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Ashes to Ash (end)

Redemption, Limits and Swallows

Whilst Ash investigates the redemptive power of the elegiac poetic process, Ashbery’s poem is based on the aporias discovered at the outer edges of this process, or what might be called the limits of poetic thinking. Derrida describes the aporia thus: “Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, as its death and finitude” (Derrida, The Gift of Death 68). What is the limit of poetic thinking? “Fragment” suggests that the edge of the conceptualisation of poetic language is that of the consciousness which, according to Ashbery, controls everything else: “My power over you is absolute. / You exist only in me and on account of me” (Ashbery 79).

And yet this consciousness, as the trope of the fragment suggests, can never be encountered in full, and its paratactic accumulations and distributions of the fragments of this self emanate from a vacated subject centre. The combination should be devastating: “That coming together of masses coincides / With that stable emptiness, detaining” (Ashbery 79) but the detention here is the key, tracing the gesture of distribution and thus holding the poetic consciousness between two absolute edges, that of total presence which is impossible, and total absence, which is unknowable.

The poem suspends a fragmented consciousness between the two forces I have already enumerated, the “closed box” of death and the “advancing signs of air” which tend towards a sublime subjective plenitude. The fragment then forms an inner edge between the radical aporetic scandal of two outer edges, life and death, or in ontological terms presence and absence. Derrida would describe this suspension between detention and distribution as the “non-passage”:

In one case the nonpassage resembles an impermeability; it would stem from the opaque existence of an uncrossable border: a door that does not open...In another case, the nonpassage, the impasse or aporia, stems from the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border to cross, no opposition between two sides: the limit is too porous, and indeterminate. (Derrida, Aporias 20)

This is the paradox of the edge of poetic thinking. First that there can be no edge between presence, which exists through the violent imposition of limitations on poetic being, and absence which has no experience of what a limit could be. Thus the end of each line, each dizain, of the poem as whole, is literally impassable, the poem maybe a fragment of the whole but there is no edge between the fragment and the whole which would allow the articulation of one against the other. The fragment of post-subjective and postmodern consciousness is ongoing and so is infinite in scale, whilst the whole-ness of the unified poem, traditional locale of Romantic subjective certainty, is now a vacated hole.

However this non-existent edge itself is permeable, so that absence floods the structures of presence in the poem, and presence leaks out into the realm of absence. One finds the poet permanently not there, not at home, yet the streets of his town are full of ghosts from beyond, suggesting the location of absence is as empty of absence as that of presence is empty of presence.

The limit between life and death is both uncrossable and endlessly crossable as it pertains to the edge of being as presence, and the lack of edging around the infinite being of non-presence. This aporia takes the form of a decision when it is applied to poetics. The first mark of every poetic utterance is a moment where the poem decides whether to repeat the mark into presence or retain its irreducibility through a relation with absence. The basic copula of mark syntax is then either mark/mark, at which point the iteration of the mark makes it into a sign. Or is a detention of the mark within the aporia of the non-passage between the mark and its other, the non-mark.

This logic of the aporetic potentialities of the edge is reproduced between each word of the poem syntax, each stanza, and between each singular poem and its others. That this is of particular importance to poetic language is due to the ontological necessity of the edge, the line break, which is the minimal differentiation between the materiality of poetry and prose, but also because semantically poetry subsists on what is elided, whatever is missing. Ash’s ruins of lost civilisations seem pitched directly at this point of decision, for he records the marks of absence in redeeming the past within the present of the poetic structure.

However, as Steve Clark notes, this past is not the totality of the past, but a particular late-Romantic, eurocentric, decadent, imperial version of it. Further, the historicism in question is a double fiction, a process of making fictional narratives from a fictional past which Ash calls “decadent historicism” (Ash 171). As in Benjamin’s modernist schema, the poet redeems the past by recording the flashes of the then in the now, however, the past redeemed is not cited in full but is elitist, and redeemed to comment on our perceived current cultural crisis. It does not so much redeem the past as the present, a present which without the past is an excessive simulacrum, the artificial scene of “Accompaniment to a Film Scene” being not untypical in Ash’s work as a whole: “this is no deception but a form of imitation / unconnected to ordinary ideas / of accuracy. Buildings and mountains / are reproduced exactly, but all much larger / than life size” (Ash 29).

Ash’s exploitation of absence is not then to redeem history, a project of modernism and dialectics, but to make history from the pathos of the ruin so that in the future our history will be redeemed: “If we are not to become / a dispersed people of smoke, / the monument that is us must be built soon” (Ash 157). Ashbery in contrast aims, with his Romantic trope of the fragment of consciousness, to create a chiasmatic poetic unit whose external edges not only investigate the double non-passage of the aporetic line between life and death, but which also folds these edges back into the gaps between each dizain so as to inscribe a self-conscious presence of absence back into the evacuated semantic heart of the poem.

Thus in “Fragment,” the individual moments of the poem are allowed their specificity whilst remaining fragments of the larger whole, that is they retain their limits of non-passage, being exactly what they are in full presence, but only through a process of passage out of themselves into the radical unknowability of the sublime zone of death. The end of “Fragment” conveys this;

One swallow does not make a summer, but are
What’s called an opposite: a whole of ravelling discontent,
The sum of all that will ever be deciphered
In this side of that vast drop of water...
The words sung in the next room are unavoidable
But their passionate intelligence will be studied in you. (Ashbery 94)

One mark alone means nothing without its opposite, the non-mark or trace of death alongside each mark, which is the basis of elegiac language. Ash utilises this logic, the presence of absence, really to vouchsafe a certain, elitist postmodern poem unit which is really that of meta-absence, or the anti-logos. His false redemption of a fictive history into a simulacra of the present makes a mockery of the messianic time of redemption. Ashbery, however, in the passage given above, allows the parts of his poem to retain first and foremost their current specificity.

One swallow here, one word, is not a part standing in for the whole, just as the fragment of this poem about death does not take the place of death in a monumental fashion. Instead one must add up the words into the poem. However at each point of addition there is an unravelling, each additional mark not only adds in more presence, it also adds in more absence, as each mark is traced by the non-mark, each swallow followed by a ghost swallow. The resultant sum is all we can know on this side of the non-passage, but it allows access to what is beyond, in the other room, because its edge is not between absence and presence, but is the double passage between the logic of presence and that of absence.

This denies the passage and in denying passage allows thinking to pass from the realm of metaphysical presence, into that of metaphysical absence and back again. Like the ruin, the fragment is only part of the absence all around us, but unlike the ruin, the fragment is not the end of the story but the end of ending in favour of a process of inscription wherein equal attention is paid to the voices outside the room/box of the poem, as to that singular but deconstructed voice of the poetic consciousness. This manner of composition, of writing in and on the edge of the aporia, exploiting the natural tendencies within poetic language towards absence rather than enforcing discourses of presence at the expense of absence, is the beginning of a formulation of poetic practice predicated on the semantics of absence, and is typical of postmodern poetry making it the site of a formulation of an elegiac language, the ghostly trace to the modernist, rational model of direct, and semantically full, communication.


Ash, John. Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1996.
Ashbery, John. The Double Dream of Spring. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana Press, 1992.
Bloom, Harold ed. John Ashbery. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Clark, Steve. “‘Uprooting the Rancid Stalk’: Transformations of Romanticism in Ashbery and Ash.” Forthcoming.
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
---. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.
Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.


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