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How’s the Mood-Board?

The second of three ‘raptures’.


A ‘post’ was being formed, and the air was alive less with the excitement of a period than with the excitement of periodization.1

Once we were people. Now we’re epochs.2

HE CARRIES A bi-lingual Lorca, pocket dictionary, notebooks, John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, and heads for the Prado. There, on a daily basis, buzzing with caffeine and dope, he confronts Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (c. 1435), attending for his ‘profound experience of art’, which never arrives.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent (Deposition) from the Cross, c. 1435, Museo del Prado.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent (Deposition) from the Cross, c. 1435, Museo del Prado. Enlargement.

Then one day, someone, a man ‘thinner and darker’ than himself, has usurped his customary place in front of the devotional image. This individual suddenly convulses, as if stricken through by the meaning of what he sees, an unbearable experience of supreme suffering. The penitent goes on to emote just as passionately in front of a series of paintings; finally, ‘he stood before [Bosch’s] The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit’ (9). The affectless narrator is now consumed by the pathos of the dilemma facing the Prado attendants, ‘who spend much of their lives in front of timeless paintings but are only ever asked what time is it, when does the museum close, dónde esta el baño’ (10). Should they detain the distraught person, or respect the depth of his response to the works for which they are responsible? ‘I found their mute performance of these tensions more moving than any Pietà, Deposition, or Annunciation’ (10).

bell-pratoThe young man with dysfunctional affect, feeling for the bystanders rather than the truly stricken, certainly chose a lurid picture to contemplate. Van der Weyden’s panel is a supremely calculated work, created at the height of the fifteenth-century cult of the Virgin, only recently introduced as a figure present at the deposition of her son’s body. Representations of the Annunciation—when Gabriel informed Mary of her destiny—are among the earliest traditions of Christian iconography, and this venerable genre was now resolved by the new tableau of the Deposition, which the convention of the Madonna and Child sometimes graphically anticipated– think of the disturbingly deadened child in Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna del Prato – of the reclaiming and burial of Christ’s body. The ‘Shrinking Virgin’ was one pose shown by paintings of the Annunciation; van der Weyden’s representation of Mary at the foot of the cross became an influential image of the ‘Swooning Virgin’, in its time, and a whole literature and iconography rapidly developed around this genre of ‘Lo Spasimo del Virgine’ 3.

Mary’s pose echoes that of her son, though her face is even more bloodless. Her left hand, his right hand, are so close, but can never meet again in life. There are truly dark, enigmatic jests within the painting: follow the line of sight from the sockets of the Golgotha skull, bottom left, and it cuts a disconcerting diagonal through the group, linking hands, feet, bloodied groin, and exits heavenward between the heads of Nicodemus (possibly Joseph of Arimathea) and a bearded servant. In the Renaissance, the line of sight from eye to eye was thought to be a physical presence, though in this case, there are no eyes. Examine the gazes of those attending; John the Evangelist in contrast stares, not at the Virgin, but beyond her, at a limb bone in the foreground. There are concerts of the glance, within this painting, passionate mute conversation between feet, hands and profiles.

The Magdalene appears to come from a different tradition of representation, from Italy rather than the Low Countries; it is thought that van der Weyden was making his bid to establish a Europe-wide reputation with this Descent from the Cross.

Mary Salome, a half-sister of the Virgin, in lovely verdant green, attempts to support her. The contorted figure of Mary Magdalene, at the right of the panel, is intensely moving – it is not difficult to respond emotionally to this scene, contrived exactly to impress in these ways. The Magdalene appears to come from a different tradition of representation, from Italy rather than the Low Countries; it is thought that van der Weyden was making his bid to establish a Europe-wide reputation with this Descent from the Cross. The Magdalene’s dress is more revealing, even immodest, when compared to the heavily swathed figures of Mary and her half-sisters. Her gown is parti-coloured, more luxurious than the Virgin’s blue mantle, and her agitated purple cloak catches at her hips as it slides away to reveal a curiously elaborate belt. The Magdalene wears a ring; Mary has no ring, to whom was she betrothed, in truth? There is so much detail in the Magdalene’s cincture, ever more meaning, but all of this is lost on the affectless man; the weeds at her feet will also be portentous. Adam Gordon needs to study The Da Vinci Code, symbologists really do possess the secret—though not perhaps the one that Dan Brown pursues. 4


Mary Magdalene (Van der Weyden, detail).

