Sacred Fount, about “the liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities” from one person to another. Ronk writes about this idea more broadly, applying it to things as well as people: what marks do we leave on objects, and how do the objects we live with/use/love mark us?

I like the sense of life in this book, the sense of dailiness, of experience, as in the first phrases of the first piece, “The Cup”: “The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first glass of water, the running of water now clear after the silty water of yesterday” (13). Other pieces, like “A Paper Crown,” use the object as image/metaphor: that piece starts like this: “You realize some piece of you has to be pierced in order for the almost unbearable desire to be slotted into place” (19). Other pieces meditate on images: “Branches” describes part of this photo; Man Ray’s “rayographs” and paintings by Manet and Sargent are mentioned. Other texts are quoted, too: there’s more James, and Maurice Blanchot, and Georges Perec, among others. There are sections about the relations between image and object (particularly in photograms: traces of objects, shadow-objects); there are bits about the book as object, and the book as experience. There’s an expression of a sense that we are drawn to objects, or they to us, with a kind of fate: in one piece, the narrator asks, of a plate: “how did it come to be there by chance just when I also was there? How did it survive all the careless sinks and hands, earthquakes and upheavals?” (42).

And then this ties into other kinds of survival: what survives of relationships when they end or change; how we deal with death/loss/grief. There’s also a lot in this book about the body: in a piece called “Talking to Things,” there’s this, which I love:

In some ways objects “speak” directly to the body and alter a route through the room creating slight vectors of pressure. The drawing I’d make of it shows thin ink lines from each object in the room to each other object, door, person, rug, crayon, phone, paper bag, plant—until the page is crisscrossed with lines. (48)

Possibly my favorite piece in the book is the last one, a short essay called “Posada,” which is about doing kung fu for seventeen years, and about what having a physical practice is like, and also about grief/fear.

The 44 poems in this volume are a mixture of city-poems and myth-poems; characters and allusions (Orpheus and Eurydice, Dante) recur, along with images (two different poems include the image of “a tree half aflame” inside the speaker). Phillips’s language is one of gorgeous rhythms, whether the syntax is straightforward or more complicated: “Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in,” the speaker of “Tonight,” the opening poem, says. In “Tabula Rasa,” a poem that’s all questions, addressed to the Poem itself, the speaker asks: “Are you what’s gold in the mind’s gray-green/Weather?” I love stanzas like this, from “Hell Gate, East River, New York” (and love this opening image, too, Manhattan as body):

Over the shorter shoulder of Manhattan,
Under gilded malts and molten-gold clouds, birds,
Lowering, seen as they were, lit by first light

Some poems are, explicitly or allusively, about 9/11; my favorite of these is “Embrace the Night and Get Thee Gone,” wih is forward-then-backward structure and beautiful phrases. Phillips is great with similes, like this, from “Music for When the Music Is Over”: “We live like the one sequin/In a sequined dress that thinks it’s the dress/Although it merely blurs from other lights/Ablaze and bending.” Or this, from “Aubade, Vol. 2: The Underground Sessions”:

As when a drinking collared deer
Hears a noise and
Although safe by being Caesar’s
Feels a strange freedom there in that second,
Some sense in the gut, a thunder of ribs,
A surge in the blood, some cinched memory
Of not being Caesar’s,

I like the humor and matter-of-fact tone of a lot of the sixty-five poems in this book, like the great simile below, which comes from “How we came to live where we live”:

as when you stand before a painting
in a museum for as long as you hope
says something good about you, even
when you’re not sure what that good thing is,
that you’re considerate of red or appreciate
the historical significance of the brocade
or know that the woman in the foreground
holding the scythe was the painter’s lover

Many of these poems are elegies, or include death in various forms, but never in ways that feel heavy-handed, and often in ways that are surprisingly lovely: in “Excerpts from mourning,” the speaker talks about

Carrying ash of you to the Atlantic
(Kittery), bonebits to the Pacific (Point Lobos), giving you
to seals and otters and pollution, to waves and forgetting
and whales.

Other highlights for me were Pilgrimage (that last stanza especially), Desire, and Equine Aubade. I was less fond of the poems where sound and rhyme are more prominent, like “Owe is to ode as whatever is to I don’t know,” with rhymes like “I owe the crow, I know” and “When I’m dead, I want my head/to be ashtray/in a bus station, tagged/at will by slugs and mugs,” but when Hicok is writing more prosily, while still playing with poetic form, he’s great, like in this bit from “The days are getting longer”:

[…] it’s hard
to help the dead be dead
before they are. Mourning

doves, cardinals, chickadees
strip the cupboard bare
in a matter of hours,

I. I’ve never seen any of Chris Marker’s films, but this book made me want to. (You can watch La Jetée online, or it’s available on DVD, along with Marker’s 1982 film, Sans Soleil.) (I’ve never read Moby-Dick, either, and this book made me want to do that as well.)

