Off the Shelves
Making It Monumental
by Daniel Morris
John Ashbery, Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie (University of Michigan Press, 2004)
When rabid reverend Jim Jones convinced over 900 of his brainwashed California proselytes to drink from a tub of Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide and tranquilizers, the mass suicide that resulted was probably more widely reported than anything else during late November 1978. As the story broke like a monstrous wave, newspaper headlines encapsulated the severity and strangeness of the events as best they could. John Ashbery thought poetry might do the job too, albeit a little differently. While teaching his poetry workshop at Brooklyn College that fall semester, Ashbery asked his MFA students to write a sestina that considered the kiddie drink and the far-from-childish turn of events—or at least to attempt one to that effect, anyway. My father, Peter Morris, one of the young poets in the class, described the writing assignment to me as simply the best ever. It was the only sestina he had to write in those days. (Allen Ginsberg taught poetry in the spring semester.) I think Ashbery has shown a number of poets, back then and today, how to confront the often twisted contours of our living world with a startling voice, rhythm, or realignment even, yet without mauling any of our messy moorings.
Reading his Selected Prose is, from what I can tell, just as edifying an experience as sitting in one of Ashbery’s poetry workshops or tackling his Selected Poems. Maybe more so, actually, because in it you encounter not only the work of poets, big and small, who have influenced Ashbery’s own poetry but also the aesthetic interests, along with the literary and cinematic pleasures, that have animated his other life as a critic. Eugene Richie, Ashbery’s secretary from 1984 to 1994, took another ten years, between 1994 and 2004, to edit this extraordinary volume. True though it is that Selected Prose falls short of a full edition of Ashbery’s criticism (such an edition, should it be published some day, would easily span thousands of pages and multiple volumes), Richie need not worry about remaining in arrears. He has done a masterful job of offering just the right mélange of personal essays and critical writings. What Ashbery addicts and acolytes will enjoy the most is all here. Prose pieces abound on Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, Elizabeth Bishop, Antonin Artaud, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, Rudy Burckhardt, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Italo Calvino, among others.
Without realizing it at the time, Ashbery began his writing career the way William Carlos Williams did—with a paintbrush. A mere eight years old when he composed his first poem, “The Battle” (bunnies against snowflakes, doubtless doucement), Ashbery spent the next several years until he left for Harvard painting regularly in studio art classes in Rochester, all the while working to develop a surrealist sensibility. At age nine, he read an article in Life magazine about surrealism and modern art. It confirmed his boyish sense of purpose: “I think it was at that moment I realized I wanted to be a Surrealist, or rather that I already was one. It was nice to know I was something and to know what that something was.” As he grew up, so did his works of art. His poems eclipsed his paintings.
That meant struggling to figure out who he was and what he was doing once he started writing original poetry in college. Ashbery’s high school years, as formative and important as they were, don’t really count as artistically productive. Like any teenager, he spent them engrossed in emulation. He was reading Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and especially W. H. Auden. And his poems, adorably, aped theirs. Still, it irked Ashbery to discover that others his age were getting published. In a gem of an anecdote (they gleam throughout), Ashbery recalls feeling frustrated after regularly seeing the work of one kid poet in particular: “My main ambition then was to a get a poem in Scholastic magazine; they kept publishing poems by a young high-school student named Richard Avedon, and I thought my stuff was as good as his, good though he was.”
From that frustration followed not further upset but bigger ambitions. Avedon was soon forgotten (yet later remembered, of course, as much by Ashbery as by the photography and art world, for entirely different reasons). At his second year at Harvard, Ashbery met Kenneth Koch. A small but close two-man consolation crew, they became “a mutual admiration society,” in Ashbery’s words. They bolstered each other and their poetry in the face of all the impressive talent surrounding them during the late 1940s, including Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, and other soon-to-be luminaries. Ashbery and Koch went to many readings together, since the likes of T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore could usually be heard somewhere on campus. Those are a couple of the names conjured up by “Some Trees,” Ashbery’s first major poem, written in 1948 when his maladroit modernism and recalcitrant rhymes were on parade—which is to say, when he was 21. Soon after that, in 1949, he got to know Frank O’Hara. Ashbery credits O’Hara with introducing him to such “unknown” writers as Jean Rhys, Flann O’Brien, and Samuel Beckett (the dramatic days of waiting without end hadn’t yet arrived). It was a few weeks before graduation. In the meantime, Ashbery devoted himself to learning lots from O’Hara, not just about literature but about contemporary music, art, and theater as well. Then it was time to go.
