Hun 9, 2016

Notes on John Ashbery’s “This Room”

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

*

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*

Because of the title, I came into the poem thinking of Stevens's "Gray Room". Those last two lines compel me to look the two up together.

Ashbery:
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

Stevens:
What is all this? 
I know how furiously your heart is beating. 

Stevens begins his room with "Although you sit in a room that is gray," but here the "you" is denied. I'm finding it a hard to take a bite of this poem without intertexts so I suppose I should unburden myself of some of these so I can somehow enter this dream within a dream (Poe). And by unburden, I mean that I would like to get to Ashbery's last two lines without Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" suddenly playing in my room.

*

I don't see imagism as Ashbery's main project in this poem. I did try to think of it in terms of the manifesto, but I became something of a very partial bouncer. Ashbery mumbled something in a distinct, lovely way and so I let him in, believing it was the password.

*

Thinking about the possible tones of "You are not even here". Is it matter-of-fact, bitter, melancholic? Is it a nudge, as in a teacher's or a roommates's hey: you're not here aren't you? You're thinking of your own sofa, the time you had a dog or wished for one, and yes, your own Sunday with your own helping of tomato sauce. You never had quail, at least not one so "induced" so you're leaving that to me, okay, but please come back.

Poetry's the most lucid dream possible. And that's only part of the magic. It doesn't merely double when somebody else enters, participates. Something more happens ("shimmers"). I think some poets do their poems like Vatican I with their backs to the readers. That's not Ashbery, at least not how he seems to me. And certainly not in this particular poem. I'm not even sure he's Vatican II. Though no, he's not doing it Whitman-style either: I am in the midst of you and of you, assuming you assuming me. He is trying to participate in all these roles, to contain his own multitudes with a sense of connection, some refreshing nonchalance, a lack of pomp:

Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.

*

We might want to tentatively read Ashbery's "you" as the reader who isn't in the room—or the meta-room?—with the macaroni and the dog portrait. The reader is "induced" into the poem with the last two lines, the presence stressed by the act of denial... or expression of longing.

You are not even here.

Let's look at "even" in the sense of balance or fair. The lines certainly aren't cut "even", there's a ten-word opening and a three-word portrait. Perhaps in you's own room or some other elsewhere, "evenness" is possible, desired, and sometimes achieved. But not "here" where "here" can't be plainly decided much less leveled.

*

We had macaroni for lunch every day 
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced 
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?

I found another poem where Ashbery writes a line that goes something like "Why do I tell you these things?". It's "Yes, Dr. Grenzmer. How May I Be of Assistance to You? What! You Say the Patient Has Escaped?" which appears in Can You Hear, Bird (1995). It goes like this:

like pickling spices. And all the girls turned away
to weep, but were changed to ivy
and stuff like that. Why am I telling you this?

In this earlier Ashbery though, we get something different, not the dismissive (or bitter, or matter-of-fact) "You are not even here."

To assuage my conscience, perhaps, hoping bad dreams
will go away, or at least become more liberally mixed
with the good, for none are totally good
or bad, just like the people who keep walking into them, 
and the scenery, familiar or obvious though it be.

*

"This Room" invites (and rewards) contemplation on certain types of poems, Stevens and likely Dickinson types, poems that are in, of, and about the mind. How can you be "hard and clear, never blurred and indefinite" about something like a dream? That would defeat the purpose of the dream, or lack thereof.