Your Name Here

John Ashbery, Author
John Ashbery, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $23 (144p) ISBN 978-0-374-29598-1
Reviewed on: 10/02/2000
Release date: 10/01/2000
Paperback - 144 pages - 978-0-374-52783-9
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Ashbery may be America's most influential living poet, and its most widely admired. Traditional critics like Harold Bloom admire his lyrical flourishes of prophecy and regret; experimentalists, quite as justly, praise his verbal outlandishness and tonal intricacy, his comic moments and slippery transitions. Both will find much to like in this 20th collection, which (like much of his '90s poetry) combines flamboyant, temporary poses with serious explorations of mortality and nostalgia: ""If only I could get the tears out of my eyes it would be raining now,"" one page concludes: ""I must try the new, fluid approach."" Typically, a new Ashbery poem will zip and twist from context to context, person to person, from silly to sad to hopeful and back again. More than ever, Ashbery plays games with his readers--though the games frequently get called off midplay: ""Not You Again"" begins ""Thought I'd write you this poem. Yes,/ I know you don't need it.... Just want to kind of get it off my chest/ and drop it in the peanut dust."" Readers bowled over by some parts of this volume may find Ashbery's lesser poems too much alike, their whimsical stanzas not quite adding up. But the best poems here are one of a kind: the hilarious (and atypically coherent) ""Memories of Imperialism,"" for example, which imagines that Admiral Dewey (of Philippines fame) invented the Dewey decimal system. Among the jokes, mix-ups and quick costume changes, two constants are campy slang and a deep sense of loss: ""If all you want is kittens, come back later... `What if I said I want no kittens,/ just a big fat you?'"" Some will see, in the book's many versions of ""you,"" Ashbery's longtime partner Pierre Martory, who died in 1998, and to whom he dedicates the volume. A line of serious elegies and laments, emerging gradually and understatedly, leads at last to the astonishing, brief ""Strange Cinema,"" also dedicated to Martory. (Oct.)
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