Mar 21, 2016

Notes on John Ashbery’s “The History of My Life”

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.

I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
even, there was I: a stinking adult

I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.

I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged

increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
Then a great devouring cloud

came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up for what seemed like months or years.

*

[ PennSound ]
[ New Yorker ]

*

It's seven stanzas. Yahweh marked Cain so that everyone who met Cain would know that harming him would invite a sevenfold return of investment.

        Once upon a time there were two brothers.
        Then there was only one: myself.

Maybe this is survivor's guilt, the poet transfigured as Cain. A kinder intertext would be the longing of Gilgamesh for Enkidu.

        I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
        even, there was I: a stinking adult

Gilgamesh was wanton royalty and the gods conspired to bring him down to size by providing him an equal, someone he would later know as brother. Someone he would lose.

        I thought of developing interests
        someone might take an interest in. No soap.

Gilgamesh would develop an interest in solving death. It was an unnecessary pain, if it could be solved, then let's. He would actually come very close, he was given a flower of eternal life. So he went home, but a snake stole the flower, ate it while he was taking a bath. "No soap."

        I became very weepy for what had seemed
        like the pleasant early years. As I aged

Could be Gilgamesh. But could also be the ancient, seemingly immortal Noah-like figure who would lead Gilgamesh to the secret flower. Instead of returning to his "interest", Gilgamesh just continued on home, ruling wisely until the end of his days.

        increasingly, I also grew more charitable
        with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

Gilgamesh would be made immortal in another way, through the epic. In a way, his "interest" is the poet's: a quest for immortality. But how to do that years after the giants of literature? The Moseses and Gilgameshes, the Shakespeares and Audens?

        thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
        Then a great devouring cloud

        came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
        it up for what seemed like months or years.