Already settled in New York City, Koch convinced Ashbery to move there in the summer of 1949. O’Hara joined them in 1951. For the next five years, until Ashbery left for Paris in 1956, the threesome thrived, quickly becoming part of a larger coterie of New York poets and artists. Their lives and work revolved around poets Barbara Guest and James Schuyler and artists Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Nell Blaine. John Myers, who owned a gallery, published pamphlets of their poetry, hoping to command the same cachet for New York poetry as he had for New York painting. He eventually dubbed Ashbery and poetic company the New York School of Poets in 1961. The cryptic authority that came to be associated with the appellation is something Ashbery has never ceased to caricature and criticize: “Of course, I am aware of the poets who are counted as belonging to the New York School, but I am not sure exactly what the name designates; I’m not even sure whether it’s good or bad to belong to the New York School. I think on the whole I dislike the name because it seems to be trying to pin me down to something. That’s the trouble with all these labels.…If you start out writing haikus, man, then it’s haikus from here on in sort of thing.”
His first works of criticism emerged in the late 1950s. They continued to appear steadily—and still do—as catalog essays for art exhibits, as introductions to edited volumes of poetry, as reviews of new works of literary fiction in major and minor magazines. All these texts share a similar distrust of labels signifying movements, periods, and trends as a necessary or sufficient tool of criticism. Over the years, Ashbery has regularly practiced what academic and professional critics of art and literature from his generation only sometimes preached on their best days: an erudite evisceration of stock responses and value judgments in favor of more penetrating engagements with the things we want to see and read—engagements sometimes so penetrating that they demand an entirely different aesthetic or literary comportment toward those things than we had expected. To leave it at that, though, would be tendentious. After all, plenty of contemporary critics, particularly those who care about art, are just as consistently on the mark. The names that immediately come to mind: Arthur Danto, Wayne Koestenbaum, T.J. Clarke, Dave Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl. A few of them also happen to write poetry—none with the same astonishing prowess, sorry to say, as Ashbery. There you have the crucial difference on which everything turns. An amplified alchemy of prose and poetry enlivens all of Ashbery’s writing. It makes his criticism and essays, like his poems, not just special or singular, but monumental.
One of Ashbery’s favorite terms of praise for writers and artists is monumentality. I suspect I am not alone in finding his work characterized by such a quality too.
by Gokhan Tezgor
Adam Fawer, Improbable William Morrow (2005)
From an all-night game of Texas hold ’em in the bowels of a Russian mob-run gambling club in the lower letters of Alphabet City to exploring probability theories, mathematics, and physics—with a vampish renegade CIA agent thrown in—Adam Fawer pushes all possibilities and probabilities in his first novel, Improbable, to create the backdrop in an intriguing thriller that challenges the reader.
With six digits invested in promotion by William Morrow and rights sold for translation into six languages around the globe, Fawer, the former chief operating officer of About.com, has beaten many odds himself throughout his life. At age six Fawer contracted a rare illness that left him legally blind, forcing him to spend the next decade of his life in and out of hospitals to save what vision he had left. However, he listened to books on tape and continued to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist. At the age of 33 he achieved his dream with the publication of Improbable earlier this year.
