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Houses of Poetry After Ashbery: the Poetry of Ann Lauterbach and Donald Revell


ISSUE:  Spring 1991

Critics have written much about John Ashbery’s relation to the poets who precede him but little about his influence on poets who follow him. I will argue here that two of the finest of the poets who have gone to school to Ashbery, namely Ann Lauterbach and Donald Revell, are now revising his vision to fit a more social context. I am especially interested in their use of houses as metaphors for poetry and for community. Where Ashbery abdicates the traditional metaphor of the house (associated as it is with community) as a location for poetic creation, Revell and Lauterbach in different ways reclaim the trope as the site for their poetry. Where Ashbery elides the problematic tension between confinement and freedom, form and the drive toward transcendence, Revell and Lauterbach both reinstall the problem and fail—or refuse—to go around it. Revell investigates the site of marriage, and marries Ashbery’s distrust of language’s instability with a more earnest desire for the confinements of poetic form. Lauterbach considers the house as the home of female creativity and wants the comfort of that tradition even as she means to get past its tyranny.

A sense of place is not what we have come to expect from John Ashbery, although the desire for one sometimes shows through. When asked by an interviewer if “homesickness [would be] an underlying sentiment in your poetry,” Ashbery replied, characteristically having it both ways: “I guess, but I grew up in Sodus, a small farm town in western New York State near Lake Ontario, and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there” (Joe Soap’s Canoe 13,1990). Ashbery’s poetic response to the problem of place is no less complicated; in one of his most extended meditations on the subject, “Houseboat Days” (1977), he evades the problem through a kind of collage that places an image for confinement on top of an image for freedom, rather than next to it. I am thinking in particular of Elizabeth Bishop’s fantasy of the house by the sea as a place of retirement, freedom in “The End of March,” from her last book, Geography III. In that poem she discovers that her “proto-dream-house, / . . .crypto-dream-house,” set on pilings, is boarded up, an impossible refuge. Ashbery’s extended meditation on place, “Houseboat Days,” the title poem to his 1977 collection, instead proposes a conflation of liminality with place; his is a house on the water:

              The mind
Is so hospitable, taking in everything
Like boarders, and you don’t see until
It’s all over how little there was to learn
Once the stench of knowledge has dissipated, and the
  trouvailles
Of every one of the senses fallen back.

In Shadow Train (1981) an opera house gives the poet access to the solitary nature of happiness; the metaphor is again oceanic, as if he attended a floating opera. The house becomes a metaphor not for communion with other concertgoers, but for solitude:

A few more might have survived the fall
To read the afternoon away, navigating
In sullen peace, a finger at the lips,
From the beginning of one surf point to the end,
And again, and may have wondered why being alone
Is the condition of happiness, the substance
Of the golden hints, articulation in the hall outside,
And the condition as well of using that knowledge

To pleasure, always in confinement?

Ashbery presses the house metaphor further in “Houseboat Days,” however, by extending it into the political realm, equating the fall of government with the dissolution of its house of parliament:

Pinpricks of rain fall again,
And from across the quite wide median with its
Little white flowers, a reply is broadcast:
“Dissolve parliament. Hold new elections.”

Yet the further he goes, the more need there is for retrenchment, for a conservatism at once literary and political to counteract anarchy; hence the poem’s final image is one of bland domesticity. Here is Ashbery’s latter-day aesthetic refuge, his palace of art:

       As the rain gathers and
  protects
Its own darkness, the place in the slipcover is noticed
For the first and last time, fading like the spine
Of an adventure novel behind glass, behind the teacups.

