Just Their Pot Luck

John Ashbery, Girls on the Run: A Poem (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999). ISBN 0-374-16270-0,  $20.00 (pbk)  pp. 55.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Stand, December 1999, 13-16.

Some twenty years ago, the poet Douglas Crase remarked that contrary to the common wisdom, John Ashbery is “not our most private poet, but our most public one.”   Indeed, “The difficulty is that his poetry is so public, so accurately a picture of the world we live in, that it scarcely resembles anything we have ever known.”  Ashbery’s most recent  book nicely illustrates this paradox.  Girls on the Run is a faux-narrative poem that returns–no doubt to the dismay of those who take Ashbery to be our great latter-day poet of Romantic introspection–to  the mode of  The Tennis Court Oath (1962), that playfully surrealist volume composed during Ashbery’s Paris years, which Harold Bloom, for one, dismissed as a “fearful disaster,” an aberration from which the poet was said to have fortunately recovered by the time he published Rivers and Mountains in 1966.  The longest poem in  The Tennis Court Oath., “Europe,” is a found text, made by collaging bits and pieces from William LeQueux’s adolescent novel Beryl of the Biplane (1917).  For example:

From where Beryl sat she saw the glow

of the little electric bulb set over the instruments shining into

her lover’s strong clean-shaven face, and, by the compass,

gathered that

they had described a half-circle, and, though

sill rising rapidly, were now heading eastward in

the direction of the sea.                                              (#31)

Similarly, Girls on the Run  is based, though more tenuously and intricately, so far as the layering of disparate materials is concerned, on the work of the “outsider” artist Henry Darger, who used comic strips, childrens’ books, and all manner of pop culture materials to produce a giant unfinished “illustrated novel” about the adventures of a band of little girls called the Vivians.

A “surrealist adventure story for juvenile adults, as the jacket describes it?  Yes, but also—and here Crase’s comment is apposite—a terrifyingly accurate transcription of late twentieth-century ways of communicating, saturated as these are with the insidious formulations of media talk on the one hand, “private” conversation on the other, the two not surprisingly intersecting at every turn.  Then, too, Girls on the Run is madly allusive: its everyday anecdotal world containing, not only Darger’s little girls—Judy, Laure, Tidbit, Dimples, and the rest—but repeated echoes of Keats, Shelley, or Eliot’s Four Quartets along with Alice in Wonderland and Emil and the Detectives.  Disjunctive and arbitrary as Ashbery’s “narrative” might seem, it could only have been produced by someone who has this poet’s astonishing command of the arcane as well as the classical, whether in literature, art, or music.

The opening page of Girls on the Run recalls any number of childrens’ adventure stories:

A great plane flew across the sun,

and the girls ran along the ground,

The sun shone on Mr. McPlaster’s face, it was green like an elephant’s.

Let’s get out of here, Judy said.

They’re getting closer, I can’t stand it.

At this point, the narrative breaks off; the pronomial shift in line 6-7–“but you know, our fashions are in fashion / only briefly, then they go out”–warning the reader that from here on, anything goes—anything, at least, that relates to the poet’s own memory bank, stocked as it is with stories of abortive journeys, fairy tales, animal stories, good or bad omens, headlines, proverbs, and conversations, real or imaginary, between the poet and potential friends and lovers.  Here is a typical passage from #XIII:

How strange it all seems lost!  How white it then was!  Page torn from a

notebook  . . .

for the end that doesn’t come any more.

We so enjoyed having salt to sprinkle on the meat,

until it seemed none of us could be a worker or welfare recipient.

Cashing in on the laughs in the alley,

Melinda strums a thighbone guitar, the rest are off in the distance.

Daytime drowsiness, dizziness, headache, nausea, stomach upset,

vomiting, diarrhea, lightheadedness, muscle

aches and dry mouth may occur

so long as we are in unreasoning variation to one another,

which might be repaired by dawns unsealing the tips

of tall buildings, so they sway to and fro,

in time with the maker’s rhythm.  He had a plan

but it was too late to use it.                                          (p. 33)

Ashbery begins with the “rereading my diary” cliché, with its overtones of strangeness and loss.  But “how white it then was” is not very moving since we don’t know what “it” is or why its whiteness would make any difference.  And then when we read of “the end that doesn’t come any more,” we’re in Lewis Carroll territory.  An end, after all, either comes or doesn’t come, but “any more”?

