John Ashbury is a poet I’ve had a love and hate affair with, in this dream I’ve been having, for almost forty years. I mean, ever since I foolishly decided to devote my life to poetry, almost forty years ago, long before I started having the episodes!

When I read him it sounds like he is just talking to me, but then I can’t understand for the life of me what it is he is talking about, in the general sense. It is very disconcerting. It is the solstice and it is jumping on you like a friendly dog, and you can’t get it to stop, it’s frustrating.

I mentioned this to my poetry teacher at the Cascadia Senior Living and Development Home, and she said that this is really the nature of poetry, to understand even while not understanding, I think. She said that this idea actually goes back to the Fugitivists, of the 1930s, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who wanted to have slavery again and who with their avante-gard theories paved the way for so-called postmodernism poetry, which started in the 1970s, with W.S. Merwane, Amy Lowell, and Borat Waten. Then, not long after that, Mr. Ashbury “happened,” and like a giant asteroid strike, our teacher said, laughing. (Which is not really funny, because a giant asteroid could certainly end us at any moment, even as you are reading this review, in fact). There is a line Mr. Ashbury writes and one dearly hopes he is right. It is this: The house took a direct hit but it didn’t matter; the next moment it was intact, though transparent.

I want to say some things myself about Mr. Ashbury (with whom I had a close encounter of the Third Kind, as it were, which I will soon divulge below), in preparation of my final 100+ page paper on him for the avante-gard workshop here at Cascadia, and I will include some brief parts of that paper in this review, to give you an exclusive peek of it. But the thing I will relate first, because it just occurs to me, is something funny, which maybe no one knows about!

A younger friend of mine, who is a new member here at Cascadia’s poetry group, though he’s not that much younger, used to be friends with a now famous and awarded American poet, who is a very suave and charming character, he said. Actually, this new friend of mine used to travel to a bunch of countries with this famous poet. On one of these trips, while drinking and hookah smoking at a hotel reserved for tourists near a medieval bridge in Benghazi, Libya, at a State-sanctioned conference by the sea, in 2008, not too long before the gruesome death of Mr. Gaddafi there, he said that the famous poet, more than a tad into his (tourist-permitted) brandy sifters, told an enthralled group that he’d once hosted a big party at his home in Providence, following a reading at his university by Mr. Ashbury!

As the famous poet related, when he courteously began (because he was the host and it was his house) to introduce Mr. Ashbury to the President of his university, the poet (though he wasn’t so famous at the time) said, Welcome President [So and So], I would like to introduce you to our very special reader at the Writing Arts Program tonight, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circling Award, Mr…. Mr…. uh, Mr…. oh shit, Mr…. oh my god, ha ha, ha ha, sorry, I didn’t mean to say shit, um (looking desperately at Ashbury), I am having a panic attack and have forgotten your name… oh dear. Then John Ashbury looked at this now famous poet and said, with a wink, It’s John Ashbury, my handsome boy. Oh my god, oh my god, I am SO embarrassed!! the now famous poet recounted saying, to his audience, there in Libya. Thoroughly delighted by the way the famous American poet so modestly poked fun at himself, everyone–including the grim government minders posing as nice poetry curators–laughed and laughed on the terrace hotel bar that looked out on the tranquil North African sea, with the modernist-arabesque prison for dissidents whitely gleaming on the rocky point not too far away. A nightmarish torture den, in fact, soon to be torched to the ground by victorious rebels.

But none of this is my main concern. My concern is how do we understand a great poet like John Ashbury, who talks to us as if he is directly talking to us, but yet we have no idea what he is really talking about??

Actually, Ashbury once said the following, and it backs up my point to a henbane-flavored lozenge: “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern,” signed, John Ashbury. So it seems to me that what you have to do is not talk about everything at once, which usually ends up being confusing, but to read each poem for its own self, like the Fugitivists did, and try to describe it as best as you possibly can, reading it very closely, with the book right up close to your eyes! And when you do, you will see that his poems are totally polyphonic and idiosyncratic–always unmistakably his, yet each is its own experience, an individual living aardvark, or anteater, you could say.

“The Painter,” por ejemplo, which is a sestina (a kind of poetry with fourteen lines) he wrote the summer before his senior year at Harvard, the young couples through the giant windows graciously stopping beneath umbrellas on the single cantilevered span. The oldest poem he included in his Yale Junior Poets Prize-winning debut, Unos Arboles, “The Painter” offers an early “self-portrait,” anticipando many of his work’s most enduring stylistic elements–his rubbery, recursive sense of lenguaje and estructura, for example, or his rich, ongoing dialogo with arte visual. Even as in the night of the Museo, some whisper like stars when the guards have gone home. Most important, however, it’s his first articulation of his major subject: la dificultad de comunicación, of representing one’s visión del mundo. In the final stanza, the envoi (a stanza in poetry that is composed of only six words), the painter has become the portrait. Again, es cuando esperamos the drying that we all get lost.

