Set 12, 2015

Notes on John Ashbery’s “Decoy”

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That ostracism, both political and moral, has
Its place in the twentieth-century scheme of things;
That urban chaos is the problem we have been seeing into and seeing into,
For the factory, deadpanned by its very existence into a
Descending code of values, has moved right across the road from total financial upheaval
And caught regression head-on. The descending scale does not imply
A corresponding deterioration of moral values, punctuated
By acts of corporate vandalism every five years,
Like a bunch of violets pinned to a dress, that knows and ignores its own standing.
There is every reason to rejoice with those self-styled prophets of commercial disaster, those harbingers of gloom,
Over the imminent lateness of the denouement that, advancing slowly, never arrives,
At the same time keeping the door open to a tongue-in-cheek attitude on the part of the perpetrators,
The men who sit down to their vast desks on Monday to begin planning the week’s notations, jotting memoranda that take
Invisible form in the air, like flocks of sparrows
Above the city pavements, turning and wheeling aimlessly
But on the average directed by discernible motives.

To sum up: We are fond of plotting itineraries
And our pyramiding memories, alert as dandelion fuzz, dart from one pretext to the next
Seeking in occasions new sources of memories, for memory is profit
Until the day it spreads out in all its accumulation, delta-like, on the plain
For that day no good can come of remembering, and the anomalies cancel each other out.
But until then foreshortened memories will keep us going, alive, one to the other.
There was never any excuse for this and perhaps there need be none,
For kicking out into the morning, on the wide bed,
Waking far apart on the bed, the two of them:
Husband and wife
Man and wife


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Another "angle" we might wish to look at (which might need the connections you brought) is the presence of painterly terms and techniques. "Decoy" could be Chirico's dummy, or any such model we use for painting and is usually unseen in the final product. It might also be fowl decoy for hunting season (there's enough bird presence to hint at that maybe? delta-like accumulation, flocks of sparrows?).

Also borrowing from fine art: foreshortening. Which is among the illusions necessary to achieve a 3D effect on a 2D plane. Connecting it with "memory" makes memory merely an attempt at truth, a (more or less) willful perversion of actual values to achieve verisimilitude.

In sum: much meta to be had.

Before "Husband and wife / Man and wife" I'd like to comment on how this begins writ large (Declaration, nation, etc) in the first stanza and ends with that focus on a couple (or a couple of couples, or a couple of ways to couple a couple). If it's "pyramiding" inversely, then it's perhaps how citizens escape civil involvement by going into (exclusionary?) relationships.

Or perhaps, this was the way it's fashioned (the "motives" being so "discernible"), each couple a result of ostracism. (You are already of this democracy, so why don't you just go home and enjoy it with your husband yes?)

Pyramiding it upwards, we might recognize the couple as the start of the family which is the unit of aggrupations moving upwards to the first line where it becomes a component of the state. That customary "Man and wife" has always bothered me, and I'm glad this poem brought it up. Just playing around with it surfaces so much thought on socially supported gender roles in marriage: "Husband and wife," "Man and woman," "Man and wife," "Husband and woman."

Which is the decoy? Man or woman? Their married alter egos (husband / wife)? And (as you've pointed out) what's the decoy for? What's it defending against? (Or, what's being hunted?)

As usual, a rich Ashbery sample, one able to hold so many readings. I can imagine a reading of "Decoy" framed by a question such as: Is the marriage a foundation of the state or a defense against it? Which might also be re-framed according to your question: Is the marriage a foundation of the state (ie, the first two) or a defense against it (ie, the last two)?

I think we're more used to the idea that a state harnesses us as individuals to make it run. That's the default setting, well at least for me, and of course before this poem where it seems we should look into how power takes relationships, rewrites these social scripts in favor of keeping the status (or, if we go by the line on "memoranda," perhaps it enlists us to properly rewrite these ourselves as "the common good," in the service of "invisible" elite interests).

You're right that we ought to look who the original declaration ostracized, what it kept in to make the nation work but did not arm with the full complement of political power otherwise enjoyed by the peers, the white menfolk enjoying equality (and the idea of equality) on the leather cushions of their boy's club.

And below, something from the internet to punctuate that!
(Though that hidden line seems to ostracize everyone anyway)

Maybe the poem also somehow explores a possible declaration of independence from the marriage construct, or at least the aspect of it that is "seen into" by the state (statistics office, joint taxes, licenses, certificates), just one thing among the bureaucratic process envisioned here as a flight of documents. It's also guarantee of state power: each marriage a reduction of possible individual threats to a household adhering to state-sanctioned values (a pledge toward civic duty, keeping the peace, socio-economic mobility).