IN THE POET Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon is himself a poet, on fellowship in Madrid, March 2004. He had memorized a research proposal, written for him by a friend, in fluent Spanish – Gordon claims his own was barely proficient – ‘regarding the significance of the Spanish Civil War, about which I knew nothing, for a generation of writers, few of whom I’d read; I intended to write, I explained, a long, research-driven poem exploring the war’s literary legacy’ (23). He refers consistently to a ‘project’, which passes through at least five phases, apparently changing and intensifying as it develops, but it is not at all clear that this cryptic endeavour is the one for which he has been funded (100). Gordon’s ostensible research topic is utterly plausible, as a subject, would contribute worthily to any departmental research output assessment, or any independent creative writer’s portfolio, now that ‘independent’ career-poets are more often than not funded by/tied to departments of ‘creative writing’. That the nature of the project is itself intrinsically a second-order exercise, writing upon writers in an academic/writerly discourse, is also appropriate, and true to its moment.

Gordon had worried for a long time now that he was incapable of undergoing ‘a profound experience of art’ (8), he is embarked on what turn out to be ‘adventures in insensitivity’ (104). He had been assessed and grant-aided as a talented young poet, but confesses that he only really appreciates lines and fragments of poems as quoted in critical prose or seminar handouts, ‘where the line breaks were replaced with slashes’, and what he receives is only an ‘echo of poetic possibility’ (9). He goes through life in this way, receiving second- or third-order experience, always mediated in some form, a thoroughly ‘inauthentic’ mode of being and personality, in the quaint old terms of existentialism, consistently uneigentlich. His sole authentic and ‘most profound’ experience of art ‘was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity’ (9).


Ben Lerner.

James Wood, as so often, gets the novel right. He relates Adam Gordon to the aimless individuals described by Alexander Herzen in My Past and Thoughts (1860), those reforming officers and aristocrats of St Petersburg whose attempted revolution in December 1825 was effortlessly suppressed by Tsar Nicholas I. The Dekabristi (Decembrists) became a lost generation, agonised by their failure, condemned to provincial lives of futility and lack of purpose, yet not ineffective, since by the mid nineteenth century they emerged as the inspiration for some of Russian literature’s most forensic creations, ‘Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin, Turgenev’s Superfluous Man and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’:

Lerner nicely combines the Superfluous Man tradition with the flâneur tradition: Adam is both a thoughtful voyeur and a wicked immoralist, receptive to his new sensations yet thwarted by his old sensibility. As in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (and as in Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which might well be this novel’s model in the flâneur tradition), the narrator is condemned to wander the darkened corridors of his own inauthenticity, so that the reader can no longer see him clearly, no longer easily knows what is authentic and what is inauthentic.5

Adam Gordon is one of the displaced grandchildren of these early-modern casualties, but his emotional intelligence, his mood-board, is also perfectly programmed to the new-times psyche formed on the narcissist–paranoid model as prescribed by theorists of the high postmodern decades, during the 1970s and ‘80s. In the late afternoon and early evening, he passes hours looking ‘at videos of terrible things’ (19), but feels nothing, ‘my affect a flat spectrum over a defined band; I could watch videos of beheadings or contractors firing on Iraqi civilians or the Fox News commentators without a reaction and I did’ (103). The under-punctuated propulsion of this sentence is characteristic, eliding Fox News effortlessly with slaughtered innocents, if you like, exactly the ‘flat spectrum’ that informs Adam Gordon’s persona.

Blank power induces blank response. Where modernist emotion was authentic exactly because it was only expressed at nearly total cost, as in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, postmodern emotionality comes at no cost because there can be no eigentlich authenticity.6 A more impersonal, floating response to multiple and evenly accented stimuli is said to occur in the context of our experience of the postmodern sensorium – the high-reflective walls of monumental builds, the roving spread of attention across the multiple platforms of our digital transhumance, the sublimed and floating intervals of the neo-mediaeval musicants, Arvo Pärt leading the flock.

