Hun 12, 2016

Ashen Bird Candidates for “Poem at the New Year”

[ Poem Hunter ]
[ Locus Solus ]


Read rationing in waiting "in line for things," but couldn't quite place it.


If the "great ashen bird" is Ashbery as phoenix—as you and the others have noted—than it also marks the passage of time (cycle phases spanning five, ten, or more centuries). The word "spiky" is curious too, and seems to me a mainstay of corporate meetings, seen in charts and progress reports: a way of telling time in terms of ups and downs, successes and failures. The use of "adjective" here suggests another filing system, the dictionary, which co-habits the time-keeping of the calendars and clocks as well as that of the map in the fourth stanza (time-space).

So familiar with this feeling. 
A sort of "time" that was suspended in the early nineteenth century was the French Republican Calendar. It was part of a whole drive toward decimalization. As always, reality would thwart "perfect" systems (showing that systems have yet to be perfect or that perhaps systematization itself is an abnormal, curious trait). The Leap Year tells us that the earth-sun relationship refuses to give us a whole number—365 is off, and so is 365.25, currently our most elegant solution.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off-center.
I've also been staring at this use of the word "polarized," often a political word, but here it seems to carry also the idea of time zones (north and south poles), of long-distance (relationships?). And yes, since the earth is not a perfect sphere, it can't have a single center.


May I add to your list? I expected "composed" but was given "packaged". And while these may sound like verbal slips, off-kilter, perhaps indicative of a failing system, some of us might also appreciate them as inventive, layered, "the best way to put it." For example, your "O I was so bright about you" could mean so many things even only on the semantic level: I had intelligent ways of figuring you out; I was glowing around you (handsome, pretty); I felt intelligent in your presence, haloed, etc.

yet for all its raised or lower levels I approach this canal.
My first go at the title's "At" is that, well, it's the best way to sound it. Before or along with any level of meaning, the way it gets through the ear is most important. But addressing those "raised and lower levels," perhaps it's a poem that's thrown at the new year. Or, it recognizes time now (more than ever) as a place (as said). Perhaps it's just  coincident with the new year, one not meaning the other, just two pieces of a collage overlapping.


It's 29 lines. 30, if you consider the title a line. I was keen on this yesterday when I was thinking of French decimalization. It was two words short of 300 though, so there goes that tangent.

The first two stanzas seem to belong to a narrative (with many layers and branches, of course, but still, really, just one at least to me). Someone asked for the suspension of time in the first stanza. Something like this happens in the second stanza. So after these "packages," things are lost and that signals the third stanza: a list of world-self / self-world questions, and images of time (rush hour, fluttering pigeons) yield to the stillness of the frozen swamp, perhaps reentering the narrative of time having stopped while the consciousness keeps on.

Movement resumes after that double-size third stanza. But what is this "it" that slips past? Is it the same it that never became a gesture? Is "it" the great ashen bird?


Every reading is an act of translation. And yes, I always choose texts that I look up to, one way or another. Translating seems to me the closest form of reading. At each turn (as you demonstrated) we embrace the limits of any reading.


This would be an interesting basis for a highly self-aware poetics. Ashbery is not translating him into English. Ashbery is translating him into Ashbery. Which is perhaps as fine a way as any to manage these situations.


I'm going with "unavoidable". A pessimistic way of translating this comment is: it's all the translator of poetry can do.

Seeing it as a job means that the translator has come to absorb other concerns as part of the self: marketability, "the literary," posterity, previous translations, advocacy, etc. It's possible to see the translator as a "scrivener," getting stuff handed to her, handing stuff back. But what if translation begins with someone catching sight of something and seeing something of herself glinting in it? Maybe then translation would be a pursuit of that passing image, hoping to see more of it.

You need to zero in (that is the job), but the thing is elusive and you are left to your own devices.

And when/if you do "capture" it, it's already something else. For one thing, the smell of your pursuit is all over it. Finally, everything I said has been a muddled translation of Borges's clarity: "Translations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers."


