THE GENESIS OF BOOKS, NO. ONE—The Double Dream of Spring by John Ashbery

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The first book I hated was John Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring. I was a teenager. My friends and I drove often from Ridgefield to Danbury to buy shitty clothes at Salvation Army. The second floor had a section of used books. One could play, forever, their spines. Among countless, I bought Intruder in the Dust, something by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Double Dream of Spring. Its spine was attractive; green, as I remember. There was a flower on the cover? I had only recently heard of John Ashbery. A boat? I was taking a writing class at Columbia University, where my mom was a graduate student, East Asian Studies. I was writing … what: essays? A poem, I recall, about a doughnut. It was summer. My Columbia classmates were all from Brooklyn, Manhattan. City kids: savvy, well read. They had vocabularies; used them. One of them became a news correspondent for MTV. Another was a jazz guitar prodigy. Claire Danes, was she in the class? I was in over my head. I wrote a poem about a SQUIRREL. One classmate, a girl with curly blond hair, recited the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” She wept; her mother had recently died. The snow has remained, faintly falling, in my mind. My teacher’s name was Geoffrey Nutter. His girlfriend was, maybe, a graduate student; he got a job in the summer writing program. Years later, Geoffrey and I discovered we both dropped acid around the same age. This was, years later, 2009, 2010. I was working at Wave Books. He was publishing, with Wave, his third book, Christopher Sunset. But back then it was the early 1990s. I was intimidated. Geoffrey was exceptionally kind and patient. One afternoon we sat in his office. The table was round. He asked if I knew the poets W.S. Merwin and James Tate. I knew novelists, mostly, also Robinson Jeffers. I’m paraphrasing. He asked if I knew John Ashbery. He didn’t say these were poets I should be reading, but that they were doing interesting things—maybe I’d too find them interesting. We “discussed” my squirrel poem; he read aloud Merwin’s “The Last One.” The gulf between was of lifetimes, universes, i.e. love and labor. Back in Danbury, Ashbery appeared, by chance, at Salvation Army. The Double Dream of Spring. The title is from a painting (1915) of the same name by Giorgio de Chirico. I bought the book with a pair of corduroy pants. It began, and begins, “They are preparing to begin again: / Problems, new pennant up the flagpole / In a predicated romance.” It opened, I felt, obtusely. I wanted in, but the walls kept getting thicker. Happy Hooligan? Popeye? John Clare? “It Was Raining in the Capital” had a bothersome rhyme. “Sunrise in Suburbia” began, “The tone is hard is heard / Is the coming of strength out of night: unfeared;” what? The last poem, “Fragment,” was prohibitively long. I carried the book everywhere with me, though my confusion only deepened. It’s a book about time, right? Every poem opened with a consideration of time: past, present, the future; life, happiness, hope; patience, impatience, waiting. No, maybe I, not the book, am obtuse. Surely my classmates knew these poems by heart, and also what each poem meant, wielding them through the guts of the city. This was philosophy; images swallowed whole. What the fuck did anything have to do with anything? Within the span of a few lines, a stanza, each poem seemed to change, to abandon itself, or rather, get caught in the sway of its own charisma, its prowess. But what, or who, was the poem? There seemed to be no one there. Half the poems took place in a field, on a hill, or else in dalliance between the poet and a rarefied nothingness. I kept reading. I connected Merwin with the poets in my mom’s anthologies of ancient Chinese poets. James Tate was, in comparison, candy; I bought Selected Poems (1991) at Barnes & Noble. His nonsense felt a little more possible: not possible to understand, but possible to make, which was then, for better or worse, some kind of relatable measure. And yet, Tate, aside from his enormous forehead, did not possess me. Though I liked them, his poems were, I felt, frivolous. Ashbery was like a fucking insect in my balls: chittering, cold-blooded, multiplying. “Barely tolerated, living on the margin,” okay, but why not stop there? I read the book at stoplights. “Decoy” was, simply, boring. I thought of Geoffrey Nutter, and of the innumerable things he knew that I would, no matter how hard I studied, not ever know. My loves were painting and music. The woods. Lakes. I wanted to be in love, but I was outrageous. A vocabulary was in fact forming. What I was feeling was inexplicable, inexpressible, and in need of both solitude and the companionship of people, friends, equally as anxious, undomesticated, “until the end is past truth, / The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them, / Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes / To be without, alone and desperate.” I went, with my friend Phil, also a poet, Phil Cordelli, to used book sales all over the county, adding both luminosity and ballast to the wall. We went swimming, dropped acid. What I was actually falling in love with was mystery, danger, unknowing. And then, like a scene in an otherwise unremarkable movie that casts a light of magnificence back across what was once thought unremarkable to illumine it anew as not only remarkable, but profound and impossible to live without, “Whatever your eye alights on this morning is yours.” It was, in a moment of right apprehension, as explosive as it was modest. I hate therefore I love. I’ve read The Double Dream of Spring at least once a year since coming home from Salvation Army. A few years ago, my friend Phil wrote a book in tribute to—or to spite, as the case may be—Ashbery’s A Wave. My reading of Ashbery feels in homage to Geoffrey Nutter. I saw Geoffrey read in Brooklyn, a year or two ago. He read with Rebecca Wolff, who reminds me of the line in “Soonest Mended” that goes, “But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an aesthetic ideal.” Geoffrey read new poems. They were as present, baroque, precise, magnificent, and consoling as they always have been, and I absolutely could not keep from laughing. When the mind does not know where to go, it goes down on itself, and comes up with a kind of ecstatic embellishment of nothingness. I said something like this to Geoffrey, after the reading. We were standing in the corner of a kitchen. I have not read all of John Ashbery’s poems. What’s the point? It seems right to keep enough unread before me.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: How To Be A Critic (pt. 2) | HTMLGIANT
  2. Pingback: THE GENESIS OF BOOKS, NO. TWO—The Citizenry of the Books of Tomaž Šalamun | The VOLTA Blog

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