Tuesday, September 12, 2017

a pleasant smell of frying sausages

In the Garment District, New York

[Image source: http://theclassytraveler.com/where-to-stay-in-new-york-best-hotels-in-midtown/garment-district-new-york/]

That pesky John Ashbery has effortlessly hijacked this post, displacing such potential future topics as Mirabelle Plums and Bigarreau Cherries, Sibelius' Kullervo, Perennial Sow-thistle, nations as organizing frames, Measure for Measure, Osyris alba, Le Canal du Midi, vikings in Normandy, Emily Critchley, Emily Bronte, The Lay of the Last Minstrel,  and I don't know what else.


A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas,
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they knew, except
That it’s so hard to see them, it’s hard to figure out
Exactly what kinds of expressions they’re wearing.
What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,
One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.
Let’s go on and out, somewhere
Through the canyons of the garment center
To a small cafe and have a cup of coffee.
I am not offended that these creatures (that’s the word)
Of my imagination seem to hold me in such light esteem,
Pay so little heed to me. It’s part of a complicated
Flirtation routine, anyhow, no doubt. But this talk of
the garment center ....

(The whole poem is here:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/04/03/mixed-feelings/   )

Ashbery's poem is guilelessly sexist, the way things could be in 1975, but for that reason illuminating, and in fact you might prefer to describe it as "about" sexism. The gaggle of imaginary girls that the poet describes as having "tiny intelligences" are very evocative of the way we solitary strangers experience socializing groups of girls (and lads, it's true). There's no getting any sense out of them, we say comfortably (to hide, more often than not, our real discomfort).

One of Ashbery's perennial themes is the experience of a high-population world. This poem is about that, too. Though the girls are, as the poet sincerely says, only his imaginary creatures, yet in fact this poem is about his and our habitual experience of those large crowds of real people that we don't know. In the high-population world we always translate them into imagination to a certain extent. The unvarnished communication of real with real tends to be jarring.

And we arrange them, as my TEFL course advises, into groups. ("Advice on teaching large classes".). A class of 50 students should be divided into five groups of ten who are asked to sit and work together. Each group should contain at least one strong-ability student who can guide the others.

The "garment center", aka the Garment District, is a high-fashion area of Manhattan. But the poet goes on to reflect that the bleaching sunlight in his imaginary photograph can only be Californian. So it seems that the imaginary girls are prone to flights of imagination themselves. In their case, naturally, the imagination is completely in the thrall of magazine culture.

The poet's view of the girls is generally dismissive (these Lindas and Sheilas; "I have already forgotten them") and sometimes appreciative: "astonishingly young and fresh" ... but then youth and freshness is what young girls always bring to the party, of course -- I mean, once the observer has reached middle years. The phrase is a way of acknowledging, after all, how very unastonished one is...

So is this a failure of the poet's imagination, since he is after all imagining the girls? Yes: but that is a due recognition that even our own creatures soon develop inscrutability: and how much more the real people!  Can the real people even be distinguished, so large is the element of projected imagination in men's thoughts about women?

(A less sheerly dismissive "appraisal", if no less stereotypic, might have noted the girls' superiority in respect of expressive quickness, unerring backchat, fluency in social and body language, judgment of relevance, clarity of vision, and so on. Freshness is also an intellectual quality.)

So the poem is completely accurate in its account of the inability of different parties on the same street to make any real connection. ("This guy's too much for me"...) . The mutual low esteem with which gang and individual regard each other.

Yet this is hardly a counsel of hopelessness. We know that snatched out of our habitual spheres of operatio, and from no matter what sociolinguistic groupings, we mere persons can still meet each other meaningfully on many large grounds.

But nor is it only  a matter of social comedy ("Mixed Feelings").

When we meet possibly in the lounge of a modern airport,
They looking as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.

This continuous experience of existence, as a daily fact, of "contradictory ideas" and "forests of change" defines a state of affairs in which communication with others as different from us as can be is plainly a matter of urgency. Though the poet enjoys the feebleness of communication as romantic evidence of the ungraspable largeness of the world, it's really a blight.

John Ashbery in 1975 (photo by Peter Hujar)

[Image source: http://pictify.saatchigallery.com/433570/john-ashbery-1975-hujar . The picture is in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution.]


But what about the pleasant smell of frying sausages?

It places the thinking in a quotidian context, but not unmixed with desire. And that seems just right for this projectedly-flirtatious meditation. The coffee drifts in to the poem later, and maybe even the orange juice; the poem ending in a post-prandial feeling of alert tranquillity.



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