Girls on the Run: A Poem

John Ashbery, Author, John Asnbery, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $20 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-16270-2
This beautiful long poem presents Ashbery at his most contradictory: it is both his most Homeric and ""narrative"" long poem, yet at the same time his most joissant, collage-based work in years. It borrows from the imagery of Henry Darger (1892-1972), an American ""outsider"" artist who devoted decades to a mammoth, illustrated novel about the plight of the fictional ""Vivian"" girls. Ashbery's adaptation follows the adventures of dozens of characters with names like Pliable, Bunny, Mr. McPlaster, Uncle Margaret, and Fred--recalling ""Farm Implements and Rutabegas in Landscape,"" Ashbery's talismanic Popeye riff from the '70s. The sentences are often short, somewhat ""off"" (""Trevor his dog came, half jumping.""), and they set up deeply bizarre narrative situations: ""Hold it, I have an idea, Fred groaned. Now some of you, five at least, must go over in that little shack./ I'll follow with the tidal waves, and see what happens next."" Classic Surrealism erupts frequently in well-timed bursts: ""The tame suburban landscape excited him./ He had met his match./ Dimples replaced the mollusk with shoe-therapy."" Elsewhere, Ashbery jibes obliquely at the epic tradition, laconically laying down the blandest of similes with pseudo-stentorian bluster, while at other moments the meditative, universal Ashberian persona breaks through, with apt sophistication and terrible humanist relevance: ""The oblique flute sounded its note of resin./ In time, he said, we all go under the fluted covers/ of this great world, with its spiral dissonances,/ and then we can see, on the other side,/ what the rascals are up to."" More memory than dream--the never-was memory of constant companionship, of ""fun,"" of names that resonate with mystery (even ""Fred"")--the poem recalls a land that was never boring and whose physical environment, while somewhat foreboding, was as safe as the womb and as colorful as Oz. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/29/1999
Release date: 04/01/1999
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