I’ve been thinking of the little girl in your personal note, and so—as they did—I went to the Washington link. I’d like to give something back (which I don’t think is off-topic but is perhaps a bit off-Ashbery, though maybe not, considering what the owl crushes at the end):

Tomas Tranströmer and Robert Bly Translate Each Other’s Works
by Sandy McIntosh
Tranströmer writes: “You changed my line to: ‘The plow lifts from the furrow like an owl slowly airborne,’ but what I meant was: ‘The plow lifts the furrow like an owl crushing rocks.’ Well, I like yours better in English, so please use it that way.” Bly writes, “My English word ‘headlong’ means ‘rushing at something heedlessly.’ But I like that you’ve translated it as ‘He grows a head of enormous length.’ I send you several new pages of verse that go in the direction you’ve pointed out.”
Meanwhile, where there are no negotiations:
Kruschev thunders in 1956: “We will bury you!” after the Soviets explode an H-Bomb, and the Cold War is ratcheted up. But the correct translation should have been, “We will outlast you.”
In 1945 Truman demands that the Japanese surrender. Japan issues a statement that it will consider the demand, but it’s mistranslated: “We’re ignoring you with contempt.” Ten days later, thousands die at Hiroshima.
Early in the first millennium, Saint Jerome translates the story of Moses returning from the mountain with horns on his head, having been hung with them by the Lord. But “horns” could be translated as “a great light on his face.” Yet, for more than one thousand years, Jews are believed to descend from Satan. Millions are killed.
Can poetry matter?

"Un-file-able" too, maybe. Gesture seems to me a touch that did not land, so a gesture that did not happen feels like utter negation.


Thinking about this poem on the meta level, my two candidates are "this glum haven," "filing system," and yes, that "gesture". Perhaps this poem refers to itself as a glum haven, as a field of both flight (wish, angel) and limitation (sobs), one yielding and yielding to the other.

The phrase "filing system" occurs in a short catalog of questions (cataloging is a staple Whitmanian device, and making poems out of lists of questions became a project for one of his many self-appointed heirs—Neruda). Normally the New Year's list is a set of resolutions. Questions are seldom resolute (they "flutter," in a sense), and questions listed in this way (haphazard or seemingly so) doesn't quite come out as a full-fledged interrogation.

"It never became a gesture." Perhaps pointing to the futility of the new year, or of new year's celebrations, or of the poem itself. Or maybe the arresting of the gesture is the accomplishment of this particular gesture.


Still on the meta, both poetry and narrative partake of an off-centered time. "Now" therefore becomes one of the weirdest words. Whose "now"? The poet's? The poet's character? The reader's? And what if the poet returns to the poem in the future?
my song bird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.

Care for a few more birds? JA's ashen bird appears to me as flying somewhat like Shakespeare's:
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
Definitely a songbird, but while there's a contrast in Shakespeare, the "sullen" quality seems to have pervaded JA's tableau (c/o pipe smoke) including the bird. What was once a hymn becomes "lettered" on the windows, orality becoming print becoming advertisement.

An earlier line from this same sonnet was lifted, rephrased a bit, and used by Eliot in his "time"-heavy "Ash-Wednesday":
Shakespeare: Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
T.S. Eliot: Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
Whether these desires are related to the wish(es) in Ashbery's poem, you'll be happy to know (or have we not crowded heaven's gate enough?) that Eliot opens this poem with an aged eagle then recruits, towards the end, a crying quail and a whirling plover.

Once, out on the water in the clear, early nineteenth-century twilight,
you asked time to suspend its flight. If wishes could beget more than sobs,
Could the first line be taking us (also) to the Rhine? Wagner's "Twilight of the Gods" sets some key scenes there for Siegfried and Brunnhilde. (That's a "later" twilight though, and a bit later than that: Nietzche's "Twilight of the Idols".) Still, the whole thing ends in two immolation scenes: the pyre of Siegfried and the burning of Valhalla which would signal Ragnarok. Which might mean that the gray ashen bird is a raven of Wotan's. Either Thought or Memory streaming from that last stanza.