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This review is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

THE WHOLE LIGHT CHANGES DANIEL KANE, We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Poetry and Cinema (University of Iowa Press) $39.95

Onstage: The Velvet Underground, performing ‘Venus in Furs’ or a lengthy cacophonous drone improvisation; a pulsating light show is being projected onto the band, along with scenes from Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, and bare-chested young poet-god Gerard Malanga is prancing around in the throes of his much celebrated whip-dance. Did John Ashbery ever attend a manifestation of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.

Perhaps it was here that a distant, slightly disdainful Ashbery reflected on the momentariness of novelty, the thin ice of contemporary culture and its ever-new preoccupation with sexuality and the sensational, wishing, or half-wishing, he was somewhere else entirely, listening to a baroque ensemble playing Bach, perhaps, but recognising, in any case, that

                                          The human mind
Cannot retain anything except perhaps the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden ‘dump’ or lament

It’s the evanescence of time-experience, its will o’ the wisp quality, its friable (grainy, crumbling) and fluctuant (dangerous, treacherous) character, that both captures him and seems to remove him from the immediate scene: a sort of wipeout experience, which he points to here in a characteristically filmic image: ‘But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes’.

Whether or not this is a true location for the opening of Ashbery’s long poem ‘The Skaters’, Daniel Kane’s We Saw the Light makes ...


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