The poem’s trajectory diminishes steadily, then, as if one looked at transcendentalism through the wrong end of a telescope, seeing Blake’s grain of sand in the world rather than the other way around. In the world of Ashbery’s poetry, one might feel claustrophobia in an empty airport. For here absolute freedom resembles absolute tyranny; the hospitable mind is, after all, empty. Emptiness, as we know from “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” is for Ashbery a kind of muse:

               Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its
  desire to communicate[.] (Houseboat Days)

Has Ashbery dissolved the tension between confinement and freedom, or has he only created a new problem? For Revell and Lauterbach, Ashbery’s dissolution of the tension cannot work; this conflict is at the heart of both their poetic projects. Life is various, but the self in Ashbery’s work is ever solitary; the social fabric behind his work seems at times much too thin. Only in solitude, perhaps, can the poet dissolve these tensions. Revell and Lauterbach both write about their relationships with other people, Revell finding solace in confinement not just as a literary principle but also as a personal one; Lauterbach refusing to emancipate herself from the liminal spaces she investigates, including the erotic sites that Ashbery also tends to elide.

As readers of contemporary poetry and criticism are aware, a battle currently rages over Ashbery’s place in literary history; he has more places than I can mention here. His many ancestors descend in a paradoxical line through his lines; he is at once Romantic and poetmodern, conversational and abstract, often within the same poem. According to his major promoter, Harold Bloom, Ashbery is Wallace Stevens’ best ephebe; he is (again) the last Romantic—alongside Bloom. Lauterbach’s work comes out of Ashbery’s Stevens line, and her interrogations of tradition direct themselves at both poets.

But Ashbery himself has noted the influence of W. H. Auden. “One thing Bloom has ignored,” he told an interviewer, “although I’ve told him, is that I feel that Auden has been more of an influence than Stevens. Auden was the first poet to really speak to me . . . . At first I was really put off by the fact that he used ordinary everyday speech as the language of the poetry. And little by little I began to see the beauty of that” (Joe Soap’s Canoe). I see Revell’s work coming out of Ashbery’s Auden side rather than his Stevens side.

There are more differences than those of vocabulary between Auden and Stevens, of course. There is also the matter of the poet’s constructions of place and of form, the internalization of place into poetry. Stevens’ project is late Transcendentalist; mind supplants place in his poetry as it cannot do in Auden. Form there is in his work, but mainly in the engine of iambic pentameter that drives his blank verse forward. Auden is in that sense more modern and more postmodern, for his landscapes contain abandoned relics of the modern world, not to be looked away with a Stevensian whoosh of a verb. Places refuse to mirror the poet’s subjectivity:

This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being Spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.

Auden’s frequent use of repetition (he often uses the sestina and the villanelle forms) serves to highlight the way in which language writes through the poet. Form, more than content, or form as content, is for Auden the engine that recirculates tradition. Auden’s nostalgia for a Romantic landscape-mirror, paradoxically greater than Stevens’, is masked by his use of form. For form, as Auden and Revell know, can be used to frame the opposite of form; it can signify the formless and obsessional state of someone who grieves for something lost. In that sense, the greatest disorder expresses itself as order.

But let me begin with a point of contact between Revell and Lauterbach, two instances of their use of the house-metaphor to represent time, which is insubstantial. In “Psyche’s Dream,” from her latest book, Before Recollection, Lauterbach writes, and I quote at length:

If dreams could dream, free from the damp crypt
And from the bridge where she went
To watch the spill and the tree
Standing on its head, huge and rootless
(Of which the wasp is a cruel illustration

Although its sting is not), the decay
Now spread into the gardens, their beds
Tethered to weeds and to all other intrusions;
Then the perishing house, lost from view
So she must, and you, look out to see
Not it but an image of it, would be

Nowhere and would not resemble, but would languish
On the other side of place[.]

This last phrase echoes Stevens’ lines about the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is, although her literalization of the passing time/perishing house analogy is more radical than Stevens’ use of the snow man, whose melting we are not privy to. What we gain, as well, are the two pronouns—not just “you must have a mind of winter,” but “she must, and you, look to see” it. Here is Revell, from “St. Lucy’s Day”:

History is laughing all the time,
shaking the little bridge between itself
and islands of freedom, the remote tribes there
talking themselves into a frenzy, forgetting
the one history lesson that matters.
The present is easy. It hangs there
like a rough pendant in the shape of a house.

The house in this passage already is an image, hanging “like a rough pendant” around the neck of history, which is annexed to “islands of freedom” by a “little bridge.” Yet Revell’s house, like Lauterbach’s, while it partakes of what Lauterbach terms “the other side of place,” is also a place—a place where he is holding a party:

You press a door. Everything inside is too small
to hurt you, easy to walk around
in ideal floor plans—tract house, cloister,
brownstone. Even easier to stand
at the sink and to consider your options.

