America’s greatest postmodern poet has died. And just like he was saying, one is – on hearing of his death – bumped from one’s dog-perch.

DAY BUMP

Whether the harborline or the east shoreline
consummated it was nobody’s biz until you got there,
eyelids ashimmer, content with one more dispensation
from blue above. And just like we were saying,
the people began to show some interest
in the mud-choked harbor. It could be summer again
for all anyone in our class knew.
Yeah, that’s right. Bumped from our dog-perch,
we’d had to roil with the last of them.

It’s taken a while since I’ve been here,
but I’m resolved. What, didn’t I print,
little piles of notes, slopes almost Sicilian?
Here is my friend:
Socks for comfort (now boys) will see later. Did they come?
The inner grocery had to take three sets of clips away.
Speaking to him of intricate family affairs.
I’m not what you think. Stay preconscious.
It’s just the “flooding of the council.” No need to feel afraid.

*********************

Whatayawhataya. Hold on and we’ll try to make some sense of it. All the while remembering first this from Ashbery:

What [my poems] are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking. And in that way, they are, I think, accessible if anyone cares to access them.

IOW: The soul of man is a far country (Heraclitus).

And second, this from John Koethe:

The tone [of an Ashbery poem is] likely to be nostalgic and its motions those of reverie. Its predominant feelings are passive ones, like resignation and loss; its language is resonant and suggestive; the use of narrative past tense invests it with a mythological quality; and its overall effect is one of tenderness. It dissociates itself, especially in its transitions and patterns of inference, from everyday ideas of rationality and control; its awareness of language is informed by a sense of its limitations…

So here we go.

****************

DAY BUMP

[The poem will narrate a break in a day – something bumping into the normal flow of event. But as in the phrase bumping up, there is something clarifying about this disturbance, this – to use a word we’ll find in the poem – sudden roiling.]

Whether the harborline or the east shoreline
consummated it was nobody’s biz until you got there,

[Coastal holiday setting, it seems, harbors and shores; and if you look at the next stanza and note the word resolved, you’ll see that a conflict between, or confluence of, stability and instability appears in the poem. The speaker awaits a friend who will join him at the shore/harbor, and nothing will clarify itself until he gets there. Consummation has a sexual connotation as well, and I’m going to suggest that this poem may be about Ashbery remembering himself as a closeted young man among straight friends. Finally, on the assumption that many of Ashbery’s autobiographical poems are about writing poetry, there’s maybe a suggestion here that nothing in the world “consummates” or “resolves” into existence until the poet puts it into words. Until then, it’s all roiling and flooding and bumps.]

eyelids ashimmer, content with one more dispensation
from blue above.

[His friend is not a writer; he is merely content that nature has gifted him with another beautiful blue day, sunlight in which his eyelids shimmer. Actually, our writer isn’t a writer yet either; both of them continue to live in that blessed condition of unselfconscious youth in which you take the world, eagerly, just as it comes to you. You are one with it.].

And just like we were saying,
the people began to show some interest
in the mud-choked harbor.

[Hm. Maybe there’s a threat of flooding there – maybe it’s not a “harbor” at all, but, looked at more carefully, a mud-soaked about-to-be-flood.].

It could be summer again
for all anyone in our class knew.
Yeah, that’s right.

[Language drawn from the poet’s youth here, when he was still in “class,” and when he and his friends said to one another would-be cool phrases like Yeah, that’s right.].

Bumped from our dog-perch,
we’d had to roil with the last of them.

[Locals, these boys were above it all, watching the summer visitors with cool disregard; the oncoming flood has however knocked them from their dog-days perch, and they’ve got to join the rest of humanity as it tries to stay afloat in life. Which is to say, we have a Wordsworthian poem on our hands, lamenting the loss of childhood and the onset of adulthood.]

It’s taken a while since I’ve been here,
but I’m resolved.

[The poet has returned to his early home, and he is now a “resolved” adult – he has resolved into something – a personality, a poet, a citizen…].

What, didn’t I print,
little piles of notes, slopes almost Sicilian?

[Here is his reference to his career as a poet, his “fall” into writing and out of a world of soundless joyous unity with nature, his infinite strenuous burning efforts – Sicilian, with volcanic elements – to know the world as opposed merely to be in the world.]

Here is my friend:
Socks for comfort (now boys) will see later. Did they come?

[Ja, very obscure lines. Part of this I think is simply the “privacy” of Ashbery’s particular life – Ashbery was famously painted with argyle socks – but I think the larger idea super-compressed here is again the Wordsworthian one of youth regarded from the perspective of age. We’re boys now, with whatever – sports socks – but we will eventually be old men wearing comfort socks. As for Did they come? I’m thinking about sex – I’m thinking about how the word socks is not far from sex and sucks, and that the poet is recalling not comfort sex but athletic sex and asking a specific question about their youthful sexual experimentation. In this regard, and keeping the idea of whether something was “consummated” or not in mind, that “day bump” could also be read as someone’s erection.]

The inner grocery had to take three sets of clips away.

[Socks, clips, youth – I’m thinking bicycles here, with the poet’s mind full of the memory of objects which he takes off the brain-shelves and puts in his poems – his inner stocked grocery. Memory clips. Perhaps he’s talking about the poet taking “clips” of his past out of his mind and using them poetically; perhaps he’s alluding to the death of friends from home.]

[And now the way-enigmatic final lines of the poem:]

Speaking to him of intricate family affairs.
I’m not what you think. Stay preconscious.
It’s just the “flooding of the council.” No need to feel afraid.

************

Okay, so people are starting to take an interest in the mud-choked harbor — the boys’ eyes are beginning to “shimmer” with a sense of the congested psychic mess that the mature human mind happens to be. Or the boys are beginning to sense the power of their “pent-up aching rivers” – their libidos. They don’t quite feel threatened with all of that yet; but they sense the possibility of the oncoming flood of mortal pain and complication that awaits them.

In this particular remembered conversation between the poet and his friend, the poet recalls both deep candor and confidences between them (intricate family affairs) and his own actual disturbing, “roiling” secrets. I’m not what you think, he now says to his friend. I’m gay. Maybe you, my friend, begin to sense that disturbing fact, but from this vantage point I prefer that you stay preconscious, so that we can draw out this blissful pre-flood life as long as possible. What you’re seeing – what you’re disturbed by – is a sudden “flooding” of your precocious grown-up rational faculties – the “council” that sits in your head – as it begins to identity certain difficult truths. But stay young! Hold off fear and confusion as long as you possibly can.

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3 Responses to “The Death of John Ashbery is a Bump in the Day, A Flooding of the Council.”

  1. dmf Says:

    thanks for this always appreciate these readings.

    https://soundcloud.com/aloudla/john-ashberys-self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    You’re welcome, dmf.

  3. dmf Says:

    https://www.lrb.co.uk/2017/08/30/lrb-podcast/auden-anxieties

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