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On John Ashbery (July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017) [by Geoffrey Young]

JA by Star BlackIt’s four a.m. on Labor Day 2017 and a voice on the BBC radio says as I lay in bed awake that John Ashbery died yesterday in Hudson, NY.  He turned ninety a month ago. A dreaded moment had finally come.  John’s career was  long and exemplary.  We’ll be pondering his works and admiring his diction for years to come.  As the darkness faded, I got dressed, made a cup of tea, fed the cats, and decided to drive over to Hudson to leave a scarlet dahlia on his front porch, along with a note for his mate, David Kermani.

No one was on the road, but a few golfers in South Egremont were just teeing up.  Nightmarish news dominated the radio.  Flooding in Houston, sabre-rattling in North Korea, the Sox losing to the Yankees. 

When I got to the house, there was a lone blue car parked in front, with New York state plates.  I walked up on the front porch of the large stone house, and found a place to the right of the front door for the old milk bottle filled with water and the one dahlia, and for the envelope with a note to David.  I stood back, and took a photograph of it.  Tiny, sitting there on the portal step, near the brown of the strong old doors, the flower was alone.  Perhaps David was as well, asleep upstairs? 

John, the times I was in his company, had always been friendly.  Sometimes it was after or before one of his readings, other times it was at a gallery or restaurant with friends.  He liked to throw back the first martini in two sips, or one, then smile a funny smile.  Asked once where his poetry came from, he answered, “Well, it’s just like television, there’s always something on.”  In 1987, invited to select the best poems found in magazines that year, John picked one of mine.  It was even in prose. Another time, at Bard College where he taught, I asked him what percentage of the time he starts a poem with a dream fragment, and he got nervous, didn’t answer, and said something to put me off the trail.

Decades ago, in Berkeley, John had agreed to do an afternoon reading at the studio of Helene Aylon.  Prior to the reading there were drinks, and John’s glass I noticed was straight Scotch.  When Robert Duncan and Michael Palmer and other poets came into the space in the middle of the afternoon, a half-drunk Ashbery, greeting Duncan, tried to put his tongue in Robert’s ear!  Eventually, we all got seated on rugs on the floor, and John read a poem or two, slurring badly.  A woman he knew was sitting next to him, and after those first few poems he handed the woman his book, and asked her to read the poems, then he lay his head down on the woman’s lap.  As she struggled to read, smiling some and stumbling some, John reached up and felt for a nipple! 

A “New Your School” occasion, I wrote to Bill Berkson in Bolinas the next day.  Bill had been in the audience that Berkeley afternoon, had witnessed the nuttiness.

Bad boy John liked to debauch from time to time, usually when David Kermani was out of town for a few days.  John would invite a friend to join him in Hudson for an extended drinking session.  Michael Gizzi, an hour away in Lenox, Mass, might get a call from John at any hour, asking if he’d be so kind as to buy some booze for the revelers, and to bring it over to Hudson.  Already drunk, Ashbery couldn’t risk going out shopping, or driving.   And Michael, no doubt fresh that very evening from an AA meeting, would say yes, though I’m sure he felt the twisted pang of the enabler.  When Michael got there with the Scotch and vodka and gin, John and his friend would still be in their pajamas, but very happy to see Michael.

At a luncheon in Boston once, John told the story of the time David had a psychotic breakdown in the Hudson house, and that John had had to call a hospital to have someone come solve the problem.  Two big guys arrived from a hospital, suppressed David, got him into a straight-jacket, and were about to haul him away, when John, struck by the good looks of one of the men--a handsome black man about thirty--started flirting with the man.  Suddenly, John didn’t want them to take David away!

The best reading I ever heard John give was after the publication of Planisphere in 2006.  Held at St Marks Church on the Bouwerie, in the sanctuary, the room was filled with fans and friends and ex-students and peers, and John, more animated than normal, read poems from the new book.  I turned to Eileen Myles, seated next to me, and said, as the warm applause died down at the end, “He’s still bonkers!”  And Eileen said, “No kidding!”

But the best thing I ever heard John say aloud, was the opening sentence of his introduction at the Dia Center for the Arts in Soho when he introduced James Schuyler.  Much anticipated (because Jimmy was known not to read), the reading was in winter, it was dark and cold on the street, but the line to get in went around the block.  Darragh Park and Jimmy arrived by cab and were ushered in.  Eventually we all trickled in, and found seats.  I sat with Ron Silliman, who just happened to be in town that night.   And John’s opening line, as he introduced the evening’s poet, was “I can’t remember a time that Jimmy Schuyler wasn’t my friend.”

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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