Or take “Soonest Mended.” Like many of Ashbury’s earlier philosophical lyrics, its style is deliberately maximalist, as they say, bristling with cultural bric-a-brac and abstruse reasoning that may sometimes leave us “confused / About how to receive this latest piece of information.” But this obscurity is part of its subject and integral to its inquiry!!! Influenced by Ashbury’s time in Albania, where he studied surrealism with Raymond Roussel and experimented with Dadaist composition, the poem refuses easy wisdom and linear thinking, like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets criticized! Sort of like someone who suddenly says, People are buying store-dolls.

Or finally, take “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Published in 1975, John Ashbury’s seventh collection of poems remains the only book to ever win all three major awards, as I earlier said—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circling Award—in one year. Its title poem is an ekphrastic (this means a poem written about an Abstract Expressionist illusion) masterpiece, discoursing on its central subject, a Parmigianino abstract expressionist painting from 1924, even quoting outside sources without reference, like maybe I am also, actually. But in the Parmigianino, the very first mirror portrait, Ashbury discovers not only a reflection of the covert, unacknowledged Marxist Reflection Theory underlying his poetics, but also a figure (paradoxical as it may seem) for the post-Marxist condition. Orbiting the sphere of the mirror, like Major Tom in Elton John’s unforgettable song, the speaker reckons with the painting’s “secret,” the same one many writers of the 16th century struggled with: the belief “that the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and fits / Its hollow perfectly. Like an apple or severed head on the ground, it gazes up at you.”

So those are a few of my reflections on some poems by John Ashbury. I could go on and on, of course, just like him, but this is only a review where I wanted to share some thoughts from the upcoming, longer paper I am doing for my Cascadia class, which I hope to publish in Poetry Magazine, where I have had some friendly contacts for the last ten years, or so! But here is the truly incredible thing I have been leading to:

It so happens that, about thirty-four years after I decided to devote my life to poetry, which would make this maybe five years ago, I was at Harvard University, shortly before my diagnosis of so-called senioritis (see above, page nineteen). I had made pilgrimage to Boston to visit Old Ironsides, the legendary ship of the Revolutionary War, Captained by Allen Tate, the grandfather of the surrealist poet James Tate, discussed by you! And I thought, let us go to visit Harvard and the grand building where the English Department is, where so many famous poets once taught, I could still make it back for the 4 PM tour. And so I did and started walking around this massive building, with old marble busts of many famous poets: all the Fugitivists, and T.S. Eliot, and Walt Whitman, and Robertson Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishops, and Rod McKueen, and Susan Polis Schultz, if that was her, I think it was, and Anne Bradystreet, and many others.

And then, just as I was starting to feel really small and not worth a dog turd in poetry, the most incredible, dreamlike thing took place. At the far end of the hall were three other white folks, just like me and like all the Poet-busts, each with an aura of lovely rose all around them, though maybe it was just the fluorescent lights. One (as I could see thanks to author photos from APR), was Steven Bert; the other was Jorie Grahan. Imagine!

I nervously approached them, pinching myself to wake up, to no avail, mulling over whether to present myself or to pretend being an advanced student in Al Feelreit’s ModPo Coursera Inc. course, walking gently, so that my heels did not too-loudly click on the ancient marble floors. And as I got closer, why, who do you think was the third person? It was John Ashbury!! I couldn’t believe it. He had a ridiculously big beard in the hipster style of back then; sported a snappy fedora; a loud, clown-like paisley suit; a large bow tie, and pink shoes. A true dresser! Something of a dandy myself, I found it rather charming. And as I was passing by, I heard him say to Steven Bert (clearly also a dandy) and Jorie Grahan (lots of bracelets) that someone (I can’t remember the name) had just recently plagiarized his masterpiece tome, DAY, by buying up many copies and sticking their own name on the cover and spine of the book, as if it were their own writing!

What a fucking creep that guy is, I heard Mr. Bert say. Yes, said Ashbury, he’s a cockroach, and he’s got a little Conceptual surprise coming. I’m going to lay him out on a dissecting table with a sewing machine and rearrange some things. Give it to the bastard where it hurts and good, said Ms. Grahan. I was surprised and somehow comforted by Mr. Ashbury’s angry tone, because his poems are always so placid, and I almost turned around and asked for his autograph and to also ask him who this “creep” was, offering to help in any way I could, including physically, given my military experience with the Shining Path, in Peru, in the 1990s! But, alas, I got cold feet, why does this social anxiety strike me always in the worst moments.

Oh, I wish now I had summoned the courage, to have held his hand, looked him in the eyes. And I wish I were able to share this review with the great Mr. Ashbury himself, because I have meditated on his poetry, as you can tell, for a long, long time, and I think I have some important insights to share with the world! Would he agree?

Alas, it is too late to ever know. The sump pump is busted. And, so, very carefully, he slid open the small door in my chest and withdrew a heart-shaped disk. And then I get this feeling of exaltation.

I thank you very kindly for your attention.