CHINESE WHISPERS

John Ashbery, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $21 (112p) ISBN 978-0-374-12257-7

Ashbery's most recent style—equal parts cracked drawing room dialogue, 4-H Americana, withering sarcasm and sleeve-worn pathos—has been perfected over five or so books and adapted by generationally diverse poets from James Tate to Max Winter. The late Kenneth Koch's description of Ashbery as "lazy and quick" remains thoroughly apropos; these 61 page-or-two poems can seem brilliantly tossed off, much like those in his 2000 collection, Your Name Here. The title is appropriate too: Chinese Whispers is the British name for the game of Telephone, where children (or adults) gather in a circle and whisper a "secret" word or phrase into the ear next to them. The last person says it out loud; the results are often "off" in funny, surprising and telling ways. The surprise, in poem after poem, is that high and low comedy and offhanded delivery can read like simultaneous expressions of pain and regeneration—and that they do not dull after multiple permutations are spun out: "The beginning of the middle is like that./ Looking back it was all valleys, shrines floating on the powdered hill,// ambivalence that came in a flood sometimes, though warm, always, for the next tenant/ to abide there." As with all Ashbery's work, these poems leave plenty of room for readers to abide. (Oct.)

Forecast: This is Ashbery's 24th book of verse, and 11th since his Selected Poems. While the essays collected in 2000 as Other Traditions were warmly received, the two books of poems that followed 1999's Henry Darger–inspired Girls on the Run got less attention. The release of this book comes a few months after Ashbery's 75th birthday; look for reviews that trace the continuing arc of his work.

Reviewed on: 08/19/2002
Release date: 10/01/2002
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