Parallel Movement of the Hands (edited by Emily Skillings, with a foreword by Ben Lerner) by John Ashbery (Carcanet, 2021)
Reviewed by Tim Dooley
In her illuminating account of his early life, The Songs We Know Best (2017), Karin Hoffman dates the start of John Ashbery’s poetry writing life to 1943 when he was a teenager, writing under the influence of HD’s imagism. He would continue to compose poems until his death in 2017, publishing twenty-seven separate collections between Some Trees (1956) and Commotion of the Birds (2016), not including translations, selected or collected volumes. This prolific output was linked to the paradoxically inclusive nature of Ashbery’s writing. Open to a wealth of registers and tones, yet forbidding to readers seeking the closure of an easily paraphrasable ‘meaning’, his work (for all its surface urbanity) had an organic potential for growth and expansion that could seem limitless.
It’s no surprise then to discover that Ashbery wrote even more than he published. In Parallel Movement of the Hands, perhaps the first instalment of what exists outside the poet’s published canon, Emily Skillings – who worked as an assistant to Ashbery in the last decade of his life – has brought together five incomplete longer works from across the poet’s career. ‘Sacred and Profane Dances’ comes from the early 1950s, while ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’ was composed in the summer of 2007, with the other sequences worked on in 1993 and 2002. Whether these are unfinished or abandoned is a matter of conjecture. It’s possible that the poet may have found the structures he was working with intractable, but equally likely that he became distracted by new ideas.
Skillings suggests ‘Sacred and Profane Dances’ was written before 1952, placing it either during Ashbery’s Harvard years or soon after when he was working in New York, first as a librarian in Brooklyn and later as a publicist for Oxford University Press. It’s one of the more surprising pieces in the collection and one of the most approachable. Ashbery takes as his starting point the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from book twenty-five of Matthew’s gospel. In the moral fable told on the Mount of Olives, the foolish virgins are locked out of the wedding feast because they have failed to have oil ready in their lamps ahead of the surprise return of the bridegroom. It’s not surprising that, as a young gay man in the conformist fifties, Ashbery might be troubled by such a narrative of exclusion. The poem consists of two prose sections, ‘Attainder’ and ‘Sacred and Profane Dances’, to which Skillings has added the fragment ‘Tempest’ as ‘part of the same period of prose experimentation’, while conceding that it is unlikely to have been conceived as ‘part of the same project’.
‘Attainder’ sees the parable through the central figure of Compte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a mid-nineteenth century precursor first of decadence and later of surrealism. In Ashbery’s poem, Maldoror sees evil as cognate with éveil, ‘an awakening’ like the bridegroom’s return, and the soul as an aeolian harp played on ‘by all the winds of despair’ to be interpreted by ‘creative art’. The symbolic story is opened up to examine the social interactions and status structures that exist between the two groups of servants and the absent bridegroom. Finally ‘the true terror of the event slowly makes itself felt’:
Couldn’t God begin by forgiving those who are merely ‘led astray’ rather than those who stride confidently down the path toward evil, sneering and cursing at the legions of wishy-washy half-sinners they have left behind in their wake? Alas it doesn’t seem to work out this way. The hardened wrongdoers are if anything revered for their courage and impudence and end up as heroes, while the irresolute are punished ten times over, their appalling cries reminders of the evil of fickleness and dandyism.
‘Sacred and Profane Dances’ approaches the same material with a lighter touch, examining the unexplained aspects of the story, sniffing out contradictions, concluding that the cast-out virgins were ‘not really so silly but confused’. It could be said that part of Ashbery’s concern as a writer over the following two-thirds of a century was to demonstrate the ways in which confusion can be seen as a positive and productive category.
The second chronologically of the longer works collected here, ‘The History of Photography’, was written more than forty years after ‘Sacred and Profane Dances’ when Ashbery had progressed from his role as a gifted but puzzling outsider to a position of relative eminence, a winner of major literary prizes and a key influence on more than one generation of poets. His most recent collections Flow Chart (1991) and Hotel Lautréamont (1992) demonstrated the polarities of his art: the first unrolling energetically through continual shifts and surprises; the second exploring the tension between holding and failing to hold ongoing experience in lyric shapes.