II. Howe’s book is mostly in prose: nineteen numbered sections ranging in length from a paragraph to twenty-two pages, with images from films interspersed with the text: an airplane seen from below, a woman with an inscrutable expression, a scene of dismay, a fuzzy image of, what, a shadow on water? Soldiers cross a frozen lake; a balloon hovers/wavers. Another blur; three blonde children walking; that woman, again. There is one other image: the return address on an envelope, postmarked January 1943 from Roswell, New Mexico: a letter from Howe’s then-future husband, now deceased.

III. Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be nineteen sections long.

IV. What’s interesting and challenging about this book is the way Howe brings together so many different strands. She’s writing about the films of Chris Marker, sometimes in detail, scene by scene, but also writes that she “was drawn to the project because of the fact of [her] husband’s death and [her] wish to find a way to document his life and work” (5). Other filmmakers make an appearance: Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky. Howe writes about Ivan’s Childhood and also about the movie-going experiences of her own childhood, and also about her husband’s life as a pilot in wartime, and also about the death of Lenin and Three Songs about Lenin, and also about American literature she knows well: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, the idea of montage in their work.

V. The word “fact” keeps recurring. “Without words, what are facts?” (7). The idea of “the primacy of the “factual”” in Vertov’s work (9). Poets and nonfiction filmakers as working by “factual telepathy” (7). The world is “flooded with facts” (13).

VI. There’s something so satisfying about the kind of close-reading that Howe is doing of Marker’s films. Like this:

La Jetée, composed almost entirely of photo stills, begins abruptly with a violent out-of-field-movement-sound-image, the roar of revving and hovering jet engines. Sometimes I think I hear sirens, until the whine or scream of aviation doubles and dissolves into cathedral music: voices in a choir sing passages from the Russian Liturgy of the Good Saturday. In northern Russia, Iceland, and other northern places, the sun never goes out of sight in summer. La Jetée’s aborted soundtrack takeoff evokes technicist and eschatological worldviews.
Immediately time could be going either way. (13-14)

VII. There is in this book a sense of “oscillating between presence and absence” (10). Howe writes about her husband; Howe writes to her husband. Howe writes about her husband’s image in photographs, in a home-movie; she writes about his studio, now gone: she “can only perceive its imprint or trace” (25). Her husband’s daughter, from an earlier marriage, “remembers listening to the noise of waves breaking over pebbles in the cove at night, how tides pulled them under, how they swirled and regrouped in the drift and came back” (25). “A documentary work is an attempt to recapture someone something somewhere looking back” (50).

I picked this book up at the library based mostly on the cover art (a collage by the author) and the back cover blurbs, which talk about how these poems are, in the words of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, “trafficking in the near-spoken, the peculiar particulars, and in the unseen textures of lived experience.” The twenty-three poems in the book are mostly short, generally a page or two long, though there are three longer works as well. The edition I read doesn’t have an author statement, but this blog post by rob mcclennan quotes from one in which Leslie talks about how the book uses collage as a technique, about how collage may “convey instability and collapse” but can also be “a kind of visionary or metamorphic medium.”

Mostly what I liked in this book were fragments, bits that cohered, rather than whole poems (though the poem called “I Meant to Write You a Letter” is an exception: it’s eight lines long and totally satisfying). I love the tightness of the language in the first numbered section of one of the longer poems, “Margaret Fuller,” which you can read in rob mclennan’s aforementioned post. I like this, from “The Age of Parts”:

One can take details from a still life
and render their motions
the hip of the glass
the body of the paint

“My desire is to argue/on behalf of the world,” says one pair of lines in “That Obscure Coincidence of Feeling,” and I like the bits of other poems that feel most like that, like bits of the world caught in words in ways that somehow resonate. I love the first three lines of “Something about Bundles”:

This is what you do
with a list
let the air in

And this, from “Poem with Moveable Parts”:

there is
the newly emergent
like a crush
a perfect piece
of air
how we dive into vessels
with our hands

I was going to say that “so what?” is the question of this book—it appears twice in “Blizzard” and again in “Your Body Down in Gold”, and I do think there’s something to that. Phillips, in these poems, is concerned with what matters and what doesn’t, with the vagaries of love and desire, with the things people say and the things people mean, and with the everyday world, the natural world as well as the human, the world of starlings and cottonwood trees and crepe myrtles. The poems themselves are an answer to “so what?”: so here we are, so here we are in this world, so let’s pay attention.