This novel affectivity, according to the theorists of late-last century, is a conditioned response to the invasive power of contemporary stimuli, a reversion to earlier forms of emotion, because it is more generalized, more awe-struck, than classical modernist affectivity (think the wrought-up feelings of Women in Love, in another key, Mrs Dalloway). The postmodern subject had moved from agonistic, individualist meaning, organized around ‘depth’ models of emotionality, back to the sublimities of pre-romantic feeling, supposedly less nuanced, more communal in form. Emerge from the subway at the Lexington and Fifth intersection, take your first walk down into Manhattan. Be awed like the peasant you are as you pass, no, – are passed – in front of the Trump Tower, knowing that somewhere in the sublimity of its highest apartments Sophia Loren leases a whole floor! Be abolished by the appalling wall of the General Motors Building [this was written around 1994, before General Motors itself was abolished]. Then compare this unforgettable passage with your first pigeon-scattering stroll into Saint Mark’s Square, Venice: how there and then, the crowds taking their coffee under Florian’s arcades sounded like Thomas Mann, the human murmur of joyful sadness under old buildings.7

Gordon’s Spanish acquaintances call him El Poeta, ‘whether with derision or affection I never really learned’ (11). His command of Spanish, his understanding of the twenty/thirty-something, cultured but under-employed Madrileños among whom he passes his time, his understanding of Spain as such, are also an utterly mediated experience. During another aimless evening around a campsite fire, Isabel, one of the group, recounted a tragic and painful event in her life, while Gordon, doped and failing to pay attention, simply maintained his posing, meaningless smile. Isabel’s boyfriend, Miguel, punches him, Gordon reacts as if he is quite seriously hurt, he gains Isabel’s sympathy, and listens again to her narrative, which he follows in fragments, as a series of possible options, ‘less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds … This ability to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of excluded middle while listening to Spanish – this was a breakthrough in my project, a change of phase’ (14).

This defrayed, delegated form of communication, which also infects his comprehension through reading or writing, pervades every aspect of Adam Gordon’s life in Madrid. As with Lermontov’s ‘hero’ of his time, Gordon divides his affections, such as they are, between two tortuous relationships, both deeply unsatisfactory: Isabel and Teresa. The two young women with whom he develops tentative relationships are difficult to distinguish one from another, owing to Gordon’s inattentive, unfocussed account of who they might actually be. The nature of their feelings for him, as Gordon recounts them, are again predicated on disjunction, mis-apprehensions of what they actually say to each other, even extending to the nature of their physical relationships:

I believe she imbued my body thus, finding every touch enhanced by ambiguity of intention, as if it too required translation, and so each touch branched out, became a variety of touches. Her experience of my body, I thought, was more her experience of her experience of her body, of its symphonic receptivity, ridiculous phrase, and my experience of my body was her experience once removed, which meant my body was dissolved, and that’s all I’d ever really wanted from my body, such as it was (46–7).

He bleaches out all feeling and responsiveness, ‘I had what the internet told me was sexual anhedonia, lovely phrase’ (102). He even fears that, as his command of Spanish improves, his relationship with Isabel will deteriorate, because his true banality will become clear to her. Rather than communicating in ‘enigmatic fragments or koans’, he would cross an ‘invisible threshold of proficiency [that] would render me devoid of interest’ (51). His (apparently chaste) relationship with Teresa has an additional complication, because she is engaged on translating his poetry into Spanish, so in their routine conversations ‘she tried to extract from my remedial Spanish the poet’s native eloquence’ (83). But El Poeta’s work, through all the inauthenticities by which it came to be found, if not actively written, does seem to finally accumulate to a text which compels, even if perhaps only in the Spanish translation as created by Teresa (149).

Gordon has a guiltily oppressive sense of the inauthenticity of his time in Madrid, as an imposture, on a project that he does not understand, in a language he does not command, attempting to blend seamlessly with the social life he has made, friendships which themselves only began through misunderstanding and pose. He begins to notice fellow countrymen, also trying to blend with their background: ‘Each member of this shadowy network resented the others, who were irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire’s package tours’ (49).

