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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Having a Party for Planisphere:
John Ashbery’s Reading Thursday Night, 12/3/2009

Eugene and I were at the NYU Law School, but not in the Tishman Auditorium, this ridiculously balmy early December night. Anxious ushers were separating poets from lawyers, sending us into a ballroom off to the right. There were expensive suits and dresses in the formal auditorium, but this was the Greenberg Lounge. We were one hour early, sitting on folding chairs that set rumps at a forward tilt after thirty minutes. Portraits of lawyers, mantelpieces, big old oriental carpets, plaster cartoucheries, and a gilt jug of poinsettias beside the lectern. Two blue bottles of Saratoga water. Before long, it looked like SRO. The bookstore rep set up his table: Planisphere is beautiful, exquisitely designed, cartoon blocks and art nouveau arabesques, and its two-page-spread title page mixes fonts: “JOHN” is like subway graffiti, “ASHBERY” a steampunk goth. Jeff Clark at Quemadura did the book design (read all about him:

John was off in a room somewhere signing copies. The back cover’s a really nice photo of him in front of his leaded-glass double front doors in Hudson, his hands on the back of a Chippendale: Jennifer May took the picture. Poems inside are alphabetical by title.

I love being one of the yentas by now, running around before the reading, kissing old friends as if I were at a bar mitzvah. Hi, Star, Marcella, Maggie! Piotr, Olivier—in town! David Shapiro and David Lehman said happy birthday, which they knew about because of FaceBook. Then Deborah Landau introduced, her students attentive in row two left, in reserved chairs. The director of NYU’s Creative Writing Program, Deborah thanked Lillian Vernon, Fred Hochberg, and the poet Tom Healy for their help, and mentioned the program of conversations with John, running through the spring term. She had recently visited John’s Hudson house, and remarked how it reflected his poetry’s juxtapositions of high culture beside low.

John began (“I was just thinking of how old I am”) by recalling that he’d been new in New York before the NYU Law School building had gone up; a friend had taken a picture of him that winter, in front of the site where they’d demolished old Washington Square brownstones prior to construction. “A very poetic photo, no doubt, in the snow, but I don’t know where it is now.” His voice is still clear, its upstate accent lending angles to the ironies of the poems, read with animation and with humor. As always, he sounded bemused, entertained, surprised, and engaged with the words on the page, as were his listeners. We were a big crowd, but the reading was a glass of champagne in hand for each of us: sparkly, intimate, nicely complex.

He started with poems from A Worldly Country, his last volume from 2007: “The Black Prince,” “Thrill of a Romance,” “Objection Sustained,” “So Long, Santa.” Then he read from Planisphere: “Circa,” “Decembrists” (the “no-see-ums” / “no-goodniks” lines are always fun), “Default Mode” (“They were living in America . . .”), “Episode,” “Floating Away,” “He Who Loves Runs Away” (its title from an operetta by Rudolf Friml, a composer celebrated by Ogden Nash—“I trust your conclusion and mine are similar: ’Twould be a happier world if it were Frimler”), “Idea of Steve,” and “Leave the Hand In.”

He told us that “Pernilla” was published in the New Yorker, but the fact-checkers there kept asking about the title. “It’s a woman’s name,” John would repeat, and they’d say, “Yes, but which woman?” A planisphere is a two-dimensional representation of a round surface, explained the poet; he’d thought he’d found the word for the title of the title poem in a love lyric by John Donne, but it turned out to be from Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love” ( “Sons of the Desert” takes its title from a Laurel and Hardy short, some of its lines from Antiques Roadshow. “They Knew What They Wanted” is a sure crowd-pleaser, its lines adopted and adapted from one of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Another movie-title poem title was “They Made Me a Fugitive,” which, he told us, was a great British film, directed by Alberto Calvacanti, but retitled I Became a Criminal when it was released in the United States ( He finished with “The Tower of London,” a comedy; and “The Winemakers,” a longer piece: “We were in a state / called New York, where only bees made sense.”

I think of John’s readings as continuations of the party that started with Kenneth, Frank, and John, with Jane and Jimmy, Larry and Willem, Alfred Leslie and Rudy Burckhart, at Harvard, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the Cedar Bar, or back in the apartment by the El, in Southampton, Chelsea, Paris, Hudson. There are martinis and movies and typewriters, art on the walls, and talk. It’s like the party at the end of William S. Wilson’s novel Birthplace:Moving into Nearness, a party described in a letter from a grandfather to his granddaughter:

I have been writing, and I am happy to be able to write, to tell you, Octavia, the words I hear in my head as I write, that we are having a party, and have been for some time now, and we want, with words I am trying to deliver alive from my heart, to invite you. You are welcome to join us in our consonance, at any time, to come as you are, to take potluck with us. Feel free to bring a friend, or partner. Don’t wait until you are ready.


My photo
Port Washington and Hudson, New York, United States
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