Pound's next line—CONTRA NATURAM—seems also a point both poems share. Things are not as they should be, love reduced to a socio-economic contract, people kept in offices, the violence bottled in these "moral" compartments spilling out into the streets. Which in turn gives the state more reason to exist, to keep the peace, maintain order, so forth.

"Decoy" might also be commenting on the notion of a poem as something representational. How a representation does not necessarily share the same function as the thing on which it was modeled.

Take the "perpetrators" and their notations. It looks like they're city planners or the staff of politicians or bussinessfolk. But the memoranda that "take" (the line cut as it is on "take" sounds like insidious somethings have so easily been jotted down against the interests of others) will go on to take "Invisible form in the air, like flocks of sparrows"—a curious turn toward the type of language we're used to seeing in traditional poetry. Are these "perpetrators" also poets? Or are poets, working as they do over documents (of a different sort, given) "decoys" for the "perpetrators," looking enough like the ducks to be hunted, courting their eyes, going for the kill in circles, in what seems to be wholesome somersaults in language but in truth aimless "turning" (the etymology of verse)" directed by discernible motives"?

An aside: That whole last part of the first stanza reminds me of Stevens in his office, plying his trade and lunching on poetry on the same "vast" desk.

I think a purely A=B approach would limit our reading of a poem like this, but yes, this is that time when flags are being burned, the US national anthem re-strung, everything's being made less sacrosanct. Down with pedestals! Free love!

The Chirico sample also makes explicit the operations of art, makes visible hidden/perspectival lines and the artist's model. This makes for all sorts of thinking, about how something that betrays the hidden mechanisms (of politics, of art, of poetry) can be made poetry. Even if perhaps it's painful, as maybe the exposed mechanisms will reveal (for example) that the poet has all along been complicit in the maintenance of the power structure s/he had wanted to see brought down or—at the very least—interrogated.

What a find! Takes me to a different view of (but I think very much related to) "anomalies," "political and moral," as well as "urban chaos". And yes of course, the idea of sham marriages. I'm familiar with another type of sham marriage where outsiders marry US citizens for a green card. Sometimes it's deception, sometimes there's a pay-off involved, all sorts of schemes ("itineraries").

That urban chaos is the problem we have been seeing into and seeing into,

Here's the usual state raison d'etre: keeping the peace. But they're not the only ones looking into the problem. The critics see urban chaos as a symptom of a greater, central problem (fundamental, even, since we're talking DOI) where methods of maintaining peace and order sometimes make the whole thing worse (abuse of power).

"Seeing into" is odd (but also refreshing). It's like a cross of "look into this" (study or investigate) or "see to this" ("man the deck," repair, take charge). Sounds mystical though, or psychic, and it's just like the Eye of Providence (which is also a pyramid!) at the back of the dollar.

It could be a possible device to more closely resemble the DOI. If you see there the "Facts" about/against the history of the King of Great Britain, it's a list of statements that looks much like a poem. Capital letters, left-hand side. Also the DOI was replete with capitalized nouns like "Guards" and "Despotism" and "Happiness", so perhaps this simple step was a display of slight mimicry.

Along with estrangement, I also read affluence and comfort in "wide bed". And "kicking out," how is that used? It seems to me a very eager up and at 'em sort of expression. But because of the context, I can't shake off the sense of violence.

(Answering your off point: I don't have this problem of access. Perhaps you could try other browsers whenever it gets tricky?)

It's so curious how the rhetoric and images switch constantly from contraction to expansion.

To sum up: (contraction) We are fond of plotting itineraries (expansion)
And our pyramiding memories (contraction), alert as dandelion fuzz, dart from one pretext to the next
Seeking in occasions new sources of memories, (expansion) for memory is profit (contraction)
Until the day it spreads out (expansion) in all its accumulation (contraction), delta-like, on the plain (expansion)
For that day no good can come of remembering, and the anomalies cancel each other out. (contraction)
But until then foreshortened memories (contraction) will keep us going, alive, one to the other.

That last set of phrases seem expansive to me, but it makes sense also as a summation of the inhale-exhale that's happening here.

