Ashbery's A Wave and elegy
“A Wave,” like “Seasons on Earth,” utilises a non-elegiac central trope to deal self-consciously with the presence of the elegiac at the heart of writing poetry. Just as Koch’s choice of the cycles of the seasons disallows any breaks per se, so the endless oscillations of wave motions don’t automatically guarantee Ashbery access to either the opening or closing edges that serve physically to delimit, and so define, a poem’s textual body. However, unlike perhaps the majority of his poems, “A Wave” does have clearly definable opening and closing semantic edges, as well as a rational relationship between the title and the poem proper.
The title, as has been noted, not only conveys the central trope of the poem, which also occurs usefully in its middle, it also describes the structure of the poem which, John Shoptaw shows, consists of a tripartite process: the wait or anticipation of the wave, the maximum rise of the wave typified by the crest, and the wake or aftermath sometimes dealt with in biblical/mythical terms as a kind of deluge.[i]
This works on both meta- and local levels. Shoptaw describes, for example, how the opening trizain conveys ideas of passage “to pass through pain,” closure “A car door slamming,” and emergence “To emerge on an invisible terrain,” which act as a coda for the poem as a whole. He then goes on to show how this before/event/after structure organises the following sections. Shoptaw is convincing, but the trizain has a much more paradoxical status than he seems willing to investigate:
To pass through pain and not know it,
A car door slamming in the night.
To emerge on an invisible terrain. (Ashbery 68)
The opening trope is less a part of the anticipatory pre-wave moment than of Derrida’s concept of “nonpassage.” The passage here both does and does not take place, in as much as the passage through pain seems actual, relating to a life-threatening spinal problem Ashbery suffered from previous to writing the poem, and yet is also negated with the pain being immediately erased by a lack of cognition. This passage/nonpassage logic, an example of Derrida’s “conceptual thinking at its limit,” is not the same as the rise and fall of the wavic motion, but is rather a much flatter, more horizontal trope. Within this the “it,” always a source of semantic slippage in the New York School, forms a clear edge referring to the act of non-knowing, and yet it also refers to an unknowable anaphoric process; an “it” without an originary referent to secure it semantically.[ii]
Instead “it” operates functionally, a notifier of anaphora or of unstable, and therefore threatening, repetitions to come. The second part of the coda has a finitude about it which immediately actuates a nonpassage within the poem’s continuum, an unconscious passage followed by an emphatic closure. Again its referent is not hidden, pain slams just as much as any car door, but any scholar of Ashbery will note the shift from his traditional domestic doors, usually indicating private sexual freedom, to this more transitional and problematic portal. The car, American symbol of free passage, is potentially both entered and exited with the night shrouding it in a impenetrable mystery.
Again we don’t know “it” but it’s still there, the deicitic impulses pointing poignantly into the infinite realm of the what-is-not-there. And so the final image falls into place, forming a cluster of three opening poetic gambits of movement: to pass through, to close, to arrive. Yet in each case Ashbery makes the paradox clear, that here he is beginning a poem that attempts to exist on the edge of thinking about presence through the conceptualisation of a radical absence. So the passage also does not take place; the closure occurs at the onset with the ambiguous slam suggesting getting into and out of a car-journey at the same time; and the emergence is shrouded in three tropes of absence: “not know it,” “night,” and “invisible.” It is as if this opening of the poem is a version of the grotesquely warped space one sees in Ashbery’s famous “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” only here the distortion is a contraction so extreme it resembles an amputation.
The opening of a long poem ought to force one to think in a four-directional fashion. Not only is its stressed linearity a threat to its poeticity, tempting one to read the poem as a causal narrative, but the localised sublimity of length which disallows the retention of the whole poem in the mind, means one must always be going forwards and backwards over the poem to understand how such a large texture can be seen to cohere. Yet this is also the origin of its elegiac paradox. Such a four-directional mode of thinking, up and down as well as left and right, is cut off in the poem at the upper and far left limits. Essentially we are already in the realm of death, the other side of the edge, the whatever came after the end of the last thing, in this case the poem. Therefore, the anaphora of the “it” is also a cataphora. “It” is the beginning of one form of referential repetition and the end of another, only it exists in a double death in this instance as we do not know what came before only that it is over now, and we do not know what comes next either.
All poetic openings are uncanny in this manner, they always seem like a form of in medias res, because of all the absence that precedes them, as well as a premature end. No sooner do we begin to pass through pain, to move across the uncrossable gap between poetic absence and presence, along comes the first line break and we are already at the end of something. Ashbery’s wave trope capitalises on this. One must remember that the wave also moves in four directions, and while it appears vertical, the wave rises up and then falls, this is a false image. The wave is a force moving through an environment: waves don’t go up; they go across. Similarly, the opening of “A Wave” takes us across the surface of Ashbery’s imagery line by line, while forcing us to seek out actual meaning through the distribution of these opening tropes throughout the poem as a whole, requiring the reader to be always moving and thinking in four-directional patterns. It emphasises that the top of a poem is both the “bottom” of a another poem, and the middle of a linearity with the previous phrases absented but compensated for by the more emphatic semantic presence of the title. The difference between rational and nonrational poetics being that in a rational poem this paradoxical relationship with absence is suppressed, while in the nonrational it is exploited in every phrase forming the basis of the poem.
[i] See Shoptaw 275-285.
[ii] Anaphora is the rhetorical method of repeating the same word in different phrases, and originates from the Greek sense of to “carry back.” It has subsequently been used by linguistics, text linguistics in particular, as a primary term for explaining the cohesion possible in units larger than the phrase or the “sentence.” The definitions of anaphora are not standardised but essentially it is the repetition of a word in a subsequent phrase. However, it has wider implications than this for this “repetition” of a “word” can take the form of pronominal repetition, the word can be replaced by a pronoun; it can be subsequently missed out altogether through ellipsis, therefore it is present as a trace; and it can be replaced in ellipsis by a substitution or holding device in place of a lexical item. Further, anaphora can “repeat” the “word” by a variety of synonyms for the original word which, themselves, can be subject to reorganisation, ellipsis and so on. Anaphora is, then, the perceived repetition of a primary word, distributed throughout the text as a form of cohesion made accessible by the primary referential capacity of lexical items. The best example of this being “it,” which is the anaphoric indicator supreme, as it refers back without specifying within itself what it refers to. It bears the trace of all words. This is a capacity much abused by the New York School.