Some readings of twenty-first century US fiction now focus on the all-pervasive influence of the crisis within current hypercapitalism, and the ‘financialization’ of all value

This sense of unreality extends even to currency, ‘I overpaid with large euro coins, which always struck me as particularly fake’ (86). American sentiment in respect of the greenback, the dollar bill, can seem peculiarly fetishistic, like the utterly misplaced sense of security that a blue leatherette UK passport wrapper conveys,  a touching faith in fiduciary meaning that circulates as the only clearly unifying and virtual sign of an entire culture – E pluribus unum on a bill, which, mysteriously, includes a pyramid. Some readings of twenty-first century US fiction now focus on the all-pervasive influence of the crisis within current hypercapitalism, and the ‘financialization’ of all value; Gordon’s relationship with currency and his finances may be a symptom of this larger malaise. 8 The Many no longer resolves into the One, as in the medieval philosophical and theological debates De Ente et Uno, but has become radically fissiparous, ever more fragmented, as in the search for an ultimate particle of irreducible being, some non-negotiable ‘identity’.

Since, finally, these three attributes – unity, truth, and goodness, are united to being by a bond which is eternal, it follows that, if we do not possess them, we no longer exist, even though we may seem to do so; and although others may believe we exist, we are in fact in a state of continuous death rather than of life.

Quod si tria haec, unum scilicet, verum et bonum perpetuo annexu ens consequuntur, reliquum est ut, cum illa non sumus, etiam prorsus non sumus etsi esse videamur et, quamvis credamur vivere, moriamur tamen potius iugiter quam vivamus. 9

Gordon is subtly aware of the small cultural differences between the urban mores of Madrid and those of his formative years in Providence, as in the custom of greeting friends and acquaintances with a light, brushing kiss – ‘It often occurred to me that my upringing would have been changed beyond all recognition if kissing had been common: such a dispersion of the erotic into general social circulation would have had unpredictable effects’ (34). Yet he does experience euphoria in those blank periods of mid-morning that we may all recognize, sitting in Madrid’s central park, letting his life pass randomly in review. He would ‘begin to feel a rush of what I considered love … most intensely love for that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance, although that’s not even close, the texture of et cetera itself … the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine’ (16–9). James Wood comments on this quality in Leaving the Atocha Station, ‘Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and “conflict”, fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life’. This is well put, and may also explain Lerner’s enthusiasm for the ‘epic-ordinary’ as related in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.10

GORDON IS HAUNTED by notions of the painful inadequacy of the ways in which he experiences the duration of time, his failure to inhabit a satisfactory sense of the continuity of his life, and so of its crippling alienation from himself, everything. One of these moments of reflection is given the context that demonstrates how anyone today is perpetually estranged from the most painful experience of others, of which we are made in some sort aware, but which we can never begin to properly understand:

And when I read The New York Times online, where it was always the deadliest day since the invasion began, I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new, if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege, if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people for all time. Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel (64–5).

atochacov(But then he did, according to some reviewers.) As well as being a descendant of the late nineteenth-century flâneur and the Superfluous Man, Gordon here perpetuates T. S. Eliot’s ‘dissociated sensibility’, that poet’s notorious sense of affliction, from which he felt able to compose in his own dis-located manner.11

He has been self-medicating since a breakdown in childhood, at times of complete crisis and paranoia, he begins to switch between first and third-person positions, ‘He would take my siesta then’ (17), but later discovers that very few Madrid citizens are able to take time for siesta these days; siestas are experienced, and described, by different colours; Gordon’s would have been ‘white’, anhedonic, devoid of any emotional note.12 The young adults of Madrid with whom he manages to pass some of his time are not exempt from Adam Gordon’s pointlessness. They are cushioned from the harsh realities of contemporary Spain’s floundering economy by parental income, privilege deriving from questionable family history, in a country that still dare not look too closely into its recent past. On impulse Gordon can tell the most appalling lies, devoid of any emotional note, as he contrives to evoke sympathy from the women he wishes to attract. He claims his mother has died, or is dying, ‘my brilliant and unwaveringly supportive mother’, and that his father, ‘the gentlest and most generous man I knew’ (81) is some kind of oppressive fascistic (‘whatever that is’) monster. This in a society where elderly fascistic monsters, in the strict meaning of the term, can still be seen driving around, taking the evening air. But Adam Gordon desperately misses his old mum and dad, he misses them terribly. Whatever crippled Adam Gordon’s sense of self-worth, at some point in his adolescence, it does not seem to have been a result of his upbringing within a supportive family; he is not an oedipal casualty, as so often in contemporary American fiction — see David Foster Wallace, ‘Signifying Nothing’ in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999). Adam Gordon’s dysfunction set in, seemingly, through a much more dispersed toxicity, of the culture and times themselves, which enveloped his more than adequate family unit.