But actually, these poems are full of questions, not just that one: in 35 poems I counted 29 questions, and that’s not even counting the ones not phrased with question marks, like this, from “Shimmer”: “When did souvenirs of what happened start/becoming tokens of what/could have been becomes/one of those questions that, more and more, I keep/forgetting to stop asking.” Some of the questions are succinct: “Has it come to this again/already?” or “I love you/means what, exactly?” or “why do we love, at all?”, while others meander and sprawl, like this stanza-and-a-bit from “Distraction”:

			     You know how, when the light
flashes off water, then passes through it, then rubs against,
it can seem just like the mind in a fix thinking its way
out of a fix, or at least trying to, the way Virgil in his
big poem describes it, and for a moment you think

everything's new that's been known forever—swamp-thistle,
bull-thistle, touch-me-not, red clover?

I like how many questions there are, and I like the uncertainty or ambivalence that Phillips captures in other ways, too: there are multiple poems in which something is or isn’t, or happens or doesn’t, or is and isn’t. In his review of Silverchest in the April 15, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes of these poems as Phillips’s way of “tracking the heart’s false starts, close shaves, and dead ends,” and I think that a major way Phillips does that is through the language: the questions and ambivalence and ambiguity that I like so much.

If you’re curious to read more, several of the poems are available online in one form or another. You can watch/listen to Phillips reading the book’s first poem, “Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly,” here: I really like the mix of concrete and oblique, and the sense of time passing: a season, many seasons. I like “Bluegrass” for the crispness of the image of the second stanza and the conversational tone of the first. And I already linked to “Blizzard” but here it is again: I love the lines about the starlings and their shadows on a frozen pond, and also the last ten lines, which are a translation of/variation on a poem attributed to the Roman emperor Hadrian.

In his Translator’s Introduction to Across the Land and the Water, Iain Galbraith lists some of Sebald’s concerns (in both his poetry and prose) as follows: “borders, journeys, archives, landscapes, reading, time, memory, myth, legend, and the “median state” (Edward Said) of the exile, who is neither fully integrated into the new system nor fully free of the old” (ix). Journeys and landscapes, in particular, are present throughout the book, starting with the very first poem, which is as follows:

For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish. (3)

Galbraith talks about the muteness of the landscape in his introduction; Ruth Franklin also quotes this poem in her review of the book in The New Republic. It’s a striking image, the twist of the landscape watching you, not just you watching it, and the landscape and its silences and the secrets it holds are another thing that Galbraith and Franklin both discuss in depth: Sebald’s work has a lot to do with the troubled history of the twentieth century in Europe, particularly with the horrors of the Holocaust, though not necessarily in a straightforward way: his poems move through the land where horrors took place, and that history is an undercurrent, not a focus.

But the poems I liked best in this volume aren’t the obscurely allusive ones, but rather the more apparently allusive ones: the ones that are lists, that are “found poems” (as Galbraith puts it), and also the images in some of the poems about cities and journeys. I like “Nymphenburg”, about a palace-turned-museum, and I love “Baroque Psalter,” below, which Galbraith notes is “taken almost verbatim from a review by Heinz Ludwig Arnold […] of the Baroque poet Quirinus Kuhlmann’s […] so-called Kühlpsalter of 1684″:

After numerous
proselytizing expeditions
to Paris
Geneva Smyrna and
he was burned at the stake
in Moscow (50)

I like poems drawn from life and from texts, poems collaged together from bits and pieces from newspapers and historical snippets and things seen or overheard. “Donderdag,” which quotes from a Dutch newspaper report about some murders in the city of Venlo and has the speaker reading about the murders while on a plane, is one example of this kind of style; there’s also a really pleasing poem that draws from events near the end of Chekhov’s life, and a great list poem that features the titles of books “assembled/by chance/in the display/of a junk shop/near a railway/underpass” (101). “My ICE Rail-Planner” is another collage-poem, which quotes bits of various advertisements, with a humorous tone, juxtaposed with lovely landscape-images: it starts like this, and continues similarly:

Herrenhausen is offering
a cruise to Denmark two
visits to the seawater wave-
bath thrown in someone
will be waiting at the station
& will say how nice

to meet you & how
about a Fitness-Week
in Eckernförde. Outside
the light is thinning the
ribbon of a road glistening
in the drizzle […] (123)

Other highlights of this book, for me, were “Day Return” and “New Jersey Journey”, both of which feature really great city-scapes, wonderful observed or invented detail of things/places/signs seen from a train or a car.

