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This article is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

A Wave Christopher Middleton

Reading John Ashbery's poems is a bit like playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M.C. Escher. The mansion is located in mid-city and mid-country at the same time, or from its pinnacles, at least, one can see across open country. Inside it, abrupt shifts occur between (semantic) levels. In various directions nonsequiturs spin off, phrasings of inspired concision telescope with prolix prosier ones. Yet the reader has to concede, perhaps ruefully, that bewilderment on his part must be his own problem, for the poems have an air of sovereign intelligence. Whatever else may happen to shiver the linguistic timbers, the syntax and the voice are coherent, cool, level-headed.

A Wave is Ashbery's eleventh book. Hardly any of the forty-four titles in it are, strictly speaking, thematic; so his themes and concerns have to be snatched, more or less, out of the aforementioned air. His time of life (57 this year) is one concern - the backward look longer than the forward one; the instability of his vibrant wealth of ideas; the opalescence of his kind of thinking, feeling, and perceiving; the spectacular aesthetic of surfaces, multiple, overlapping, with 'depths' apparent only as recessions in time, as 'the past absconds'; and there is death to come, love, painful or breathless, that comes or goes, and still says; another concern, even if the people in question are addressed but not portrayed here, is certainly the life of others, 'as they sashayed or tramped past/My own section of ...

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