Hun 12, 2016

Men in Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”

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None for me, no. But I’ll take this one over a game of dice: “The Rubicon is merely a brook.” Might it not take offense that it was named for its mud (“red”) and not its water? It has gained the function of a border and a heavy sort of ward by virtue of edicts and customs. It becomes a measure of such stuff  which might not necessarily concern it: loyalty, audacity, sacrifice, transgression. Won’t mean any less mud, perhaps no increase in fish.

 we must / Find a way to freeze it hard. 
There’s a “we” though. And it's so audacious in its intent that when you return to the title, it sounds imperative. Is the poem itself the way of freezing it hard? And perhaps even more basic than that: our act of naming rivers, of making them human, holding “slumbering,” “remembering” rivers in our mind and seeing them “choked”.


Naming creates opportunities for rivers. Which aspects of it might be perceived (color, tranquility or violence, produce, deity association, political, historical, or even literary significance), which to downplay or ignore. All of these rivers named and unnamed meet in the sky, that one overhead “sea”.


But right after that (and catching the light) there’s something of a release:
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
The Po too flows, and the many-colored
Thames. Into the Atlantic Ocean
Pours the Garonne. Few ships navigate
On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
On the Elbe. For centuries
The Afton has flowed.
And at the end, I think, there was a (feeble?) attempt to “capture” stillness through minuscule “acts” of light:
The Ardèche glistens feebly through the freezing rain.  
If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely, and the Ohio
Abrade its slate banks. The tan Euphrates would
Sidle silently across the world. The Yukon
Was choked with ice, but the Susquehanna still pushed
Bravely along. The Dee caught the day’s last flares
Like the Pilcomayo’s carrion rose.
The Peace offered eternal fragrance
Perhaps, but the Mackenzie churned livid mud
Like tan chalk-marks. Near where
The Brahmaputra slapped swollen dikes
Was an opening through which the Limmat
Could have trickled. 

That conditional seems to me a way of returning to the first few lines of the poem where unconnected rivers are held within one sentence, by the thread of a metaphor sometimes. The disconnectedness seem to be stressed in these lines, one river’s effect doesn’t much care for another’s cause. But that possibility of connection between the Brahmaputra and the Limmat is wow, a killer. And maybe these three lines, this moment of wish and speculation—is exactly what provided an opening.

A young man strode the Churchill’s
Banks, thinking of night. The Vistula seized
The shadows. The Theiss, stark mad, bubbled
In the windy evening. And the Ob shuffled
Crazily along. 

Seeing these passages as if but one movement of unrest, perhaps a conspiracy or a long breath before a tryst, a big thing just about to happen. And all these players are reacting in their own peculiar way, all of them theatrical.


See the rhetorical (big) stick now adrift in the Potomac. The whole of it, and those passions and intents: swept away.

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