It's increasingly sounding like an affirmation of our usual spotty memory as opposed to total recall. However, the problems suggested by the first stanza (and the last lines) seem to require more "remembering," more reflection and perhaps action based on such an "accumulation" of history.

Maybe diminishment itself is hopeful. Let's return to Chirico, the artist of "The Double Dream of Spring". But first, a look at another painting of his, "The Disquieting Muses" below:

Kindly mind the lines on the path from the figures in the foreground to the edifices in the backdrop. Eleven lines, seven of which are in the light. In usual geometry (Euclidean), lines as these on the road ought to be parallel (like the sides of a bed). Ideally, two lines in parallel (as in our couple?) would run along forever side by side without ever meeting (far apart).

That's in geometry. However, if you apply that in composition, you would never have the depth that our visual sense affords us (seeing into and seeing into). So when an artist depicts a parallel, the lines move toward each other. Seen this way, a road (or a bed) would look more like a chopped off triangle (or pyramid, chopped off too, as in the dollar) than a rectangular block.

What's chopped off is the point where these parallel lines meet: the vanishing point. It's there in the pencils and you could trace it with a ruler (ex: the vanishing point in "The Disquieting Muses" sits somewhere above the first left-hand tower of that red-brown edifice). In this sense, it's more hopeful in the artist's composition rather than in actual geometry (at least they meet at some point, right?). It could perhaps be both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, because the lines hold both possibilities: your eyes could move toward (see into) the vanishing point (receding into the common nothing) or down the base of the triangle, which means you're approaching yourself as a viewer.

Anyway, the trade-off if you choose composition over geometry is total recall. Geometry would show you everything, all the points in the lines, but none of them will meet. Composition gives you hope, yes, as it implies a meeting point. But it is only ever a hope, the meeting point undisclosed. And even if it were, that's the place you disappear into.

Or, the place where you "spring" from, depending on your perspective. Which is why I believe your point here is key.

Descending code of values, has moved right across the road from total financial upheaval
And caught regression head-on. The descending scale does not imply

In "Decoy," this road (these parallel lines) seems to be a place of loss. Memory, livelihood, and values (and later on, relationships, perhaps society also by "extension").

In "The Double Dream of Spring" we have (at least!) two frames. Both are blue, but let's call one the inner frame (the smaller one, the one housing a sketch) and the other the outer frame (the bigger one, which includes the dummy, the clouds, and the inner frame). I was about to say that the outer frame includes everything, but that would be wrong. Half the white figure stands outside the frame, part of the dummy's head too. What's definitely outside both frames is the vanishing point of the brown "road". In fact, the point is doubly cut-off by the inner and outer frames.

I put "road" in quotes because it only seems a road in the right-hand side of the painting, relative to the building and the mountains and the "diminished" couple (or cacti shaped suspiciously like a couple of people in conversation). On the left hand side, it seems like the wings or legs of the easel, the beam of which cuts the composition in half and shoots upward through to the vanishing point.

"Decoy" seems to begin at the base (society/history) and is chopped off at a smaller unit (a couple/memory). It's incomplete, the future, a child, would have completed the triangle. We don't have the reason for so wide a bed, whatever the bureaucracy had been building up to. It's being avoided, like a central, defining topic that a couple (or state) can't speak of out of fear that everything would descend into chaos, unravel (dénouement, which also points to Freytag's pyramid).

Completion, however, would have also defeated the illusion. The whole poem might possible be a decoy for this unseen, this missing value.

Hi, and thank you for asking. I went to a technical school and enjoyed the luxury of drafting lessons (learned more about parallel lines and vanishing points later on, when I tried to draw comic books). Also, I guess I've been lucky with art teachers in general. Never amounted to more than a hobbyist though, and so I must redirect you to Wikipedia—

Vanishing point
Parallel lines

(Which might mean half an hour more of time away from work! Sorry in advance!)

I would have missed these connections had I faced the bare poem, that is, without the benefit of your discursive frame of the collection and without a trace of your reading which finds the poem "ultimately hopeful" and "very positive". Admittedly your takeaway is contrary to mine (mine's pessimistic; odds had been stacked against the couple at the outset). But I wanted to see what you were seeing. This "double dream" of a poem somehow makes that exploration possible as everything now is clearly but a matter of perspective.

I remember reading about that affair in a comic book...

...which sees to that as well as other great contradictions in the days and thoughts (and pursuits) of Jefferson.

While the violets bunched then pinned to the dress appear to be a corsage. So the man/wife had been in the works the whole time.