When I moved back to Cincinnati in 1975, I began collecting Cincinnati quotes—references to the city in books, magazines, the popular media, etc. Sort of along the lines of Berryman’s reference to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in one of his Dream Songs: “I saw in my dream the great lost cities, Macchu Picchu, Cambridge, Mass., Angkor … “ Or Eliot’s, in a letter to, I believe I remember correctly, Conrad Aiken, or was it MacLeish: “Cambridge seems to me a dull nightmare now … “ Of course, Cincinnati wasn’t as bad as all that—and it was certainly prettier than Cambridge—so I was just being defensive. I’d put off adulthood for as long as I could; it was just that starting out seemed worse here. Staring into the dark, empty Ohio night brought to mind Nietzsche’s abyss—except, instead of staring back at you, it fell asleep.
Hence, my Cincinnati quotebook. A particularly good one was Wilfred Sheed’s crack, made in The NY Times Book Review, which I quoted in my last post. There were many others; I really do have them in a notebook somewhere. But my all-time favorite was one from a TV series I never watched an episode of, though I saw the particular excerpt not once but twice. Serendipity, of a sort. It was from a Columbo scene, in which the rumpled, passive-aggressive sleuth knocked on the hotel door of a high-priced hooker played by Valerie Harper. Valerie’s character was pretty jaded, and she was expecting a customer from Ohio, a dentist, I think. When she opened the door, instead of the condescending sonofabitch who was going to namby-pamby her ass into admitting something crucial, she saw a crumpled ball of repression from the hinterlands. She left the door open, turning away and waving him in, as she flung back patronizingly over her shoulder, “Oh, don’t be so Cincinnati!”
“Don’t be so Cincinnati!”! From Valerie Harper! We were being condescended to by Rhoda, for god’s sake! That was brutal, a new low. But this was the hotbed of provincialism that John Ashbery, the most sophisticated poet on the planet, the Genius of the Age, flew into in the winter of 1979, to be the Elliston Poet-in-Residence for ten weeks.
I’d begun reading John’s work in 1970, introduced to it by David Schloss, starting with The Double Dream of Spring, a life-changing experience for me. I suppose I should say I didn’t have a clue about the work, but in truth I had many clues; your life doesn’t change without clues. But I was staggered and perplexed and in awe of those poems. More than that, I was thrilled. What I felt but couldn’t say then was that we’ve got it turned around: the unconscious isn’t images we try to find language for, try to describe. The unconscious is language, words working together below conscious restriction and ordering. The whole word, if you will, wholly felt. Words bond in the unconscious, creating pictures for us, or pathways of new logic.
So I didn’t look at words as flat, two-dimensional, but as many-sided, with volume, capable of combining in a multitude of possibilities. Remember that toy from way back when, the Magic 8 Ball? It had a many-sided ball in it (an “icosahedral die”—I looked it up!), on whose flat planes “answers” had been printed in raised metal letters, that floated in black ink. You asked it a question, then tilted it to one side, and read the answer. One can only see the top of the word on a printed page, but there were many more sides to it in the ink below. I saw JA’s language as containing this power—my pathetic description of it pales in the face of its dynamism, its depth and range—yoked to surface recognitions of sentence structure, pattern, clichés, pastiche, etc. John’s process to me seemed the essence of “negative capability,” and his work a prodigious poetic achievement that would begin to come clear to us over the next fifty years or so. Anyway, I thought The Double Dream of Spring was a great book, the depths of which were—to me, certainly, at 22—unfathomable, inexhaustible, yet palpably glorious and overwhelming as I held it in my hands and read it.
Okay, so I’m a fan. So sue me. But these were some of the thoughts I had in mind when, a better part of a decade later, I entered the room where John sat, in a suit and tie, his belly churning with the aforementioned chili, his mind trying to drop down low enough to take in a confrontation with our chairperson, the aforementioned horsewoman from the Tidewater area of Virginia, and her riding crop. She’d been determined to make damn sure John Ashbery—despite (or maybe because of) the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize, and a resume from Hell-On-Wheels—wasn’t some city slicker who could just waltz in here like any ol’ body and pull the wool over our eyes! We were the “Harvard on the Ohio,” after all! John smiled weakly as I sat down, and said, “Is she always like that?” I laughed. I don’t remember which of us used the term “Professor Montezuma,” but I did reassure him it was safe to drink the water here.
