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Ashes to Ash (3)

Ashbery and Ash: The Harp and the Cave

Ash’s poetry works on how he can cite the past in poetic language and thus redeem it, without reducing the rubble of its current state of ruination to a kind of gothic theme-park testifying to the permanent presence of absence in our lives. In “Scenes from Schumann” he again comes up against the artefact and the ruin: “The urns showed well against the blue of the river, / and beyond them, the ruins of the old insane asylum, / covered in leaves...” (Ash 156). Here the urn, traditional tropic centre of the transformation of absence into presence thanks to Keats, is not so much juxtaposed ruins as placed on top of or against them, which is a means of imposing an artistic unity onto actual ruination. This is the aporia of the non-redemptive monument. However he then goes on to undermine this: “the words / took off like birds from our lips, to circle an absence // that couldn’t be named without turning the feast to ashes. / Not that the talk died. No, it grew brighter...” (Ash 156). The ruin as testimony to loss is a trick. The monument openly testifies to a new and full presence created out of a radical totality of absence: death. In this manner its deconstruction is not so surprising, its confidence being so great it is literally heading for a fall. But the ruin is surreptitious in seeming to pay homage to absence by allowing absence equal footing with presence within its form. A ruin consists of what is there and what is not in equal measure. However the ruin is not the same as the flashes of a ruined past, because the ruin is the end of a process whilst these flashes, these bits of lost history, are part of an ongoing process of eventual, total citational redemption. The ruin is archival, but flashes are held in a radical dialogue with the present, thus they are the bird-like words in Ash’s poem which circle around, rather than settle on the absence. Here absence is not elevated to monumental status, or even the mid-way gothic monumentality of the ruin, rather it is an absence that will not relinquish its semantics of absence into the presence of nomination. This would indeed reduce the feast, the joyous process of the redemption of the past, into ashes; the past brought down to the ruins of what once was great. The end of the feast would be the end of words, but it is the end of the elegiac poem also. The greatest tragedy of the elegiac is that it must end and the lost beloved finally given up, but like the peculiar logic of ending into beginning, one notes that the beginning of elegy comes from the end, whilst the end of the ending is the onset of beginning of a real end, the end of absence in favour of monumentally consoling presence. Whilst this can be avoided the talk will not die, but when the process of local redemption is over it can begin again, as the fragments redeemed from the past are not viewed as eloquent testimonies to a once great empire, but as parts of an ongoing current process of redemption. This is a logic Ash addresses in “The Sudden ending of Their Dream”:

The sudden ending of their dream
came when the wall collapsed
and they saw the water-wheel stop turning.
They began again,—
under the chestnuts in flower, on the bridges,
under the marvellous clouds, beside the statues.
If anything could be saved they would save it. (Ash 119)

Ash’s ongoing battle with the redemption of fragments of the past from the status of ruins, back into the ongoing temporal process of being the past in the now, is picked up in Ashbery’s “Fragment.” The title suggests an open relationship of the part standing in for the whole, which is also the synecdochic operation the ruin represents, but in his own admission the title is something of a joke due to the length of the piece.

If the poem is a fragment of a greater unity, it is the fragment of a consciousness, and it is a fragment not because it is all that is left over after the consciousness has departed, it is not for example the fragment of the consciousness of his dead father, but because it is all that has been recorded up to the present time. Immediately the redemptive aspect can be seen, in that like the flashes in Benjamin, the fragment is a working out of the relationship of memory to the current event of writing it down, but this is a process without the modernist presupposition of a final, unified telos of total redemption through citation.

Ash’s use of postmodern redemptive history was all about what goes into the poem, what can be salvaged in there, and for how long, without a discernible telos to structure the redemptive process; Ashbery’s poem however is about the outer limits of elegiac utterance and thus moves on from redemption altogether into the irresolvable and irredeemable realm of the aporia.

As critics such as Bloom and Shoptaw note, “Fragment” is not so much an elegy for the poet’s father as for the poet’s Romantic, questing, solipsistic self. The fragment presented is immediately problematised for within the synecdochic imperative the part, whatever its status, must stand if for an unidentifiable whole, but not only is the part here problematic in scale, and in its self-conscious exploitation of the aporias of parts and wholes, the whole itself is empty. The trope of the self as absent centre is one around which the whole of “Fragment” revolves:

Out of this cold collapse
A warm, near unpolished entity could begin

Although beyond more reacting
To this cut-and-dried symposium way of seeing things...
The hollow thus produced
A kind of cave of the winds; distribution center
Of subordinate notions to which the stag
Returns to die: the suppressed lovers.
Then ghosts of the streets
Crowding, propagating the feeling into furious
Waves from the perfunctory and debilitated sunset. (Ashbery 80)

The collapse of presence, onset of the elegiac but also of fragments and ruination, is the necessary cut for this “near unpolished entity,” the fragment of the poem. This fragment, although possessed with edges, is not “cut-and-dried,” its limits are not formed as a matter of course nor are they necessarily permanent. This is due to the radical presence of absence as I have already discussed in relation to edges in dizain 3. Here the textual marking of absence is thematised through his father’s death and the threat to poetic identity this announces.

The result is a self evacuated of presence, a hollow cave of the winds, with the emptiness then re-constituted in the poem as wholeness, graves, open ports, empty spaces, and the like; and the winds representing a natural creative force, poetry, which blows through this emptiness. The similarities to Coleridge’s Aeolian harp are notable, as they are to Plato’s cave of course, only here the wind blows across an absented instrument of the self, and the cave is not a trope of a real world beyond the shadows, but a distributing centre, disseminating absence into all forms of metaphysical presence that surround and are predicated on the concept of subjectivity.

These subordinated notions, subordinated because they have collapsed from dominance and also because they are the subordinate but excessive supplements to the discourse of subjective presence, announce the death of the poetic questing self symbolised here by the quarry rather than the hunter. The tropes of the presence of absence then pile up from the stag which is, itself, an aporetic heart of a dying Romantic subjectivity. The suppression of love results in the proliferation of ghostly lovers, as if to negate something were to result naturally in its propagation and distribution, whilst the rhythmic waves emanate from a symbol of edging and cutting, the sunset, which is then undermined. The discourse of the end then comes to an end here, and the end is performed in a manner which arrests its power to structure the self into full presence through monumental death.
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