Here Revell situates the metaphorical next to the literal, translating from his situation to ideas about his own place:

As the yard fades, is it too late for me
to stagger through the window towards the dark house
at the fenceline, which is to say the past,
those uneasy rooms? Or better to fall
backwards into the deep end of the night ahead?

“So,” he writes, “my lifetime gutters between two real lives”; so, too, does his image gutter between essence and idea, between house and Home, “which I shall never reach . . . / dark, slow, and filling with days that will not get longer.”

Yet, although Revell uses the house as a metaphor for memory, which can be at once comforting and terrifying (see his brilliant poem, “Charleston,” among others), he feels a nostalgia for houses, rooms—just as his use of form seems at times “older” than the content of his poems. In “The Next Marriage,” he writes that he has “taken a room,” and tries to imagine a life at once various and confined, wondering: “Is it so wrong to want as many lives // as even a room has?” And this may be why he turns to Dickinson, describing her mirror in Amherst:

     Looking into it head on,
I feel contained and ready to understand
the short lines’ skewed New England syntax mouthed
into so strict a frame.

This, we should note, defines Dickinson’s confinement more than her freedom. Revell’s second book, The Gaza of Winter (1988), begins from dispersal and chronicles his attempt, more anxious than Lauterbach’s, to be secure within a house. His sense of dispersal is disturbingly literal, like a shaman’s; in “Why History Imitates God,” he describes the parts of torsos that he collects:

For my own comfort, I press my face against them.
It makes the bronze strange and that eases
the occult poverty of the hour,
a body smaller than mine. I’m poor. My house
has no hands or legs and the near silence
of the statues dies away as I move closer.

This metaphor of his house of broken statues is a literalized metaphor of the self as a house, like the perishing house that Lauterbach describes. But freedom from the house is merely the freedom to be in another house or in another room of the house, as Revell knows, which is really no freedom at all:

It is safer elsewhere with limbs, in other houses.
I want to be set free in the next room
to press my face against the strange heat
of bronze whose silence could not love me less.

The poet’s loss of his marriage, a metaphorical place, leaves him “Balkanized”: like Auden in “The Secret Agent,” he knows how to use the Cold War as an objective correlative for personal loss. His Gaza is exile, liminal as any shore, but also a place of political displacement. If a marriage is Gaza, it is also a place of repetitions, themes, and variations. Revell uses forms of repetition, such as villanelles and sestinas, or variations on them, to show how obsessions are the mind’s own places, and the way that loss can be strangely refigured as poetic gain, as in the self-reconstructing phrase, “I have lost.” There is deeply ironic nostalgia in his desire for an occupied city, not a free one. He writes, in “Prague,” a poem that is characteristically “closed” in its form, and where phrases are repeated in different contexts, as if better to close the possibilities of meaning:

          I once lost everything
who was the one person I loved in a free city.
In the Balkans I can free her again.

Yet Revell’s use of form bespeaks his desire to break it; he means to break form, to get things wrong, and so to misname the world. He writes in form, it seems, only so that he can subvert form. In “Descriptive Quality,” he writes:

Spite the wind. Describe it wrong, knowing each partisan inaccuracy to be a blow against the treaty of air that bends solid, helpless things into stick figures and then mistakes the little sticks for words.

Like Hart Crane, in “A Name for All,” Revell believes that names mutilate the objects they pin down:

Malice is the country home of names
and of the isolations they describe.
All the sad mishaps unfold out there
in every room of the huge house, in weak light.
The shadows lunge into silence. Everyone

Except a vacant-eyed young man drifts off
into the twilit, deep garden. He lifts
a china bowl with both hands and calls it flower,
shattered, twilit leaf, or any other
solid, helpless thing that he has seen.

