The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Ashbery's Cornell-like Poems
by Andrew Michael Field

Joseph Cornell and John Ashbery are united by an aesthetics of nostalgia. Each artist is enchanted and disturbed by the past, and they consequently invest their poems with a longing which can only be called nostalgic. They are nostalgic because time is passing, like a ribbon one is chasing that constantly eludes one’s grip or grasp; and because time is passing, ultimately leading to death, Cornell and Ashbery are possessed by a homesickness, a nostalgia, an ironic (because the past is out of reach, and therefore inescapably remote) sentimentality (because the past is out of reach, and therefore a springboard for subjective fantasy and reverie about the past). It is nostalgia – the awareness, the longing – that brings into being Ashbery’s wondrously funny and profound constructions – as if through their ceaselessly imaginative imagery they might blot out the homesickness at the heart of their issuing. (And it is nostalgia that propels Cornell through the book stalls of Manhattan, looking for objects that will hypnotize with their lyrical evocativeness.)

Nostalgia is a causal agent, then, but it is also the thematic content of the work. And to read an Ashbery poem or look at a Cornell box is to feel in oneself the same stirrings of nostalgia – the same tugging heart-sickness, reaching-out-homelessness, yawp of exile, howl of displacement. Indeed, one begins to wonder, reading Ashbery, if one isn’t encountering a verbal Joseph Cornell, just as one wonders, looking at a Cornell, if one hasn’t come across a visual Ashbery. For example, “Two Scenes,” the poem that begins Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees, contains trains, sparks, tables, rain, blue shadows, laughing cadets. It is a poem, but it is also a room, a box, in which we find wonderfully innocent and lyrical objects. The first stanza reads,

We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The day was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”

There is nothing disturbing about the poem, except perhaps its lack of anything to disturb. “We see us as we truly behave,” Ashbery writes, and one can be forgiven for imagining the “we” as a group of school children, commenting on their confidence regarding their precocious and exquisite manner of viewing the world. “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” – wonder can be found in every nook and cranny. Notice that “corner” suggests a box, some valise full of fascinating objects: marbles and clay pipes and maps and stuffed birds. Now we see a train, careening out from infinite space, and this train is juxtaposed surrealistically with a table, to suggest a toy train. The poem is associational the way a child is associational, jumping from idea to idea, whose only connective tissue is the magic at the heart of these objects’ lives.
This mood continues in the second stanza, where we read,

A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Terrific units are on an old man
In the blue shadow of some paint cans
As laughing cadets say, “In the evening
Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”

The poem recreates the excitement a child feels with a whole day ahead of him or her to play. It is an expanding, resounding happiness, an optimism that is shadowed by an immense nostalgia. “This is perhaps a day of general honesty,” the poet writes, reveling in his naiveté. There are “terrific units…on an old man.” Although we have no idea what this actually means, it is exciting, it sounds like something marvelous and humorous is happening to a grandfather figure. And then, the ending: “Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.” The teasing wondrousness, the scintillating possibility of finding out how everything is related.

Ashbery’s poems are full of this child-like wonder, as well as with the objects you might find in a Cornell box. One can almost see these poems as if from behind a glass, the glass being used to both “protect and cherish,” as Diane Waldman writes of Cornell, the objects behind it. But one can also perhaps find these environments of child-like wonder a little suffocating and poisonous. Look at “And You Know,” also from Some Trees. The poem begins,

The girls, protected by gold wire from the gaze
Of the onrushing students, live in an atmosphere of vacuum
In the old schoolhouse covered with nasturtiums.
At night, comets, shooting stars, twirling planets,
Suns, bits of illuminated pumice, and spooks hang over the old place;
The atmosphere is breathless. Some find the summer light
Nauseous and damp, but there are those
Who are charmed by it, going out into the morning.
We must rest here, for this is where the teacher comes.
On his desk stands a vase of tears.
A quiet feeling pervades the playroom. His voice clears
Through the interminable afternoon. “I was a child once
Under the spangled sun. Now I do what must be done.
I teaching reading and writing and flaming arithmetic. Those
In my home come to me anxiously at night, asking how it goes.
My door is always open. I never lie, and the great heat warms me.

We begin with an image of girls protected by “gold wire from the gaze / Of the onrushing students.” These girls “live in an atmosphere of vacuum / In the old schoolhouse covered with nasturtiums.” There is simultaneously the tone of innocence (girls protected, living in a vacuum), and a pungent musky suffocating air (schoolhouse covered with nasturtiums). Then, almost as if to escape this sense of suffocation, we zoom out into the ether, where we see “comets, shooting stars, twirling planets, / Suns, bits of illuminate pumice, and spooks [hanging] over the old place”. Ashbery not only tells us, “The atmosphere is breathless,” but also writes, “Some find the summer light / Nauseous and damp, but there are those / Who are charmed by it”. This seems a commentary on the content of the poem, and also on Ashbery’s aesthetic, which some find so bewildering as to be overwhelming, while others, this reader included, are almost preternaturally taken in and charmed by it. Then, continuing in the child-like vein, we are introduced to a teacher, represented by “a vase of tears,” which perhaps is an image that symbolizes how the child imagines adulthood to be, full of artful suffering. The teacher’s speech corroborates this claim; he says, “I was a child once/ Under the spangled sun. Now I do what must be done,” i.e. the teacher is beholden to necessity. As the teacher continues speaking, one feels he is not talking so much as saying aloud what the child feels about him. “My door is always open”, the teacher says, and “I never lie”.

