cover image Quick Question

Quick Question

John Ashbery. Ecco, $24.99 (128p) ISBN 978-0-06-222595-5

When it comes to reviews, it’s become as problematic to challenge Ashbery’s work as to praise it. Part of the reason is that with every new Ashbery collection, we encounter moments of irreducible beauty—like when “tanks retreat/ as though the war was never meant/ and none of us were supposed to die as/ we in fact weren’t”—alongside moments of cringe-worthy irony and cliché (“Don’t try this at home” begins “Suburban Burma”). For a long time now the two have canceled each other out. And the elephant in the room, at least in the last 20 years, has been the question of whether Ashbery is leaning on his own style instead of continuing to push his boundaries as an artist. Here, for example, are a handful of titles from the collection, each of which banks on the double-entendre colloquialism that’s been a staple of conservative poetry since the ‘90s: “Quick Question,” “Feel Free,” “Puff Piece,” “Laundry List,” “The Short Answer,” “False Report,” “Words to That Effect.” On one hand, the genius of Ashbery’s work is that it’s always rippling and changing its colors: “Like a windup denture in a joke store/ fate approaches, leans quietly,” he writes in “A Voice from the Fireplace.” On the other hand, it stands to reason that constant change is itself a form of stasis. (Dec.)