To alter the language is, of course, to alter the self and to risk the very vacancy that afflicts this new Adam in his lonely attempt to rename the world. Poets more radical than Revell could well criticize him for not performing this act himself, but instead for rendering it as parable, not fact. But what Revell does is attempt to reshape the words we do have, even as he acknowledges their desire to steer him elsewhere. His poems are dramatic in the conflict that they present between the language-as-self, and the self as a user of words. He revels in the strictures of language only because he sees words as the only way out; he is in that sense more conservative than the Language poets, who aim to burn the house down. But Revell shows us, better than the Language poets, how we can write poetry that, even as it knows itself dictated by language, still tries to use that language instrumentally, employing it as an instrument of desire, not desiring only what it offers us. His obsessive desire to keep the self whole may seem to some nostalgic, but I suspect that it is, ultimately, a nostalgia worth having.

Lauterbach’s use of the house is complicated by her gender, for limitations—and poems—have been historically male constructions:

Garden, hedge, pool,
Planned to guard the old line, define
And compose the imagination’s brown capacity.
Our extent is more than memory
Or the text of a poem willed to the wall
Although our tenacious forebears whisper
Collections, passed from father to son to son
While mother prunes.

That the “old line” is poetic as well as social is especially worrisome for a female poet; that the poem, like the “will,” enforces limits means that her poems must resist those same kinds of limitation. “It is not the dark that scares me, but the limit / which places the house in the field, the horse in its stall.” Hers will not be the “garden, hedge, pool”—the Eden of social memory—but the house itself. For Lauterbach, to be at home is both a blessing and a curse, for it metaphorically represents a feminine line of creation at the same time as it closes her out of Whitman’s open road. She attempts to get past this impasse by opening her house to infinitude, as Dickinson did. In “Naming the House,” she posits the conflict between a “longing for dispersal” and the “joy of naming it this, and this is mine”:

And I think also of how women, toward evening,
Watch as the buoyant dim slowly depletes
Terrain, and frees the illuminated house
So we begin to move about, reaching for potholders
And lids, while all the while noting
That the metaphor of the house is ours to keep
And the dark exterior only another room
Waiting for its literature.

This poem is an apt response to Dickinson’s poem about the differences between prose and poetry, confinement and freedom, which is built on the metaphor of a house:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors—

where it becomes clear that Dickinson is describing a house not circumscribed by walls, but by the sky:

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Cambrels of the Sky—

Just so Lauterbach sees the outside as “only another room” and the poet as someone who “dallies now in plots / But feels a longing for dispersal[.]” We can read “plots” as plots of ground, as grave-plots, or as the prose that represents for Dickinson and for her the genre of confinement, the woman’s genre. The word “household” tells the story nicely.

Where Ashbery seems content to evade the question, posed so incessantly by Stevens, of the relation between reality and imagination, between place and the thoughts we have about it, Lauterbach is not: she personifies this dualism as “Bishop” and “Beckett” in “St. Lucia.” “Elizabeth Bishop” she uses to mean a reverence for the place itself; “Samuel Beckett” to mean the allegorization of place. The dualism does not, of course, bear too much scrutiny, something that Lauterbach doubtless knows well enough as she places herself between them:

The sea, solitary or not,
Implies the confines of a dream.
I’m between Beckett and Bishop,
The one entirely in, the other there
Civilizing Brazil, clarity to clarity.

Lauterbach’s conversation with Stevens is ongoing, but nowhere so compelling as in “Carousel,” where she takes on Stevens’s “Idea of Order at Key West” and Ashbery’s early poem, “The Painter,” from Some Trees. This poem, like so many of Revell’s, works by repetitions of key images, the working of language apart from human agency. Stevens’ woman/artist, we recall, ordered the sea through her song:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves[.]

Where Stevens gives us an image of a woman walking beside the sea, Ashbery, in his sestina “The Painter,” gives us an image of the artist as the sea—an image that he comes to acknowledge is dangerous. The mechanical working of the poem reflects the inhuman machinations of the painter’s scene:

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject! . . .
Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowed [sic] buildings.

Both the painter and his painting are thrown off the tallest building, and are devoured by the sea, which had been his subject.

