For today’s blog on objects from Ashbery’s Hudson house, I thought I’d walk down the attic steps to the second floor landing. The landing is large. All the rooms on the second floor have doors off the landing. There are also two staircases off the landing: the main staircase, leading downstairs to the first floor landing, and a back staircase that leads to the kitchen. The landing is not only large but well-lit. It looks out onto enormous stained-glass windows (below is a picture).The stained glass adds a particular kind of light to the house; it gives the impression of giving off a lot of light without actually being too bright or direct. And, of course, there’s that connection with churches.
What these windows do to the objects in the house, in fact, is perhaps best explained by a quotation from William Davies King’s Collections of Nothing (U of Chicago Press, 2008). (I’m a big fan of this book and was pleased and actually not surprised to discover that King is a big fan of John Ashbery’s poetry. By the way, I noticed that Professor King will give a talk at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City on April 15, 2010: “Suited for Nothing: Collecting Second-Hand.”)
King makes a point about the collector, which suits a discussion of what the stained-glass light does to Ashbery’s real objects: “If the tendency of human thinking over the last three millennia has been to deanimate the objective world—to see the divine not in the wind or sun or trees but in abstractions—then the collector is a throwback” (32). Ashbery's house is a house; it functions as a place for living but it also provides a backdrop for thinking and there is definitely, at certain times of the day, a sense of the divine in the light coming through. And what does that divine light shine on?
One of the things it briefly illuminates is a Popeye wastebasket that sits on the landing under the desk that holds the telephone. Ashbery recently spoke about about this can: “This wastebasket has all the characters of Popeye. I bought it new, I think, in 1979…. this [garbage can] has all the characters in it that you don’t normally see. Well, there’s the Sea Hag. And there’s Professor O.G. Watasnozzle. Castor Oyl above Olive Oyl. Eugene the Jeep. Actually, the Jeep originated in Popeye this funny animal and in World War II, the army started referring to Jeeps as Jeep after Eugene the Jeep. Alice the Goon. There was a tribe of Goons that all had the same heads. John Sappo had his own strip for a while. Popeye’s mother who bears a close resemblance. Swee’pea and Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s father…” (21 July 2009)
also wrote about Popeye in “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” the (only ever)
Popeye sestina from The Double Dream of
Spring (1970). Here is stanza four:
"Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
Arpeggio of our years. . . "
The wastebasket did not precede the poem, but it comments on (and lists) some of the names that Ashbery’s poem initially revived. As King’s book smartly explains, collecting provides “the superior vocabulary needed to name the full strangeness of our world” (124). For Ashbery, collecting first occurs in the poem, which finds in Popeye’s vocabulary an available and underused source “to name the full strangeness of our world.” It seems fitting, then, that pieces of that vocabulary adorn a garbage can now used to collect scraps of paper with jotted notes from phone conversations that he later discarded.