For years, decades, really, I counted time by Elliston residencies; but spending time with JA stays in my heart for the sheer fun we had. John was hilarious, brilliantly witty, of course—punning at three or four levels, in a couple of languages, is fairly standard—but a Cincinnati residency in those days cut you off from your life, your friends, your routines, and the loneliness that can develop wasn’t uncommon. So we spent a lot of time drinking and, um, “inhaling,” and hanging out. John would bring a record over to play, and we would get zonked and listen to the Firesign Theater or Monty Python. This is how I got to know Dame Edna Everage (“I’m just a woman, who loves other women/I’m funny, that way …”; “The Night We Burned Mother’s Things”), and her partner, Norm—stoned, and singing along, of course. God knows what we sounded like. One day I got free tickets to see The Deer Hunter at a preview showing. For some reason, lost now in the sands of time, this seemed like an important thing to do. John couldn’t go because he had to give a poetry reading at a local college. Would I drive him over? Of course, but I made clear, in no uncertain terms, that I had to see this movie—I was quite the serious filmgoer, I assured him. “Andrew Sarris on the Ohio,” I was. Naturally, we ended up getting stoned in the car outside the reading hall, and when I took him in, the most amazing succession of faces greeted us, ending, no kidding, with a scene straight out of Bunuel. Five identical small round nuns, all under five feet tall and wearing exactly the same glasses with black plastic frames and “coke bottle” lenses, and dressed in full penguin regalia (this was 1980), filed past us. “Hello, Mr. Ashbery, Hello, Mr. Ashbery”—five times. Their eyes were swimming behind the lenses. JA literally sagged against me; I believe there was actual terror in his eyes. “Don’t leave me,” he said plaintively; and I didn’t. How could I have possibly thought The Deer Hunter could be better than this? John then went onstage and gave probably the greatest reading I’ve ever heard him give.
John’s humor can be very quiet, but no less devastating for that; through it all, though, shines that incredible, luminous love of words. Once we were going to see a locally-famous restored home, on Dayton Street in the West End. I’d left the window of my VW Bug open the night before, and water got on the back floor. I wasn’t aware of this until JA lifted an exquisitely-polished shoe as he exited, saying, in his inimitable way, “I think your car needs a sump pump.” I can’t tell you how funny this was, the commentary mixing with his obvious delight in speaking the phrase, “sump pump.” It’s funny what you remember best. We were driving along one day, and John asked about an opera that was being performed at our College Conservatory of Music. I said, oh, well, you know, “business was punk at the opera”—quoting, I thought, a line from his poem, “Faust,” in his second book, The Tennis Court Oath. He corrected me, in his best professorial manner (which of course cracked us both up): “Business, if you wanted to know, was punk at the opera.” Italics his. But if I claim a special memory with John, it would be from a couple of years later, when John visited again, and this time, somewhat in a rush before I drove him back out to the airport, I was able to arrange a lunch at the Maisonette, a five-star French restaurant downtown, now defunct, with John, myself, my wife, Maureen, and Jean Valentine, the current Elliston Poet. Jean had never met John. It was pouring outside, a real deluge, and we were cozy in French elegance within. Once in a rare while, an hour can have the texture, the density, the richness of several hours. That day the world shrank to just our table, and we had an hour like that. John was the sweet, kind, generous man he always is, and I was my usual happy-to-be-there self. Rowf. But toward the end of our stolen hour, I looked at Jean, whose eyes redeemed “shining” from John’s cliché bin. She truly, beautifully, sparkled. Afterwards, she told Maureen and me how much it meant to her to meet John, that she was thrilled to have had that time with him. Only an hour out of the rain, but perfect. Jean sent us flowers the next day. How long ago it seems.
(ed note: John Ashbery will read at the New School, Sat. Dec 8, 7:00 pm. Details here.)