David Caine, the focal point of the novel, is a former Columbia Ph.D. candidate—and compulsive gambler—with an uncanny ability to calculate probabilities in his mind. What made him a “former” Ph.D candidate wasn’t his addiction to a game of high-stakes cards in underground gambling clubs but debilitating seizures that eventually made it impossible for him to teach. After a final stint in a hospital, where his condition is diagnosed as a rare form of epilepsy and he is introduced to an experimental treatment designed to keep his seizures in check, Caine discovers he is able to selectively tap into his subconscious and essentially see the future.
In the meantime, the reader is introduced to a series of other characters who at first seem to be acting independently of each other, such as Nava Vaner, a CIA agent who gets what she is assigned to obtain by any means necessary. She also has a habit of selling secrets to level the playing field for other governments. Other characters include an unethical scientist who conducts tests on one of his students (who also happens to be his lover), a director of a secret government agency whose sole purpose is to steal cutting-edge scientific research, Caine’s schizophrenic brother, and a man who has won the lottery after having played the same numbers every week for seven years.
It seems a lot for the reader to keep track of, and one may also wonder, at the opening of the novel, about the necessity of having insignificant characters impinge on the greater plot. But despite a cliché-ridden first couple of chapters and some discussions of scientific and mathematical theory many readers probably haven’t heard mentioned since high school or college, Improbable (which has been described as “A Beautiful Mind meets Kill Bill”) quickly sucks the reader into a very smart thriller.
by Eleanor J. Bader
The Shadows of Berlin: The Berlin Stories of Dovid Bergelson, edited and translated from the Yiddish by Joachim Neugroschel (City Lights Publishers, 2005).
Although Dovid Bergelson has been dead for 53 years—a victim of Stalin’s purge of Jewish intellectuals—the rerelease of eight of his stories, all written in the 1920s, reminds us that the essence of humanity changes less than we might imagine.
Take “For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days: Scenes of Berlin.” In a tale that calls up Survivor and The Amazing Race, a young man lies in a glass case in the Crocodile Café. “Tens of thousands of visitors beleaguered the restaurant every day, lining up for hours in the downpour, wearing rubber raincoats, brandishing wet umbrellas, waiting to buy a ticket for a quarter U.S. dollar and be admitted so that they could see with their own eyes.…Perhaps the visitors would have a stroke of luck and be there at the very moment when the boy fell sick and lost all his strength: He would suddenly slip down and breathe his last.” Savage, bitter humor melds with incisive social commentary as Bergelson offers a glimpse into one bourgeois Berlin locale.
Likewise, “The Boarding House of the Three Sisters” brings sexual politics to the fore. This time, a group of wily female entrepreneurs run a cozy inn for men. Flirtation as business practice takes center stage as, one after another, the residents trip over themselves to get into the women’s good graces. Once more, Bergelson casts an observant eye on human foibles, this time heterosexual game playing. In the process he highlights the joy inherent in even unrequited fantasies.
Other stories are less playful. “Among Refugees” introduces a young, self-proclaimed “Jewish terrorist.” A loner, the young man is in Berlin to kill a notorious Ukrainian pogromist now living there. We witness a penniless, friendless man, full of anger, bitterness, and self-doubt, as he obsessively searches for a gun with which to carry out his revenge. His pain is palpable, and we are reminded of current sociopolitical struggles and the misery that precedes the desperate actions of despairing individuals.
“Old Age” presents other relevant concerns. For example, how can a religious man reconcile his piety with past cruelties toward his spouse? In this story, Talmudic precepts haunt protagonist Moyshe Grayvis. Again and again he reads: “God forgives all sins except a sin against another person. For God says: And if one man sins against another, he sins against my world, and I will shake their foundations, and the world will collapse like a forest filled with rotten roots.” Grayvis, now extremely old, wonders if his actions are to blame for humankind’s myriad problems. His head whirls as he grapples with such concepts as goodness, charity, and the limits of personal responsibility. It is gripping stuff.
Indeed, Bergelson seems preoccupied with facing up to one’s transgressions. In “Two Murderers” he attempts, somewhat less successfully, to present the residual aftereffects of a pogrom on a man who participated in the slaughter of Jews. Zarembo, now in Berlin, is continually reminded of the crime he got away with. What amends would be appropriate? Can anything undo the evil he helped foment?