I guess I just mean to say the obvious and important thing that everything I write is in some way shaped by my having come of age as a privileged subject during the violent decline of an empire in which the bankruptcy of the language and landscape feels increasingly total.13

READING TOLSTOY IN translation – he bought up the major works at a remainders stall, though Dostoyevsky might have been a better pick – Gordon is typically not engaged by the ‘humanity’ of the work’s characterization, or the dilemmas it presents, but by ‘the action of prepositions, conjunctions, etc.; the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated’ (20). Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, that old conundrum, here is resolved: Adam Gordon is a walking casualty straight out of The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov, someone who should find himself reproved by the vivid ‘physical involuntariness’ of Tolstoy’s characterization.14 Reading poetry is even more problematic than prose, it

actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me … you could fall into spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by failing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside (20).

Trapped into giving a reading of his own work, fruits of his grant aid, he listens to Tomás, the poet preceding him, ‘a crucible of the human spirit guy’ (38), and is filled with disgust at what he hears as ‘a caricature of El Poeta’, looking ‘less like he was going to read poetry and more like he was going to sing flamenco or weep’ (37). Through considering the kind of experience which the art-gallery audience of eighty or so listeners might be having, Gordon paradoxically comes to his strongest realization of what poetry could achieve, what the value of art might be, an authenticity and conviction that perpetually eludes him in relationships or in trying to take the measure of classic cultural achievement. But again he characteristically reaches his conclusion by way of occlusion, his via negativa dialectical mode.

I was able to hear the perfect idiocy of Tomás’s writing as a kind of accomplishment … I told myself that no matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers would project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility … the more abysmal the experience of the actual the greater the implied heights of the virtual (38–9).

He manages to seem to offer a new kind of position within these old wars of cultural position, and then finds a kind of vision of art, which against all his habitual second-order levels of experience, is truly eloquent, even worth dying for

Yet Gordon’s own reading of his utterly enigmatic, distanced and fragmented texts, given meaning and pathos only by their complete lack of the qualities most yearned for, is received with even more enthusiasm than Tomás’s duende-infused performance of the self’s deepest feelings. Conversation after the reading struggles to contextualise Gordon’s aesthetic within well rehearsed debates about the ways in which modernist poetic strategies might be described as performing meaningful critique of contemporary mass culture (43–4). He manages to seem to offer a new kind of position within these old wars of cultural position, and then finds a kind of vision of art, which against all his habitual second-order levels of experience, is truly eloquent, even worth dying for: ‘when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realised that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills’ (44–5).

He is possessed by poetry, ‘deadest of all media’ (25). He is disgusted by the spurious, self-obsessed fatuity of most poets, most poetry. Gordon is a poet in the school of / after the manner of, the single, most famous American poet whose writing effectively created the agenda for Adam Gordon’s aesthetic, ‘one of the only people I describe as “a major poet” without irony, John Ashbery’ (90).15 Some time in the early 1950s, John Ashbery overheard John Cage arguing against the appalling ‘vogue of profundity’ that afflicted trad-classical music, Beethoven especially. ‘Beethoven was wrong!’ Cage loudly asserted, and Ashbery became haunted by the remark for years (Ross 483). This was the moment when Schubert left the building, and possibly when John Ashbery was confirmed in his own unique voice.

ashbery_poetryASHBERY ONLY GAINED a wider audience, in his forty-eighth year, with his eighth collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which Helen Vendler, a committed reader of Ashbery’s work, describes as his ‘long ars poetica’.16 His reputation and presence in the world (or at least in the UK) is quite different to that of a poet like Seamus Heaney, who – perhaps uniquely – gained large audiences and readerships beyond the lecture hall and exam room. Ashbery is inevitably the laureate choice of Ben Lerner – and his Adam Gordon – in a way that the humanistics of Seamus Heaney never could be. Leaving the Atocha Station is itself an intertextual homage, title of the eleventh poem in The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Ashbery’s second, and persistently challenging collection. Ashbery’s poem is a really ripped-up text, found collage randomness, so there are no explicit connections, reading across from that poem to this novel – except that this is probably the kind of poem that Adam Gordon aspired to write. The relevance is in the title, because the original lyric is now darkened by the terrorist bombing of 11 March 2004 in Madrid, subject of the final pages of Lerner’s novel.

