John Ashbery’s “East February” was first published in the March 24, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
“East February,” by John Ashbery, compelled my interest this dark March morning. After all, when an 87-year-old poet speaks, you want to listen, you want to understand. So here goes.
The whole poem feels to me somewhat valedictory: the references to February, or winter, to it being late, and being so late it’s almost grotesque. To start there — at “grotesque” it sounds like how I feel about my own old age approaching. I view that with alarm — the approach of my own very old old age. At 70, I still feel young, but at 87, Ashbery must at least feel the approach of very old old age.
Again, the valedictory feel resumes in the second stanza, when the poet uses the phrase “hymn to dowdiness.” To be dowdy is typical of the old — I feel that already. We are so thrifty, we are so enamored of the past and past fashions. The poet mentions “foxtrot”: it’s one of those things so very out of date that it is hardly done at all any more. In the same breath, he mentions “performance art.” The poet says he looks back on foxtrot and performance art “fondly,” as if performance art is already in the past. Is it? When did that happen? Actually, I think he means that performance art, now so fresh, will eventually be “dowdy” — a thing of the past. Actually, this speaker is hardly aware that the foxtrot has passed — he conflates the time for foxtrot and performance art.
The very next lines muse on whether or not this writing is a “hymn to dowdiness.” It is as if the poet is wondering whether the style in which he is writing is already a thing of the past, something silly, something done as if Howdy Doody had done it, something as if it had been influenced by Howdy Doody, that T.V. puppet of the fifties, that original puppet. It is as if the poet is wondering what produced the poems — was the impulse primarily the culture? Was he merely a mouthpiece?
Somehow, as a valedictory, this is not triumphant. It’s doubtful. That is probably not an unusual feeling for an artist, to doubt the lasting nature of their work. It’s certainly familiar to this more ordinary mortal — to doubt, in one’s darker hours, one’s life.
People drop in on this speaker, although one of them says rather curtly, “My crew will be in touch.” I am reminded of a producer coming for an initial interview, say someone who represents someone from 60 Minutes, then leaving, saying, “My [production] crew will be in touch.” To make the arrangements.
“My crew” also smacks of a slang way to refer to friends, although in the mouth of this speaker it feels awkward.
Because I am reminded of old age by the poem, “crew” reminds me of an ambulance crew, or of a doctor dismissing a patient by saying, “My nurse will be in touch.”
“Touch” here is important — because no one is actually touching anyone. No one is actually communicating very clearly. If the poem represents conversations that actually did occur, the representation is in snippets, and a lot is lost.
In that way, these “snippets” remind me of the horror of very old age, the dementia, the Alzheimer’s.
A mouse can show what works,
even if no one knows why
It reminds me of medical experiments, reminds me of illness, reminds me of medication that doesn’t actually work, reminds me of impending death.
I am writing about this poem because this poet, John Ashbery, is so famous. I am trying to see what it is so many people see in him. What I see is ordinary conversation that has been clipped, snipped, and compressed. I see a hallucination. I see echoes of real life, but not real life, except as we see it in nightmare or a drugged state. In the ordinary language, in the lack of a central ego, I see a rejection of egotism, pomposity, belief systems, propaganda, authority, and all that, as the poet himself might say.
There is a fear of surety, yet there is also yearning. I feel the yearning for things to last, for friends to come over, for people to get to know each other, for people not to withdraw into poses like “My crew will be in touch” or behind facades like the mouse experiments have shown . . .
Why “East” February? I don’t know — except that perhaps the poet or the speaker lives on the upper east side, a very posh place to live, and even there, February (and death) is part of the seasons. Perhaps, as always, “east” represents dawn. So the speaker is thinking of dawn in February — such opposites. But seen that way, there is that yearning again.
Why is the grammar fractured in that sentence about “not expecting friends” or “friends that you don’t know yet are coming over”? It’s as if the speaker has gotten upset in the middle of trying to say something. It feels like the speaker is hoping some friends will come over but wonders if a companion will be offended by this.
But the companion in this poem feels like death to me. It’s as if the speaker is saying to death, “I want to put you off — look I have friends coming over — they’re still alive — (you don’t know them, yet) — so give me a break, just this once.”
I am reminded of the phrase “skeleton crew.” As if the crew that will be in touch are the grave diggers and the mortuary.
As with Galway Kinnell, John Ashbery compels my interest. Both are almost beyond me. It’s odd, though, regarding how difficult I think Ashbery to be, how quickly I got a take on what he might be trying to say.
As interested as he is in conversation, though, I echo with this hope: that someone out there will come in out of the dark and add to all this. One of the benefits of a poet like Ashbery is that he surely does invite conversation.
What I hear is this: all is change. And yet we yearn for that not to be.