Let’s call this overture the nostalgia thread.  Threads are very important in Girls on the Run:  “we can see quite clearly,” we read in VI, “into the needle whose thread is / waving slowly back and forth like a caterpillar, accomplishing its end.”  And at the opening of VII, “The thread ended up on the floor, where threads go.”    But, to return to the cited passage—and this is where the Vivians come in—the poem now shifts into the thank you-note mode of  “We so enjoyed. . . .”  Enjoyed what?  Deflation comes immediately with “having salt to sprinkle on the meat.”  It certainly helps to have salt to improve the taste of meat (tough? stale?  a bad cut?), but, as Wittgenstein might ask, can one talk of “enjoying” such an action?  How would one “enjoy” it?  Whoever the “we” are, they are identifiable only by not being workers or welfare recipients—a wry allusion to the Clinton welfare reform bill of 1996 which was to “end welfare as we know it” by turning each and every welfare recipient into a worker and perhaps, Ashbery implies, vice versa!

Melinda, who strums her guitar in the alley is evidently a Harger character, but here she’s a scheming girl (perhaps herself a welfare recipient?), “Cashing in on the laughs in the alley.”  But why is Melinda strumming a “thighbone” guitar?  My guess is that the allusion is to that familiar gospel song that has, as I know from personal experience, become a summer camp favorite among young girls, “The headbone connected to the . . .  neckbone / The neckbone connected to the . . . backbone / The backbone connected to the . . . thigh bone,” followed by the refrain “Now hear the word of the Lord!” But is the “camp” in question really for children?  Or, more properly, for those “juvenile adults” who are dependent on their prescription medicines:  the next three lines are a verbatim rendition of the warning on the pill bottle label.   Realism indeed:  look upstairs in your medicine cabinet, and you will find the citation as to “daytime drowsiness,” etc.

The poem’s seamless shifts from campfire girls to the catalogue of potential “side effects,” to the notion, in the next line, that the principals are in “unreasoning variation to one another” (what, one wonders, would “reasoning variation” look like?), now lead into Homeric hijinks:  “dawn” (the goddess Aurora) arrives to “unseal the tips”—one thinks of the “Seventh Seal” here—not of something hidden but, confusingly, the “tips” that belong, not to trees that “sway to and fro” but to the “tall buildings.”   It is not as absurd as it looks:  the Weather Channel is full of tales about high winds that make the skyscrapers sway to and fro.  It might even be an earthquake, the buildings swaying “in time with the maker’s rhythm.”   Is it all God’s plan?  Well, evidently “He had a plan / but it was too late to use it.”

What, someone is sure to ask, is the point of it all?  How much of this campy doubletalk can we take and what makes it poetry?  To which one might respond by noting that, within fifteen lines, Ashbery has perfectly conveyed the vagaries of daily life in the cybercity, where isolation, now more endemic than ever as we sit alone in front of the screen,  becomes the motive for self-indulgent memories,  adherence to empty convention, ritual observance of religious practices no longer believed in, cautionary tales in the form of medicine bottle labels, and pointless metaphor (buildings = trees) that merely enhances our solipsism.  As for the Argument from Design, well, “He had a plan / but it was too late to use it.”  Nothing to do, in that case, but to blunder on.

Girls on the Run is better on the micro than on the macro level:  there seems to be no good reason why a particular sequence (like the one above) appears in one section rather than another, and, since the “narrative” never progresses, there are moments when its very circularity becomes an irritant.  But surely this most self-reflexive of poets  knows the price of circularity only too well: witness the following lines in XV:

You see we all thought the ride would be lovely

and worth the trip, which it was, but now we cannot go anywhere

having already been everywhere.  No, do you

understand how realistic it all is?

How to go anywhere to escape that everywhere:  in Y2K, it is surely the question.