If you were a contemporary poetry / new writing ‘avid’ during the early 1970s (again, in the UK), a critical choice had to be made between the work of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery; somehow, it wasn’t possible to favour both simultaneously. I think it’s true to say that O’Hara was by far the general favorite, cut a better figure, on the page and in the street. J. H. Prynne’s bravura lecture-reading of ‘In Memory of My Feelings’, performed year after year in the lecture halls at Cambridge, surely recruited numbers of readers and self-stylists to O’Hara. But for myself, it was the formal lightness of Ashbery’s Some Trees (1956, repr 1970) that took me off, then the epic reaches of The Double Dream of Spring (1970), the shocking disruptions of The Tennis Court Oath (1962) – still haven’t got over them – and then quite different again, the reflective prose and ‘philosophical casuistries’ (Lerner 2010: 206) of Three Poems (1972). Hearing Ashbery read at the 1985 Cambridge Poetry Festival was another of those crucial, confirming experiences.

Adam Gordon’s distinctive reading of John Ashbery’s poetry and its unique quality can be confidently associated with Ben Lerner’s own appreciation of Ashbery, because the novel relies heavily on Lerner’s review article, ‘The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy’.17 Lerner makes an original and convincing reading of this poet. Paradoxically, he refuses to elide the writer with his texts (except for one, significant instance), as when he quotes Ashbery, ‘You limit me to what I say’ (‘Measles’, The Tennis Court Oath). It’s the poet’s and the reader’s experience of temporality, and how meanings are temporarily posited, contingently and at a distance from any precise referent, that Lerner appreciates: ‘I want to focus on Ashbery’s ability to quicken our sense of continuance – to make us experience the flow of thinking and speaking in time over the finished thought’ (202). Reading Ashbery’s ‘best’ poetry ‘seems to narrate what it’s like to read Ashbery’s best poetry, and when his work manages to describe the time of its own reading in the time of its own reading, we experience mediacy immediately’ (203). This sounds very like the kinds of experience Adam Gordon valued, and the kind of text he hoped to make.

Lerner describes key features of Ashbery’s work effectively — for example ‘aggressive hypotaxis’ which appears to subordinate long chains of reference with apparent causal and relational logic, but which the referents themselves evade. An equally insistent use of ‘deixis’ also offers the possibility of resolved meaning further in, or beyond the text, but this also never arrives. Not dissimilar effects are sometimes described in Milton’s sustained use of ‘parataxis’, elaborating similitudes and epic tropes, though with necessarily more confident cohesions of a kind, across the poem. The telling disjunctions of Paradise Lost occur at another level altogether. Lerner finds antecedents for Ashbery in more recent work, and in his critical essays on artists such as De Chirico, Roussel, Gertrude Stein, in late Henry James, and interestingly, in Pasternak’s intensively fragmented life-text, Safe Conduct (1931) — ‘It’s hard to take critics seriously who emphasize Ashbery’s anxious relationship with Stevens to the exclusion of his loving relationship with Stein’ (204, n.4).

‘Ashbery’s poems are glosses on poems we can’t access: it’s as if the ‘real’ poem were written on the other side of a mirrored surface: when we read, we see only the reflection of our reading.’

Lerner’s particular understanding of the experience of reading John Ashbery reveals the ‘metatextual’ nature of this poetry, which is subtly different from the ‘indeterminacy’, for which Marjorie Perloff argued, in her influential commentary.18 The consistent deployment of various kinds of discourse and idiom by Ashbery — astrology and homiletics in Three Poems, fine arts critical writing in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror — again acts as a deferment of some primary encounter with that which has been written, a défairence perpetuelle: ‘Instead of making a bid for lyric immediacy, the poems refer to its displacement, as if the poem we have describes a poem for which we’ve always arrived too late’ (207). The commentary that conflates Lerner/Gordon most thoroughly is this:

Ashbery’s poems are glosses on poems we can’t access: it’s as if the ‘real’ poem were written on the other side of a mirrored surface: when we read, we see only the reflection of our reading. But by reflecting our reading, Ashbery’s poems allow us to attend to our attention — they offer what we might call lyric mediacy. (209)