As early as Some Trees (1956), Ashbery had played with paradoxes concerning stillness and movement:
They are amazing: each
Joining a neighbour, as though speech
Were a still performance. (‘Some Trees’)
‘The History of Photography’ allows Ashbery to return to this theme. For Roland Barthes, photography made its impact by capturing a ‘punctum’, an accidental point of stillness that prickles the viewer with the sense a particular truth. Characteristically perhaps, Ashbery’s focus is less on what the photograph captures than on what it misses – what occurs before or after the shot, what is outside the frame:
The first person to be photographed was a man
having his boots cleaned. There were others
in the same street, but they moved and became
invisible. How calm I am. (p 7)
The allusion is to a photograph by Daguerrotype and the need for long exposure in early photography if objects in front of the camera were to register fully. The apparent non-sequitur that follows is the first of a series of comments where the history of photography spills over into a personal history of insecurity:
I have been coming and going
a fair share of my life, and some of me is up there,
Then too, as much escapes me as a tailor’s dummy
in a photograph by Atget, taking in everything and nothing
which caused the rain to fall one day. (p 8)
‘The History of Photography’ is the most complete work in the collection, unfinished only in the sense that it was not prepared for publication, possibly excluded from And the Stars Were Shining (1994) on the basis that its title poem was also a longer work. In contrast the texts from 2002 (‘The Kane Richmond Project’ and ‘21 Variations on my Room’) lack completion in a more disabling way. Kane Richmond was a handsome screen actor (Skillings calls him a ‘dreamboat’) who specialised in B pictures, particularly ‘cliffhanger’ serials. Ashbery’s text collages elements of Richmond’s films (particularly Spy Smasher and The Adventures of Rex and Rinty, co-starring Rin-Tin-tin) with passages from mid-century children’s books (particularly the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series). The process seems to have run out of steam as Ashbery left the sequence to work on ’21 Variations on my Room’ in the middle of the year. The latter poem had an interesting plan, starting with a one-line poem and adding a new line for each ‘variation’. Ashbery seems to have had problems sticking to the plan, though, as the line-counting begins to go awry with the twelfth and thirteenth variations and the sequence is abandoned in the eighteenth, where it is already drawing in some of the Tom Hardy material. There is an attempt to return to the larger sequence, in a few mostly untitled pieces, before the poet moves on to other things. Even with this level of disorganisation, however, there are passages which show Ashbery clearly alert and on top of his material:
Sometimes it’s enough just to believe in what could happen,
and sometimes, to question that it ever could.
You and I are walking down the street together,
suddenly one of us isn’t there. Or it’s a street in winter,
it was never there. The truth and the means to oust it
never existed. (‘The Quitter’ p156)
The 2007 sequence The Art of Finger Dexterity’ seems an altogether more focused piece. It takes its title from Carl Czerny’s sequence of virtuoso practice pieces for the keyboard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtEji604V5k), which listened to now, with its minor variations in fixed patterns, can sound like avant-garde music. The programmatic titles (‘Clarity in Broken Chords’, ‘Crossing the Hands Naturally and with a Fine Touch’) and the music itself bring out a spritely touch in Ashbery, who was 80 at the time of writing:
you gonna know.
You gonna do.
You do something else.
Mais non, je t’adore.
(‘Delicacy in Skips and Staccatos’ p 56)
Ashbery completed poems for twenty-six of Czerny’s fifty titles. In his foreword, Ben Lerner suggests that ‘the resistance to finish is itself a unifying theme’ in Parallel Movement of the Hands, making each of the texts a ‘hymn to possibility’. Perhaps. What can be agreed is that it is good to have more of this extraordinary poet’s work to explore, to be confused by, and to wonder at.