John Ashbery, Commotion of the Birds (Carcanet, 2016)
John Ashbery’s final collection of poetry disguises itself well as a mid-career high. The energy and modernity of his strange little worlds tell nothing of his age. Its title speaks of the mysteriously disordered motion that characterises most of Ashbery’s poetry. ‘The Birds’ are identified as a particular set, shuffling and roused, perhaps on the brink of flight. This sort of identifiable point or precipice appears in almost every line of the poems as one image leaps into the next with unexpected and surprising results. In the title poem of the collection, Ashbery gives a sort of whistle-stop tour of artistic movements throughout the centuries as they measure up against modernity. We begin like the birds, in motion, ‘moving right along through the seventeenth century’ and are hurtled in and out of periods as they almost fall off the page, like the Baroque that ‘has a way of tumbling out at us/when we thought it had been safely stowed away’. As the poem comes to a stop, we stand in the modern as if we were always to arrive here, ‘wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition you weren’t meant to be somebody else’. Earlier in the poem Ashbery ponders whether seeming can ever be better than being, deciding that this ‘is a question best left to philosophers’ even though their conclusions are ‘often the same as the things we know’. So, although we might have been birthed into a world that threatens to drown us, alone as ...
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