Remembering John Ashbery’s Time and Space

Caroline Hagood
September 7, 2017
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Vladimir Nabokov’s confession in Speak, Memory (1951) that he does not believe in time might have been more shocking if it had come earlier in literary history; by the modernist period, the poetic portrayal of time and space had been radically altered by, among other things, Einstein’s transformation of popular conceptions of these two categories in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 and his General Theory of Relativity in 1916. His revelations resulted in a temporality that Lovorka Gruic-Grmuša identifies as, “relative, discontinuous, and contingent. Displacing Newton’s absolute space and coherent, causal time with an energized, dynamic, and interrelated field of time, space, matter, and energy.” Accordingly, in his book-length poem The Bridge (1930), Hart Crane employs his eponymous structure to travel through and alter space and time.

In a similar vein, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) and Four Quartets (particularly in “Burnt Norton” [1936] and “The Dry Salvages” [1941]) seem to turn the old idea of time as procession of moments into time as palimpsest. By the postmodern period, however, time and space are no longer merely unstable; they have explodedor become explosivein the sense that they are entirely reconfigured (as in modernism), but also in that they have taken on implications of chaos and violenceas in the case of John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975).

Although Crane and Eliot hint at the limitations of language to portray life, they ultimately find their way to some sort of satisfying and sometimes even transcendent—as in the case of Eliot’s impossible union and Crane’s conjugation of infinity—conclusion that echoes this gesture towards the mystical and ineffable; however, this is not the case with Ashbery.

Ashbery’s speaker, who is also tempted by the promise of a potentially numinous brand of mimesis as he gazes at the sixteenth century painting Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror by Renaissance artist Parmigianino, can find none of Eliot’s satisfaction. “Once it seemed so perfectgloss on the fine / Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part,” he begins, “This could have been our paradise: exotic / Refuge within an exhausted world”; however, “that wasn’t / In the cards.” He acknowledges the restrictions of artistic portrayal in no uncertain terms: “Each person / Has one big theory to explain the universe / But it doesn’t tell the whole story.” Eliot and Crane seem to arrive at some version of that paradise in Crane’s speaker’s successful arrival at the ability “To conjugate infinity’s dim marge— / Anew!” and Eliot’s half-guessed hint and half-understood gift that results in “incarnation”), but Ashbery ends up in very different territory.

Vicki Mahaffey maintains that time in modernist literature, “developed folds and involutions; instead of being chronological or sequential, narratives began to break and flow like waves, with an alternating rhythm that was also reshaping the idea of the self from a static entity into something that was more generally unstable.” Indeed, we start to see the temporal order slipping and being played with in Eliot and Crane for instance. Then we continue to see this process evolve in later poets such as Allen Ginsberg. Clearly, the “angelheaded” denizens of Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) “who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time” and “dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space” play fast and loose with the spatiotemporal. This temporal tendency takes a darker turn in “Kaddish” (1961) in which the speaker addresses his dead mother, saying, “Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse.”

By the time we reach Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait,” however, time is no longer folded, involuted, or unstable in the manner of Mahaffey’s modernism; it is exploded. Before the poem’s turn toward the explosive, however, Ashbery’s speaker reasons that, “Aping naturalness may be the first step / Toward achieving an inner calm / But it is the first step only, and often / Remains a frozen gesture of welcome.” Here again it is in time and artistic depiction that the issue resides.

This copying of nature is the initial mimetic attempt that seeks to arrive at Eliot’s impossible union that results in the conquering of past and future, but that is not “in the cards.” Instead of the speaker overpowering time, time winsfreezing that first attempt at mimesis into a “gesture of unwelcome,” and rendering it merely “A convention. And we have really / No time for these, except to use them / For kindling.”

He continues on this fiery trajectory with an apostrophe to Parmigianino: “There is room for one bullet in the chamber / Our looking through the wrong end / Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed / Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately.” In this way, Parmigianino is able to defy Einstein, who postulated that nothing could travel more speedily than light. The instrument of seeing here becomes a weapon as the speaker sends his beloved Francesco back to his other reality to flatten like a cartoon character under a piano.

Being shot out of the wrong end of a telescope back to one’s own time period does not sound anything like Crane’s or Eliot’s poetic space-time. By the time we reach Ashbery, the soul has lost its promise of depth: “the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly.” But in Ashbery’s hands, what a stunningly gorgeous hollow it is.

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