FOR BEN LERNER, it is no accident that John Ashbery’s poetry received wide critical acclaim only with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, because it is his single major poem that does focalize conventionally within a first-person pronoun and narrative that can indubitably be identified with the persona of the individual who also happens to be the writing agency of the poem: ‘I saw it with Pierre [Martory] in the summer of 1959; New York / Where I am now …’. ‘Self-Portrait’, in other words, does not make its meanings through the kinds of deferral and second-order reflectivity, which for Lerner are Ashbery’s singularity. More than this, the poem is ‘a kind of melancholic retreat from his method’, a statement of the impossibility of the reader ever truly occupying a text, a work, within that involving liaison of understanding as it continually evades even as we attempt to think it.

Tellingly, Ashbery has commented on his own poem, ‘I’ve never really cared for “Self-Portrait” very much, and I must say I didn’t like it any more when I reread it’19. On Lerner’s reading, ‘Self-Portrait’ is therefore a ‘recuperable’ work, one that almost uniquely can be read within the normalizing conventions of romantic and post-romantic confessional poetry, but which is only a moment within Ashbery’s wider, epic flow of reflective works. Collections and poems like As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981) and Flow Chart (1991), are not ‘readable’ within these terms, and are where Ashbery’s true achievement is found, which is evasively. For Lerner, Flow Chart (1991) is the culmination of Ashbery’s large-scale, meditative mode (but not included in the Library of America collection (202–3, n.3), perhaps scheduled to open the second collection of later works).

complutensian2Lerner confirms his assessment of ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by arguing that the singular, double-columnar poem ‘Litany’, which opens As We Know (1979), ‘can be understood’ as a response to the virtual canonization of ‘Self-Portrait’ in 1976, when the poem and collection scooped all three major literary awards in America – Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award; no other book had ever achieved this triple. Over more than 100 pages, ‘Litany’ is a sustained demonstration of poetic discourse apparently in dialogue across an absent, central text, which the verso (roman) page and the italicized recto evoke, imply and critique (in the Library of America edition; the columns are side by side on a single page in the ‘landscape’ format of As We Know (Viking Penguin, 1979), giving four columns to an ‘opening’). The absent, third term is to be understood through differential reading, there is none of the exact focalization by person/place/time of ‘Self-Portrait’, and of all lyricisms of the personal moment, i.e., poetry as generally understood, practised, awarded. Derrida’s Glas (1974) was surely some kind of precursor, as well as all of the text-spaces which have ever split, defrayed, dispersed, and invited dialogism – the Complutensian Bible pages are an epic demonstration of this kind of columnar intertext and interlingualism.20

John Ashbery wrote an ‘Author’s Note’ that prefaces ‘Litany’, and which gives impossible guidance: ‘The two columns … are meant to be read as / simultaneous but independent monolgues.’ Jacques Derrida remarked that he wrote Glas with both hands, also simultaneously, Hegel on the left, Genet to the right, and with numerous interspersings, shoulder notes, marginalia and intra-textual irruption throughout. Ben Lerner’s reading of John Ashbery’s poetry is helpful, but as he admits, the peculiar genius of this writing is that it ‘can be served with every kind of sauce’ (203, n.3), such a rapturously readerly work.

3RAPTURES150Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). He lives and works in Orkney. This is the second of three ‘Raptures’ he has created for The Fortnightly Review.

Note: Updated 28 July 2014 to correct posting errors.


