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Famed, acclaimed, 86-year-old poet John Ashbery has a new poem in this week’s issue of The New Yorker: “Gravy for the Prisoners.”

Ashbery doesn’t mess around: the reader knows from the strange title that there will be cross currents in the poem. Why would prisoners be given gravy? Maybe not enough food or the wrong food. Maybe a sickening glop. Maybe a treat. Maybe extras, on top of their regular ration. The poem begins with logical disjunction, missing information, and a gauntlet thrown. In addition, there is a “Let them eat cake” feeling to the title — as if whatever is being offered is meaningless, when what prisoners want is freedom, not gravy, unless the gravy is the means to being free.

If “prisoners” are to be the topic of the poem one wonders if we are dealing with real prisoners in real jails, or hypothetical prisoners, like prisoners of fate,  or prisoners of personality or human possibility, or in fact, prisoners of the state. Somehow, “prisoners” here reminds me of pensioners — as I am, and as is Ashbery. So then, you are reminded of being a prisoner of age.

In that case, no gravy would ever be enough; it would merely be a temporary sop, seeing as how nothing would satisfy, in the face of age, as having the impossible reclaimed: health, the dead, moments of enlightenment, hope.

It’s a fifteen line poem, in two irregular stanzas, the first stanza being the shorter, as if perhaps it represents the less complicated thought. The stanza is made up of a fully formed almost informative sentence and a confusing fragment.

The first sentence:

I wouldn’t try to capture it
on the page, or in a blog, the inauspicious
leavings of a day.

Well, right off, you have the problem of “it.” Whatever it is that he wishes to “capture” has already flown off and is reduced to the confusing and all-purpose “it.” He clarifies somewhat; “it” is “the inauspicious leavings of the day.” One wonders why he isn’t going to memorialize the day in writing, given that everyone and her brother keep a blog. Maybe he intends to memorialize the day some other way.

“Inauspicious” is important. Wikipedia tells me that an “auspice (Latin: auspicium from auspex)  is literally one who looks at birds . . . . In ancient Roman religion, the auspices provided divine signs to be interpreted by an augur. An augur would perform a ceremony (known as “taking the auspices”) and would read flight patterns of birds in the sky.”

So we already have the idea of received instruction regarding reality: the auspice and the augur will identify and interpret patterns. In this poem, however, that role is devolved to the self, a self who proceeds with enormous doubt, saying, as it does, that the leaving of the day were inauspicious.

In fact, maybe the poem has several speakers, and maybe one is warning the other “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Or, one side of the person is saying to himself, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Then the fragment begins: “Closer to dream . . .” He muses on the way the day that has just past is like people who once walked in the streets. He also muses on the way the past resembles the “hum of the streets,” thus suggesting that the memory of the day, being like a hum, is beyond words — dreamlike. So he is questioning the sense of trying to put into words something that doesn’t originate in words. The use of the word “closer” is in a way confused: is it “to be nearer”? Or is it in the sense of a baseball pitcher who is the “closer”? The closer is the guy who gives shape to the game, the artist, the thriller, the dominator. Who is the person who is the closer to dream? The artist?

Ashbery opens the second stanza with a colloquial address to someone or to himself. He admits, “Yeah, I know.” We have to fill in the blank. He is sheepish, somehow, about admitting that he wants to do the impossible, wants to capture the past on the page, and at the same time doubts he can use writing to remember what is important. Maybe he’s admitting the paradox: he knows writing is a questionable activity, he says he’s not going to write, but he’s writing! But the act of writing makes him doubt its meaning, when, after all, the past is a lot like a hum, a lot like a dream.

Then he says to his reader, his pal, his companion, himself: “Know what I’m saying?” Maybe I do. You want to capture it, but it’s elusive. You want to use words, but maybe the memory of what’s important is in a different language, so to speak.

So in the second sentence of the second stanza, he seems to try to capture “it.”

He says, “The grounds were ultimately too big for the compound.” What is difficult is that grounds and compound are slippery words. Grounds could be landscape, could be reasons, could be basis, could be setting, could be something transformed into bits of its former self, like coffee grounds. And compound could be a group of houses, could be a mix of two or more chemicals, or two or more things, like sentences, and compound could be a verb that communicates complication. So compound suggests complication and ground suggests the process of grinding — the process of transformation through reduction. Maybe he means the most obvious thing: that the surroundings were too large for the place where we were. Maybe he means the most complicated thing: that we reduce the past, grind it down, and lose parts of it. Maybe he means we compound the past and complicate it. At any rate, memory is so reductive and so vast that there is no encompassing it. There was no getting into it. Meaning is ultimately “too big” for the container.

Then we have a dreamlike event within one of these houses of the compound. It is as if the branches of a tree are shadowed on a wall inside the house, and it seems like the tree is flying. The writer marvels that “patterns are coaxed.” It is as if the four walls of a room are the stanzas or parts of a piece of art, and “out of thin air” patterns (and art) are constructed. Later in the poem, there is the suggestion of a temple and a person who tends a temple, but this is different: this “house” is a space where visions occur, where realizations happen, where pattern reveals itself, where art occurs. What is strange and beautiful at the same time, this person is “reading” the shadow of a moving tree, rather than the flight of birds, and applying a pattern to it. The speaker is doubting that the patterns we apply to existence are any more reliable than the auguries of ancient divination. The speaker is doubting the power of language, doubting the power of art to define existence.

It is as if it is in our nature to do such things, or in the nature of our environment. And then all of a sudden, in the middle of these colloquial musings comes a difficult word.

