Friday, September 28, 2007

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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Ode (kinda) to John Ash

when will the world look and see John Ash
writing alone on those Anatolian shores his
pen poised as his judgements are
hesitant to drop
to mark a make yes
like a kestrel conscience
hung above
matter's vole

our curiosity too needs to pounce
just as poiesis must first eat, stuff
way before it can ever move to make, oh
when will John Ash see and look
the world and in shining on its
already faded rugs & drapery
he saved the very thing he saw and
caused to fade?

Seems Ash's newest collection has caused a minor surge in interest in this most reclusive of writers. See the comments on Sonnets at 4am for example:

This includes a poem from a much earlier collection The Burnt Pages.

He also has his own Wikipedia page which no longer amazes me as everyone seems to:

John Ash, "To The City"

Found this online from Ash's newest collection which I haven't yet seen. It is, as all of Ash's work is, deceptively simple, seeming first off to simply present a scene in lineated prose, then the prosody makes its gentle presence felt, and finally matters of metaphysical import take possession of your consciousness.

As Peter Campion says in his lovely littel review of the poem:

"The poem blends absence and presence, dream image and naturalistic reality. Like those shoes at the doorway, Ash dwells (in this poem and in all his work) in a borderland. By living there he maintains a state of desire, an intensified engagement with feelings as fragile and surprising as the ghost of poplars he sees in the city towers. "

To the City

The village has come to the city.
In the narrow street, in the crowd
pressing down it, in the faces of tall buildings
we plainly see the shimmer of poplars
in the emptiness of the plateau, the huddle
of houses from which the voices of families,
and tribes before them, rise, reaching across
the sharp ridges of their displacement
to settle like smoke in the deepest hollows
of the city. They are very near to us, in the store
or the next apartment, in the shadow of the tower
yet are heard as distance, as ignorance,
and, in their echoes, the city seems to shudder
like something imagined from very far away—
glass city for those without windows. Their shoes
sit at the doorways as if begging for admission.

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.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ashes to Ash 2

John Ash, Melancholic Historian

The semantic paradox at the heart of elegy makes it a prime site for the investigation of a semantics of absence, namely the construction of a monument to absence whose monumental presence, in consoling the mourner, actually ends the process of elegy and destroys the very presence of absence the monument was meant to preserve. Ash seems sensitive to this basic paradox in a work like “The Monuments” where a fictional community commit themselves to an endless process of building monuments even though, “The Monuments meant nothing of course” (Ash 134). The reasoning behind this is melancholy, “Each year the monuments grew larger / The citizens demanded this. As their lives got worse they wanted / longer staircases to descend, towering fountains...” (Ash 133). In the poem the role of art is to “take the place / of events too unbearable to discuss” (Ash 134), a classic formulation of the consoling power of the elegiac monumental utterance: to produce a reified body, in this case a huge staircase, to stand in for what is missing. A violent muscling in on melancholic absence, elegy imposes its presence at the expense of absence.

However in the sister prose piece, “Funeral Preparations in the Provinces,” Ash notes the manner in which the consoling monument subverts the very ontological presence it is designed to confirm. At the end of a complex mourning ritual where the dead father is placed on a pyre with various fantastic artefacts, Ash cynically notes: “They wept for their father who was dead, but they wept much more for the prancing horses, the elegant chariot, the gleaming kitchen” (Ash 137).

The impossibility of elegy is that it first brings presence to absence by introducing a significant utterance on the back of a radical loss. This undermines the predominant position of absence, and thus of elegy, which primarily gains its semantic power through the favouring of absence. However it also introduces into the monumental form of the presence of absence, a second radical absence which one might term the absence of absence. And once absence is removed from elegy, it ceases to be elegiac and so generically, at least, it dies. Ash is right in noting both the public usefulness of the art monument, and the manner in which the monument puts death to death within the elegiac, but he also opposes the unified monument to loss with the ruins of the lost, in a manner very close to Benjamin’s conception of redemptive history.

In the now famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin conceives of a melancholic rather than elegiac history, that is one that does not try to close down the aporetic processes of the presence of absence in our lives:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. (Benjamin 246)

This is the role of the materialist and melancholic historian, to seize all moments of time, to redeem all time, to cite everything. Ash, in this way is a tentative redemptive historian. In numerous poems his tells melancholic narratives of fragments of lost civilisations, as in “The Hotel Brown Poems”:

As we walked towards the temple
the poet said to us: ‘This may seem
a small island to you but once it was
an independent state with its own fierce navy.

The Athenians destroyed it utterly’
The old ramparts were massive, finely jointed
but the area of jumbled stones and bushes they enclosed
seemed no bigger that a modest public park. (Ash 123)

Here history is redeemed by the memory of the poet, but again into a kind of monument with the ruins being compared to a public park, which is one of the dangers of redemption that is not involved in the dialectic of the past and the present. Benjamin warns that: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and it never seen again...To articulate the past historically...means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 246).

The moment of danger for the event of history is not merely that of a possible forgetting but of being remembered too well. A lost memory ruins memory, but a memory seized upon in a universalist and reifying manner transforms the ruin into a folly, an over-preserved sign of a falsely homogenous past as in Ash’s poem. To redeem the past is to cite everything, to remember every flash, every moment, and because this process resides in the “now” of the apprehension of the event of the “then” in the “now,” the process has no point of cessation, Benjamin argues, until the return of the messiah at the end of time.


Forgive me bloggers for I have sinned. It has been a month since my last Blogfession.

Personal circumstances of a glorious kind, holidays, work and a blizzard of emails has kept me from THE BLOG.

Seemingly there is more to life than pasting and writing things that no one cares about in real life (i.e. poetry) and yet which they will log on to read about on my blog.

Anyway no apologies as what would blogging be without living interposed between? Mere blogs about blogs I surmise.

But am back on the case now.

So where were we, oh yes, about John Ash...