They’re tough questions, and Bergelson’s writing is rich, biting, and intense. His Jewishness is always central, but with the exception of Grayvis, his characters are not particularly devout. Instead, the women and men he creates concern themselves with timeless moral questions—how to be humane, ethical, and decent while retaining the quirks and humor that make life interesting.
City Lights Publishing is to be commended for reissuing Bergelson’s work and bringing his prescient words to an English-reading public. A toast to them and to Bergelson, whose rebellious spirit outlasted attempts to render him mute.
by Win Clevenger
Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)
The subtitle of Blair Tindall’s book suggests that she’s offering a Led Zeppelin take on the orchestral world, but the grim realities she writes about are more “Death in Venice” than “Stairway to Heaven.” There may be a lot of sex at the philharmonic, but it doesn’t sound sexy.
Tindall has really written two books: a memoir of her life as a near-top oboist and an expose of the classical music world as a whole (and by extension, the nonprofit world that bankrolled its expansion). The two are separate in tone. Tindall’s account of her own life runs smoothly, and the stress and degradation that goes with a musician’s highly competitive, unrewarding career is well described. She breaks the story up at regular intervals to write more analytically about the broken food chain of conservatories cranking out far too many musicians than can ever hope to find the mostly low-paying gigs awaiting them. Though what she writes seems equally true and tragic, her point wears thin through repetition; each analytic interlude repeats much of the previous one. Despite that, it’s a real indictment of the orchestral world, a rigged game in which a small number at the top prosper while everyone else tries desperately to please the almost exclusively male top dogs. Sound familiar?
But there’s a moving story she keeps returning to, of a lost little girl who thinks music will be her ticket to an enchanted land but who quickly finds, like Alice, that she’s trapped in a world where it’s equally impossible to make sense of her surroundings or to escape. Her male teachers and the more-senior soloists whose help she needs sleep with her and then refuse to help her when the affairs are over. Even her long involvement with the Great Accompanist, Samuel Sanders, ends in a bitter dismissal—he’s so caught up in kissing up to whoever can promote him that he spurns her sincere devotion. Are classical musicians constitutionally incapable of love and respect? Or is Tindall just attracted to pitch-perfect abusive jerks? It’s nor entirely clear. The perfectionism the musicians need to master their craft seems to leak over into pettiness and myopia in every other part of their lives, which makes Tindall’s eventual escape from Wonderland a real victory.
In between, there are affairs aplenty, always seemingly short and hastily drawn, as if the pain surrounding them is still fresh. Saddest of all, the constant scramble for mostly short-term work and the equally constant need for musical perfection seems to burn out most musicians’ love for the music, which was their original motivation and often remains their only reward. Halfway through the book, the only drugs still in play are jug wine and Inderal, the antianxiety medication classical musicians take to quell their terror of the one wrong note that can ruin the other hundreds they’ve played. Through it all, Tindall shows a world whose surface is sophisticated, the last bastion of High Culture, but whose underneath is consistently dark and degrading.
Her description of the decrepit Upper West Side building she (and seemingly every other struggling symphonist) lived in for twenty years is a dark portrait of a half-charming cul-de-sac turning out to be a dead end. If there are times when she repeats herself here, it’s more effective, showing how many times she has to be starkly reminded of the mess she is in before she can summon the strength to leave the only adult world she’s ever known. The world she describes consumes those who are near the top but never quite make it, whether it’s because their talent or dedication weren’t quite enough, or because they never learned to play the game behind the music, or because, as Tindall writes, the game can’t be won by more than a few, while the system behind it guarantees that too many will try. It’s a cautionary tale for the parents of any lightning-fingered Suzuki-method tykes out there. As John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi said, “Music’s all well and good, but you’ll never make a living from it.”
Win Clevenger, who lives in Manhattan, is working on his first book.