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This review is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

THE PATHOLOGICAL FALLACY John Ashbery, Hotel Lautreamont (Carcanet) £7.95 pb
C.K. Williams, A Dream of Mind (Bloodaxe) £6.95 pb

'A yak is a prehistoric cabbage', Ashbery asserts at the opening of 'Notes from the Air', and there are many similar (if that's the word) mutations or substitutions in this collection. One hankers for the comparative orderliness of Ovid's Metamorphoses as introduced into the second part of 'The Waste Land', the expression of a deep underlying coherence within anarchy which, however threatening, is easier to live with than Ashbery's habit of evoking a deep underlying anarchy within coherence. If at this point one switches off one's intelligence and curiosity altogether, one can get a glimmer of why the reviewer Peter Reading might describe this collection as a waste of trees. But of course the very form his testiness takes concedes the point: trees get transformed into books in a continuum of endless change - 'a tree in the room', as poetry is described elsewhere in Hotel Lautreamont - and no poet explores such gains and losses more consistently and rigorously than John Ashbery:
 
Some time later, in Provence,
you waxed enthusiastic about the tail
piece in a book, gosh how they
don't make them like that in this century,
   any more.
They had a fibre then that doesn't exist now.


And no poet sees more clearly the resulting problem of: 'The theme, unscathed,/ with nothing to attach it to'.

Richard Dawkins, in his book on evolution, The Blind Watchmaker, doesn't mention yaks and cabbages but ...


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