Lauterbach presents herself as both the agent of order and as someone who distrusts order. It is she, seemingly, who sets Ashbery’s painter right, In “Carousel,” where she wears the sea’s sleeves:

I like masks, deeper shades of blue,
How it concludes black.
A swimmer is adorned with one arm
Rising out of the blue.
A man in the sea.
A painting of a man in the sea.

I like the way it comes out of the blue.
The horse rises and falls; my sleeves are waving.
It is not dark that scares me, but the limit
Which places the house in the field, the horse in its stall.

The man in the sea is again the same as a painting of the man in the sea, but without the chaos portended in Ashbery’s poem. Instead, what frightens this poet is precisely the opposite, the limits that Ashbery had so blithely erased in his poem. The image with which she ends the poem preserves the contrast between limit and limitlessness:

Over her shoulder, the painting depicts will.
Staring at the view, she has a sense of place
And of omission. The ways in which we live
Are earmarked for letting go, and so
She makes her descent, plucks it, rises into the blue.

Lauterbach’s resolution of the problem, then, is its revaluation; the poet’s job is to trace, “The syntax of solitude . . ./ To witness versions that clock and petal, / Enfolding instances.” This clocking (mechanical) and petaling (organic) are the edges of the liminal space in which Lauterbach operates; it is a house, but one that perishes before her eyes. “[T]he soul’s haphazard sanctuary” is more like Stevens’ dump than like Dickinson’s house, but the final chamber promises, even if it does not deliver, revelation:

     We might think of this as a blessing
As we thrash in the nocturnal waste:
Rubble of doors, fat layers of fiber
Drooping under eaves, weeds
Leaning in lassitude after heavy rain
Has surged from a whitened sky.
Thunder blooms unevenly in unknowable places
Breaking distance into startling new chambers
We cannot enter; potentially, a revelation.

This comes from the first poem in the book, “Still.” The last poem, “Sacred Weather,” describes “a gathered dispersal”— rather like Hart Crane’s “slip of pebbles” in his last poem, “The Broken Tower.” This is an elegy for her father, “whose sleeve was last seen bound to a wing,” in that liminal space he shares with Stevens’ last philosopher in Rome. The moment of transcendence she describes as a place, a landscape:

Nevertheless a balance forms, its crest
The start of radiance like that grassy limit
Or shore. Certain early episodes rub,
Curiously nearby, poised to ensue.
A pale linearity hangs a new surface in the air
Like a mute plow stretching the light.

In the poem’s final section, Lauterbach uses puns (pine and pain is one) to show how language itself becomes “a new surface in the air.” But more telling is her use of the word “refrain” in what follows, the final lines in Beyond Recollection:

May have ceased to pine.
Stasis is an attribute, domain of the lily.
Even the sky gives color up,
An ecstasy too slight, less than free.
I myself long to refrain
But would bleed and bless
Robe opening on slowly mounted stair.

That she longs to refrain bespeaks a double, and contradictory, desire; to read the word as a verb indicates a desire to cease, even to die. Yet poetic refrains are precisely those passages that repeat themselves, and the poetic act is itself one of repetition. Her final image, likewise, speaks both of death and of eroticism, of enclosure and of opening.

Are Revell and Lauterbach, then, mere backpedalers in the literary history now creating itself around us? Have they quailed at the radicalism of Ashbery’s project, which seems in so many ways both late Romantic and postmodernist? This is perhaps not for any of us to say—yet. But, if Ashbery seems the darling of deconstructionists, his poems (like “Houseboat Days”) undoing themselves as purposefully as Penelope’s tapestry, then Lauterbach and Revell will surely appeal more to critics wanting to stop the gaps in deconstruction’s logic. Certainly they will not be the darlings of New Historicists— they are too Ashberyan for that—but they may show us how Ashbery’s model can be revised to include social, even political, contexts. For, even if Revell and Lauterbach trade more in metaphor than in fact (Revell’s Gaza is not that of the PLO, to one reviewer’s chagrin), their metaphors are grounded more consistently in the social and political realm than are his. If these two poets do not give us the radical wealth we are accustomed to in Ashbery, they at least give us hope that we can, still, make coherent selves for ourselves.

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