Dana Ward and Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” (at Boston Review)


Here’s another interesting piece (like the one on Matthew Dickman that I recently wrote about here) that discusses the influence of New York School poetry on a younger contemporary poet.  On the Boston Review’s new poetry blog, David Gorin deliberately departs from the usual m.o. of the book review and zeroes in on a single poem by Dana Ward:

The poem that’s obsessed me most lately is the title track of Dana Ward’s first book, This Can’t Be Life (2012)My preoccupation has something to do with how the poem speaks back to two other poems I love: “This Can’t Be Life”feels like a too-late-capitalist cousin of John Ashbery’s“Into the Dusk-Charged Air”(1966), itself a post-modern take on the descriptive mode of James Thomson’s The Seasons (1728). Each of those poems is a catalogue of “things,” or names for things…

Gorin sets up a connection between Ward’s poem  and one of John Ashbery’s stranger experiments, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” from his 1966 collection Rivers and Mountains — a long, relentless list of rivers from around the world , delivered with a distinctly Raymond Roussel-like flatness and exhaustiveness.  It’s a poem I’ve always found to be equal parts wonderful and baffling/fatiguing (or, as with most Ashbery, wonderful because baffling and fatiguing).  Gorin offers a few sharp insights into Ashbery’s challenging poem:

Its play involves the comic struggle to find different ways to describe the single action all rivers perform …  the scale soars from ground-floor (“flows among factories / And buildings”) to high-flying aerial view (“in Canada, / Flowing”). It’s funny that the activity on each scale can be the same. Of course, when I say it’s funny, I mean it’s funny because it’s surprisingly boring: the repetition-with-little-difference disrupts any assumption that poems should not be boring, should try as hard as they can to look alive. Unlike The Seasons, which varies its rhythm of naming as if in imitation of Nature’s irregular abundance, Ashbery’s poem maintains a rule of precisely one river-name per line over the course of its 151 lines (with two Where’s-Waldo exceptions as rewards for the patient observer), emphasizing the mechanical or procedural element of catalogue that Thomson avoids or conceals.

Gorin then turns to Ward’s poem, another long poem-as-catalog — a work which does with contemporary high fashion what Ashbery’s poem did with rivers.

The dominant mode of Dana Ward’s “This Can’t Be Life” feels like a deadpan ekphrasis on a fashion magazine tableau spread, numbingly sexy and sexily boring, in which Thomson’s flowers reappear as printing on a dress and Ashbery’s rivers turn into the rich.

It turns out that the people and clothing Ward describes ad nauseum are taken directly from the pages of Vanity Fair’s “Fortune’s Children,” “a series of 32 photographs of saddeningly gorgeous heirs and heiresses,” which means that the poem, at least in part, contemplates the excesses and absurdities of consumption and materialism.  Gorin goes on to give an illuminating close reading of the politics and poetics of Ward’s provocative poem, viewing it as a contemporary extension of and new twist on Ashbery’s initial experiment.

The review as a whole provides another valuable example of how Ashbery’s pervasive influence on contemporary poetry can work in intriguing and often unexpected ways.  

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