There is often in Ashbery’s poems this sense of idiosyncratic discovery, as though one were walking into a hallway one had never seen before, a hallway shockingly new, irrepressible, fascinating, and yet almost dangerous and haunted with a kind of gleeful foreboding. And at times it is unclear – perhaps this partly why the poems can be foreboding – where the fantasy or nostalgic reverie stops and reality begins. Look at “Rivers and Mountains,” from Ashbery’s third book with the same title:

On the secret map the assassins
Cloistered, the Moon River was marked
Near the eighteen peaks and the city
Of humiliation and defeat – wan ending
Of the trail among dry, paper leaves,
Gray-brown quills like thoughts
In the melodious but vast mass of today’s
Writing through fields and swamps
Marked, on the map, with little bunches of weeds.
Certainly squirrels lived in the woods
But devastation and dull sleep still
Hung over the land, quelled
The rioters turned out of sleep in the peace of prisons
Singing on marble factory walls
Deaf consolation of minor tunes that pack
The air with heavy invisible rods
Pent in some sand valley from
Which only quiet walking every instructs.
The bird flew over and
Sat – there was nothing else to do.
Do not mistake its silence for pride or strength
Or the waterfall for a harbor
Full of light boats that is there
Performing for thousands of people
In clothes some with places to go
Or games. Sometimes over the pillar
Of square stones its impact
Makes a light print.

The sense is of a puppet-master playing with fantastically alive and fascinatingly intricate puppets, only to occasionally peer over the walls (like a moon peering over a hill) inside which his puppets perform, to wink or scowl at the audience. In the foreground, we have a game being played by the imaginative poet, perhaps looking at a map and imagining what is going on in the map – it is a “secret map,” with a river called “Moon River,” “near…eighteen peaks and the city / Of humiliation and defeat”. Yet the foreground is constantly being replaced by the background, by the poet reflecting on the work he is currently creating. Thus we have “Gray-brown quills like thoughts” and “the melodious but vast mass of today’s / Writing through fields and swamps”. It’s as though the artifice of Ashbery’s creation keeps poking through, in the words “like thoughts” and “Writing”. Later we hear of “light boats…/ Performing for thousands of people”, and the whole poem is infused with this mysterious sense of a game being played or performed, although with rules we cannot understand.

Reading Ashbery, like the experience of living, is constantly analogous to this notion of a game being played, although with rules we are not intended to wholly understand. And this experience breeds not only frustration, but also, in a way, a new strategy of and for reading. For in reading an Ashbery poem, like looking at a Cornell box, the goal is not mastery. The goal is, rather, enchantment and absorption. And enchantment or absorption do not work in a linear or logical way, but instead catch us unawares, compelling us to open our eyes to moments we’d never dreamed possible. I experience this personally when I read Ashbery’s “The Wave,” full of instances that continue to shock me with their novelty and originality. Ashbery writes,

One idea is enough to organize a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.
Think how many the average person has during the course of a day, or night,
So that they become a luminous backdrop to ever-repeated
Gestures, having no life of their own, but only echoing
The suspicions of their possessor. It’s fun to scratch around
And maybe come up with something. But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favor of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote. Then the advantage of
Sinking in oneself, crashing through the skylight of one’s own
Received opinions redirects the maze, setting up significant
Erections of its own at chosen corners, like gibbets,
And through this the mesmerizing plan of the landscape becomes,
At last, apparent.

In these lines, one senses an almost new mode of poetry. There is the unmistakable sense of a person thinking, of a person lost in reverie, (not unlike Cornell’s famous reveries), perhaps sitting back in an armchair, and just wondering about things – about how we organize our lives, about what happens to our ideas, about what kind of ideas have the longest “shelf life,” about changes in one’s opinions or beliefs that then change other opinions and beliefs. It calls attention to the way in which we change our minds in little ways thousands of times over, even in one day.

One of the goals of Ashbery’s poetry, however, is not that we automatically change our minds about whatever, but rather to provide us with the conditions for enchantment and absorption whereby we, too, are allowed the possibility to lose ourselves in reverie, to reflect on ourselves and our nostalgic predilections, to wonder about things, to question. We may emerge from these reveries with a fresh outlook on life, like one taking a vacation and then returning to their home, or like one looking at a Cornell box, then seeing the world around him or her as more enchanting, strange, and lyrical.

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