My socks didn’t match. That was my first mortifying thought as I shucked my shoes in John Ashbery’s foyer. They were almost the same color, but not quite, and this was not how I’d hoped to greet a living legend.
The mood during Ashlab’s first pilgrimage from Manhattan to Hudson, N.Y., had been exuberant. Like kids on a field trip, we were visiting Mr. Ashbery’s house to see how the poems are made. Yet as our van pulled up to the Victorian mansion, a hush rushed through the group. We stepped inside, slid off our shoes and nearly tip-toed onto the opulent floral rugs. If we were poets in the New York School tradition, this was our cathedral.
Was it Mr. Ashbery’s grand life and home, or the nature of our assignment that inspired such reverence? The home’s front rooms conjure a museum, with curated artwork and antiques arranged with a devilish sense of humor that draws you close. Is that a painting of a bleeding man above the baby grand? Is that a modern black and white photograph over a pink velvet love seat? Is the chandelier missing a bead or two, tucked behind a stone bust? What about the nutcracker beside porcelain nuts? You might be a guest in a private home, or you might be wandering through the latest MoMA exhibit.
We obsessively photographed everything we saw, observing the scene more than entering it. I took 333 photos and connected most with the everyday objects -- the lone spoon in the dish strainer, the Ivory soap bottle, the vitamins, the honey, the collection of twisty-ties, the Mod Podge, the A.A. Milne book Now We Are Six.
Then, there was our weighty task: to map the home of one of America’s most influential poets. You cannot document anything for posterity without thinking about the inevitability of loss. If poets lived forever, we would not need photographs. If poets lived forever, their homes would not become museums. If poets lived forever, we could ask them, endlessly, how they wrote this line, what they meant by that book, which honey is best for morning tea. (Mr. Ashbery might answer Tupelo: The Cadillac of All Honey, which sits on his kitchen counter.)
My mind turned to Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, who passed away the same month we visited Hudson (Feb. 2012), and the pain of knowing I could never read another “new” Szymborska poem. I also thought of an episode of This American Life about the warehouse of memories that disappears with us. Our time to create and to record knowledge is finite. Archivists can only preserve so much.
Mr. Ashbery descended the stairs that afternoon to thank us for our work, and we gave thanks to him. Not just for opening his home, but for opening his interior life through poetry. As our van pulled away, the mood was meditative. I began to write Mr. Ashbery a letter, which turned into an epistolary poem. The sun disappeared behind the Hudson River as I wrote.
I placed a short version of that poem in my thesis manuscript. And when my thesis advisor, David Lehman, saw it, he asked to publish it on The Best American Poetry blog and to send a copy to Mr. Ashbery.
The poem was meant for him all along, with gratitude and reverence. Click here to my post of April 23, 2012. http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2012/04/dear-john-ashbery-that-is-by-stephanie-paterik.html
-- Stephanie Paterik