  1. Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011; Granta Books, 2012): 140. All references to the Granta edition. Profound thanks to Andy Thompson, for giving me the book in the first place, because he knows.
  2. Boris Pasternak, ‘We’re Few’ (1921). Translated by J. M. Cohen, in Boris Pasternak, Prose & Poems, Stefan Schimanski (ed.). (Benn, 1959), 284. And: ‘the Marburg school of philosophy had two special features that won me over. First of all it was original. It dug everything over down to the foundations and it built upon clear ground. It did not share the lazy routine of all the ‘isms’ one can think of, which always cling to their profitable tenth-hand omniscience, are always ignorant, and are for some reason or another always afraid of a review conducted in the free air of our ancient culture. The Marburg school did not suffer from any terminological inertia and it turned back to primary sources …’. Pasternak, Safe Conduct, I.9, translated by Christopher Barnes, in Boris Pasternak, The Voice of Prose, Barnes (ed.), (Polygon, 1986), I, 40.
  3. Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (Allen Lane 2009).
  5. James Wood, ‘Life’s White Machine: Ben Lerner’, in The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012; Vintage, 2014): 320–6, 320, 322; references to Vintage edition.
  6. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Verso, 1991), 10–16.
  7. These paragraphs are slightly adjusted from ‘Subjectivity and subjection, history and nature’, in Nigel Wheale (ed.) The Postmodern Arts. An Introductory Reader (Routledge: 1995): 52–6. What is striking to me now about The Postmodern Arts is the near complete absence of any awareness of the digital Virtual: the belatedness of academic text. The influential account of ‘postmodern sublime’ was Jean-François Lyotard, An Answer to the Question, What is the Postmodern?’ in The Postmodern Explained, (Minnesota UP, 1992), 14.
  8. Alessandra De Marco, ‘Late DeLillo, Finance Capital and Mourning from The Body Artist to Point Omega’, in 49th Parallel, 28 (Spring 2012).
  9. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, De Ente et Uno (Of Being and the One; 1492), X, tr. V. M. Hamm (1943), at M. V. Dougherty, Pico in English: A Bibliography. This fragment, ‘along with the death of Savonarola and the fall of the Medici, marked a turning-point in the history of metaphysics as the science of divine things … After Pico, the history of metaphysics shifted from the problem of God to the problem of being.’ Charles H. Lohr, ‘Metaphysics’, in Charles B. Schmitt (general editor), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (CUP, 1988), 535–638, 584. The final, Senecan clause, is based in Epistolae 1.2, 24.20. And see discussion of the ‘remarkable aspects’ of the De Ente et Uno in, Jan A. Aertsen, ‘Transcendentals’ Doctrine in Renaissance Philosophy’, Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought: From Philip the Chancellor (c. 1225) to Franciso Suárez (c. 1597), (Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2012), 557 ff. A useful current conspectus of Mirandolan studies is, M. V. Dougherty (ed.), Pico della Mirandola. New Essays, (Cambridge, 2008); for the De Ente et Uno, Carl N. Still, ‘Pico’s Quest for All Knowledge’, 179–201.
  10. Ben Lerner, ‘Each Cornflake’, reviewing Knausgaard, My Struggle: Vol. 3. Boyhood Island, LRB, 22 May 2014, 21–2.
  11. Frank Kermode, ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’, in Romantic Image (Fontana, 1971), 153–177.
  12. Faith Brinie, “Depression and Anhedonia”, Psychology Today,  21 December 2009.
  13. ‘Interview: Ben Lerner’, Granta (9 July 2012).
  14. James Wood, ‘Tolstoy’s War and Peace’, in The Fun Stuff, 144.
  15. Nigel Wheale, ‘John Ashbery: postmodernity’s laureate?’ and ‘A New Subjectivity? John Ashbery’s Three Poems’, in Wheale (ed.) The Postmodern Arts: 190–3, 207–20. Not, of course, to conflate Adam Gordon / Ben Lerner, but Lerner’s poems are sampled here and here; Lerner discusses Leaving the Atocha Station and his own poetry here.
  16. Helen Vendler, ‘John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past’, in Invisible Listeners. Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Princeton UP, 2005), 57–78, 57. The Flowchart Foundation is an invaluable resource for reading and researching Ashbery’s poetry and his multifarious artistic activity—see here, for example. Marjorie Perloff’s ‘Normalizing John Ashbery’ (1995) gives good account of the critical assessments of Ashbery’s work.
  17. Reviewing, John Ashbery, Collected Poems, 1956–1987, Mark Ford (ed.), Library of America, No. 187, (New York, 2008). In, boundary 2 37:1 (2010), 201–13. This edition is published in the UK by Carcanet (2010), and includes a really useful chronology of JA’s life, works and activities.
  18. Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton, 1981).
  19. JA’s 1985 interview by John Tranter in Jacket 2 (January 1998).
  20. Maria Victoria Spottorno, ‘The Textual Significance of Spanish Polyglot Bibles’, Sefarad. Revista de Estudios Hebraicos y Sefardíes 62 (2002) 375–92.

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