Almost Invisible consists almost entirely of paragraph-long prose poems—there’s just one piece, the poem-within-a-poem of “Poem of the Spanish Poet,” that deviates from that form at all. I like prose poems, generally, the way they sometimes could almost be called short-short stories, and I like these prose poems, the way that in bite-sized pieces they blend humor and nostalgia and uncertainty. I like the vagueness of some of these poems, like “Bury Your Face in Your Hands”, with its images of wind and snow and haze, with its sense of being adrift. I like “Anywhere Could Be Somewhere” for its radical sense of uncertainty, which manages to be ominous and funny at once, in the voice of a speaker who doesn’t know where he/she comes from. Throughout, Strand has a knack for striking images, striking lines, like: “The empty heart comes home from a busy day at the office” (15).

Probably my favorite poem in the book is “The Everyday Enchantment of Music”, the cadence and pace of it, and how well it fits with the conceit/images of a thing becoming something becoming something else.

I’m not opposed to feeling adrift when reading, but this book, on my first read-through of it, made me feel more than adrift: I struggled to find a way in, or anything to hold on to. I haven’t read much by Ashbery: before A Wave I’d only read Notes from the Air, which I remembered only dimly, and only as being difficult. (When I look back at what I wrote about it, though, I can see there were bits I liked, and I can see why I liked them.) I didn’t like this book much after my first read-through of it, but I think the final/title poem helps cast light on Ashbery’s approach: the last line of the book is “But all was strange.”—which is I suppose a bit of comfort to take into a re-reading. Also heartening was the first paragraph of Christopher Middleton’s 1984 review of this book in the NY Times, which starts like this: “Reading John Ashbery’s poems is a bit like playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M. C. Escher.”

The book starts with uncertainty: the opening line of “At North Farm” is this: “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,”—which I actually kind of love, how it’s very matter-of-fact language that nevertheless starts the book with questions and with motion. Each stanza of the poem, too, ends with a question, and the start of the second stanza is something of a puzzle, implying a question. Which is interesting, but I still get a little stuck on the vagueness of it. But OK: I kept reading. I quite like Ashbery’s rhyming rendition of this poem by Baudelaire, but I think the bits I like best of it are Baudelaire’s: images like “chimneys and steeples, those masts of the city.”

There are prose poems, too, like “Descriptions of a Masque,” which is several pages long and mostly bewildering to me except when there are flashes of brilliance. It features characters from myth, from film, from nursery rhymes, from literature, with this great conceit:

Then we all realized what should have been obvious from the start: that the setting would go on evolving eternally, rolling its waves across our vision like an ocean, each one new yet recognizably a part of the same series, which was creation itself. Scenes from movies, plays, operas, television; decisive or little-known episodes from history; prenatal and other early memories from our own solitary, separate pasts; events yet to come from life or art; calamities or moments of relaxation; universal or personal tragedies; or little vignettes from daily life that you just had to stop and laugh at, they were so funny, like the dog chasing its tail on the living-room rug. The sunny city in California faded away and another scene took its place, and another and another. And the corollary of all this was that we would go on witnessing these tableaux, not that anything prevented us from leaving the theater, but there was no alternative to our interest in finding out what would happen next. (27)

And this lovely sentence:

Mostly there were just moments: a street corner viewed from above, bare branches flailing the sky, a child in a doorway, a painted Pennsylvania Dutch chest, a full moon disappearing behind a dark cloud to the accompaniment of a Japanese flute, a ballerina in a frosted white dress lifted up into the light. (28)

There are poems in different traditional forms or variations thereof: haiku, and haibun, and a pantoum, and there are implicit and explicit references to writing, to poetry: I like this, from “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love”:

You can’t read poetry,
Not the way they taught us back in school.
Returning to the point was always the main thing, then. (56)

And then there’s “A Wave,” the long title poem, which seems to be about love and living and about writing, about how to love and live and write. The poem “demands to be met on its own terms now” (79) and “the issue/Of making sense becomes such a far-off one” (70): so maybe feeling adrift is fine. And there’s this: these are probably my favorite lines in the poem, almost my favorite lines in the book:

and we sit down to the table again
Noting the grain of the wood this time and how it pushes through
The pad we are writing on and becomes part of what is written. (73)