Girls on the Run by John Ashbery

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SOME PEOPLE would rather chew a horse-hair blanket than read poetry. They don't ask what they're missing, but it goes largely by the name of John Ashbery. One of our century's funniest, most moving, and idiosyncratic poets, John Ashbery writes book-length antidotes to the same-old, same-old habits of daily conversation, reportage, and advertising. Ashbery is a journey agent, taking us on improvisatory expeditions of language where any appearance of rationality, that mode of thought that so dominates our age, is one only of semblance. While his grammar is complete -- the sentences end in familiar periods or question marks -- the meanings of his sentences are always deferred. Just as in our lives, where we aren't conclusive, where we change our minds and tell our kids one thing and then take it back as they argue and we speed along trying to make out the street signs to wherever it is we are driving them, in Ashbery's poems our focus never quite settles, but careens along, taking in this and that, the relevant and the extraneous, juggling it all at once:


Come, it's silver, children, the unbearable letdown
has gone under the hill to bide its time. Centuries shall pass away this way.
When we wake up it will be over. The motor will have started up,
and peas have been planted in Wyoming. Time grabs us
again, it's terrible, for a little while. And then it becomes more and more
like this
in its way. Then time broke off
discussions, they were shunted to Sheboygan, some mystery wolf came to
the appointment
instead, there were further negotiations, a child lay dying, there was more other
to be sad over, the whistle charged doom, its impact
was tremendous, light exploded. . .

We read Ashbery not for content -- newspapers and magazines allegedly offer us that -- but for the surge of thought, for wild inventiveness, for subtle emotional resonances, and for the sheer compelling delight of his language. Not for nothing has Ashbery been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His newest book,
Girls on the Run, is a long poem based very loosely on the works of "outsider" artist Henry Darger, a janitor and recluse who, the book jacket tells us, "toiled for decades at an enormous illustrated novel about the adventures of a plucky band of little girls." With reason, much has been made of Darger's astonishing work. When he died, his Chicago landlord discovered in his room a 15,145 page illustrated novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Hundreds of vivid watercolors depict the adventures of the girls and their struggles with sadistic soldiers called Glandelinians.

Throughout Girls on the Run, Ashbery's references to Darger's art thread together radical shifts in tone, quick-change juxtapositions of the campy, the philosophical, the lighthearted, and the poignant. But such references are fleeting and invariably spliced with other concerns. When Ashbery writes, for instance (with my underlining),

Sometimes they were in sordid sexual situations;
at others, a smidgen of fun would intrude on our day which exists to be intruded on, anyway.
Its value, to us, is incommensurate
with, let's say, the concept of duration, which kills,
surely as a serpent hiding behind a stump

we read the first sentence as though it were a description of Darger's paintings. Certainly, Darger's girls are sometimes portrayed in sexual situations, just as they are portrayed having "a smidgen of fun." But in Ashbery's sentence, the word fun doesn't connect with "they," the girls, but with "our day." (Ashbery's pronouns are always squirming around, and so are the subjects of his sentences). That bifocal sentence then veers into a conjectural statement about the value of day and the concept of duration, major themes in the poem as day turns to night, and life and time begin to run out on Darger's girls and on all of us. But this second sentence throws itself, at the end, onto a wholly unpredictable analogy. Where did that serpent come from?

Meanwhile, we see some of Ashbery's technical prowess. As our focus, the sentence's meaning, and Ashbery's associations all slip around like a hooked Potomac eel, the striking sibilance -- Sometimes sordid sexual situations, the ebb and flow of lovely, comma-measured clauses, and the regular chiming of long "a" sounds -- they situation day anyway say duration -- help establish a striking musical cadence. Just when we are prepared to expect another long "a" sound, none arrives. Instead we read through that serpent-line's hissing sibilance and through the forked long i's of hiding and behind. Finally we trip on the stubbornly unmusical concluding word, stump. Ashbery establishes a prosodic coherence only to abandon it. He stumps our presumptions time and again.

Clearly, Darger's work is only a jump-off point for the poem. Although Ashbery, who saw shows of Darger's work in Switzerland and New York, makes reference to returning "again to the exhibition," and although he sometimes seems to be narrating a story -- "To everyone's surprise the bus stopped./ Our stalwart little band of angels got on it, and were taken for a ride/ into the next chapter" -- Girls on the Run is neither critical nor illustrative except in the way that all important poems are critical in their revelation of language, and illustrative of the imagination.

Nevertheless, Ashbery introduces us, in the course of his poem, to characters named Shuffle and Dimples and Mr. McPlaster, to Farmer John and the Overall Boys. And we find ourselves in a landscape of sparking lawnmowers, sheep, Lollipop Mountains, and strange glyphs. With childlike insouciance, Ashbery personifies this world. He writes, "the sundial smiled in the rain, the stile/ beckoned, the sign said it was three miles." As Darger made use of cartoon figures, Ashbery co-opts a kind of cartoon diction: "Yipes,/ the general said." His surrealism -- "Dimples replaced the mollusk with shoe-therapy" -- and his inscrutable zaniness -- "Since Labor Day hardly any curls were outside/ on the ladies' heads, the ones who sold jelly-bean screwdrivers inside" -- also seem innocently childlike, at moments as radiantly joyous as lines by the mystical poet Thomas Traherne.

Yet, at the same time, "the climate is military," Ashbery insists. The imaginary war that rages through the world of Darger's Vivian girls and the real wars -- in Bosnia and Serbia -- between which Ashbery wrote this book overlay each other in images of aggression, darkness, and trouble. The ice-cream gnomes, glowworms, and skunks of the early part of the book are edged out by hyenas, leeches, bats, and wasps toward the end. In the gathering chiaroscuro of the closing sections, where references to night and darkness swarm, someone unnamed dies, Pamela is captured, a rout ensues, and everything begins to explode and break. We are told that "time broke off/ discussions," "light exploded all over the football field," a narrator "is all broke out," and "dogs broke off the game." Then, someone's "father-in-law blew up," a legend "had been broken off," a "really bright light exploded," "the flock took off/ like a shout," the speaker "broke off," and "Shrimp blew away." It is as though the eschatological winds that rip through the end of Garcia Marquez's novel, A Hundred Years of Solitude, have found their way into Darger's world, and through it, into Ashbery's and our own. While still splashed with Ashbery's irrepressible hilarity, with his punning and syntactical play, the end of the book seems increasingly skewed toward the thought that "we shall never reach land/ before dark"; that is, toward the writer's consciousness of mortality.

Reading Girls on the Run is a good deal better than chewing a horse-hair blanket. The book is, in fact, moving and tragic, original and uproarious. John Ashbery's poems have become an integral part of the lives of those who read poetry. He is one of the few authors whose every new book we await hungerly, with the feeling that our souls are leaning forward into something significant, refreshing, and transformative. Girls on the Run awaits your attention now, reader, with its incomparable, immaterial rewards.