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This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

J.A.’s Commotion
‘You’re so clear here’: John Ashbery’s Commotion
Colin Herd
READING John Ashbery’s Commotion of the Birds (2016) is an experience that seems as alive with possibility and potential as any of his previous collections, and thoroughly connected to current contexts of language. Baffled surprise and delight inhabit almost every line, and there’s barely a poem in the collection that doesn’t expand my lexical palette/palate. A partial list of words I looked up while reading it includes ephebe (a young man in military training), plugnutty (punchdrunk), jillions (zillions), gulches (ravines), haruspicate (foretell), acadian (French Louisiana), inspissates (congeals), montgolfière (hot air balloon), moyenâgeux (antiquities; middle ages), sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes) and czardas (Hungarian dance that starts slow and finishes wildly fast). It is in this sense, and others, that I think of Ashbery’s work as expansive, and commotion, with its suggestion of civil unrest, and its inner movement, (does commotion also mean an emotion felt together?), seems the ideal word to describe this effect. These poems set the ear – and the pages of dictionaries – aflutter; they enact the pitter-patter of tapping and clicking, a kind of WD40 for search engines, resisting language as static or fixed.

I think of these moments in the poems when the language seems to exceed itself as examples of what Édouard Glissant calls in Poetics of Relation ‘flash agents’, where there is an intensified meeting between cultures and where difference is manifest in language. Elsewhere in Betsy Wong’s translation she calls these moments in the language ‘agents of commotion’. To choose a word from a poem title, they might also be ...


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