I have a pretty good vocabulary, and I know I do not know what an “aedile” is. He says he spent days as an “aedile.” So I look it up. It turns out to be a show stopper. An aedile, according to Cicero (according to Wikipedia), was one of four officials in the Roman Republic responsible for the care of the buildings, especially temples, roads, sewers, and whatever in the city, as well as the care of public morals, as well as the care for the food of the city and the provisions laid in in case of disaster, and the care of the games. Being an aedile was an office that paved the way to even higher office, such as Senator. Augustus, however, diluted the importance of the aediles, although they did look over the brothels and baths. Suddenly, the office has a seedy mission; suddenly the aedile’s only responsibility is policing what should be private.

In addition, the aedile loses the responsibility for the welfare of the people; the saving and guarding of grain for emergency. That brings you back to the title: “Gravy for the prisoners.” Without that care-giving function of the aedile, there will be no gravy for the prisoners. One has to wonder, anyway, if what is life-saving is not actually food, but vision. A sense of pattern. Art. So is art the real gravy for the prisoners?

The aediles were responsible for the care of the aedes, the temples. A temple was where you learned or were morally guided, hence our own word, edify, but the ultimate duty of looking after the brothels and baths became an extremely narrow definition of edification. The poem may be asking if it is art that is the true edifice or place of guidance.

This speaker says he spent some time as an aedile. Perhaps he means it ironically, as in having been a teacher or a priest or a bureaucrat responsible for the city. He says, though, that no such fantastic visions happened to him when he was working, such as having a vision of a tree flying up.

Even so, he says,

. . . wisps
still buttonhole us in random moats:

Wisps of what? Well, Dictionary.com suggests small bunches of straw or hay, as well as a lock of hair, as well as a stream of mist or smoke, as well as a delicate boy, delicate as a willow. I wasn’t expecting that last one. To translate this sentence, I find that I have a vision of a boy buttonholing another person — this teacher, this priest, this bureaucrat — in an open area, outside the barricade of the castle walls of our daily life or ordinary personality. It is as if the speaker is saying that encountering this boy is a vision. Like the tree flying up.

And then he finishes up. He asks his companion, or us, if this was what we were expecting. Well, I would say no. I was surprised by the turns this poem seems to take. I was surprised by “aedile,” as also by “wisp.”

But I get the impulse: to remember the past, whether it be the past of the day or the past of a life or the past of humanity, it is difficult to give that memory shape, given that the past doesn’t exist in words so much as it exists in patterns, for instance, or mood, or dream. But, in fact, we notice things like huge events of the mind or spirit, especially when they are associated with pattern — or art.

Yet most of us in our hum-drum lives don’t have great experiences. Even so, there are people we encounter who stick with us, and there are wisps of dream, or thought, or realization that hit.

These “wisps” may have an erotic nature; “buttonholing” suggests it.

Finally he asks, “And if not, why not?”

Given that this poem seems to have an erotic aspect, the appearance in the poem of the aedile, the public functionary, the caretaker of morals, is important. The poem is asking asking why we don’t remember and respect these wisps of experience, be they whatever they happen to be.

But here’s the thing: this is a poet who is not obsessed with making sure we understand him. He is more obsessed with making sure we understand that we may not understand him.

To enjoy the poem, I think you have to be happy knowing that people can be quite be inaccessible, difficult to get, or different, mysterious, or unique, or puzzling, like jazz. To enjoy the poem, you kind of have to enjoy the fact that people often like to mess with you. You have to expect and kind of enjoy the gaps that communication and self-presentation present. And I think you have to enjoy the contradiction of someone speaking in colloquial familiarity, all jokey-like, and then suddenly bursting in with formal difficult language. You have to enjoy a poem that represents a self talking to itself on several levels, in several stabs at language, almost as if the self were two or three or more people talking at each other. One has to have a sense of the self as having great difficulty understanding what it says, even to itself.

What’s really hard about this poem for the reader is it’s difficult to remember. It is so dis-jointed and dream-like, it’s difficult to box up. There’s no story, no rhyme,  and there is all this dis-jointed language. Perhaps that’s his point.

One shred of formal poetry remains: there is a rhythm to the language (a conversational rhythm) which is hypnotic. I think perhaps it is the hypnotic part that is important.

The images happen along, almost like images from a train window; you’re in the back-streets of the mind, and there are no street signs. But beneath the fractured communication there is a succession of images: prisoners receiving food; the pattern of branches shadowed on a wall, a tree blowing in the wind, people in the streets, huge grounds of a compound, (echoed later by the idea of a castle bounded by a moat) and then the image of these aediles – these censors? And always, there is the idea of communication that is like a phone call that is interrupted with static.

I am interested in the way the poem sync with this particular New Yorker issue and its star: the Chinese writer Yu Hua. Here’s one connection between the poem and Hua: that Yu Hua is subject to censorship, that his writing is available in the moats around the castle, that his writing may be the gravy for the prisoners of the state, that the idea of empire is central to the poem, that China may be a vast empire, that art may be what guides us. (Of course, speaking of the Roman Empire, one must always be reminded, also, of us.) For more from Yu Hua himself on censorship in China see his February 2013 editorial in The New York Times (click here).

In addition, the tree image in this poem syncs with the image of the tree on the cover.

But back to John Ashbery and “Gravy for the Prisoners.” I find the poem speaks to me, after all. What I like about contemporary poetry is that it forces the reader to have a conversation with it. This is my conversation, limited and bound by my restricted vision as it is. I would love to hear from anybody else who has other thoughts about this poem.

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