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Photo of a photo of Ashbery | Steven Pyke / Flickr
Photo of a photo of Ashbery | Steven Pyke / Flickr

Reading John Ashbery on an Airplane Days After His Death

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 8 September 2017

In lieu of an obituary, our books editor offers a personal reflection on the celebrated poet who passed away on September 3.

I was in a bookstore when I found out about the passing of the American poet John Ashbery. My wife texted to inform me, and in the silent shop I blurted out the same words: “Fuck, John Ashbery died.” This sent many of the customers and clerks buzzing toward the poetry section where several slim volumes of Ashbery’s collections were for sale, and though I refrained from buying any, others handily plucked them one by one from the shelves.

I was at the bookstore to find something to read on a long flight we were preparing to take that evening. After I returned home empty-handed, I decided upon recently a published book I’d been meaning to read, the new issue of a cultural magazine that had recently been delivered to my door, and finally, a copy of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery’s 1975 Pulitzer-winning poetry collection, remembering his stanza: “A great plane flew across the sun / and the girls ran along the ground” as I did so.

That line isn’t from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, (it’s from his near eponymous long poem “Girls on the Run”), but Ashbery’s lines are made of such colloquial imagery, immediate in their strike and profound in their impact, and he is man enviable in his ability to record the purity of his thoughts, or ideas rather, as he once remarked “‘thoughts’ is too grand a word” for what he is doing with language. That line is in Self-Portrait.

I once, and kind of recently, actually, passed on an opportunity to visit Ashbery in his Hudson, New York home. A friend was to make a trip to record an interview with him, but didn’t want to make the trip upstate alone. But I declined, the way one one declines things they would otherwise love to do when work begins to pile up in the mind. I did, however, end up editing that interview for Pioneer Works Journal, itself an extension of that institution’s Ashbery celebration on the occasion of his 90th birthday, where the poet came down to New York City to read once more, and for the last time. Ashbery was joined by a few other notable poets, including John Yau, Monica de la Torre, and Ben Lerner, who wrote a heartfelt introduction to set the evening.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for that final reading. Ashbery needed assistance to make it to the stage, and had to be seated for his reading. Though his frail physicality lent a reedy quality to his voice, his words fell powerfully upon the audience as he read from the book that would be the final collection published in his lifetime, Commotion of the Birds. I remember lines from his poem “The Old Sofa” that hinted at his waning time with us: “Hello. I have to go in a little while… / friends … die down with me / Shouldna done that.” What did he mean by that last phrase, I wondered. Did he regret wanting his companions to join him in departing?

I don’t often read poetry on an airplane. When I do read, I prefer it to be in the air, when I’m not impatient for take-off. On board a Norwegian flight headed to London, taxing for nearly an hour on the congested tarmac, I broke both habits. My wife, lying beside me, requested a poem, so aloud I read the first, a poem titled, “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat,” suitable, we discovered, for a red-eye airborne voyage:

Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.

I finished reading and noticed that the man sitting across the aisle from me was looking in my general direction and nodding his head. “Did you write that?” has asked. I showed him the book. The man said John Ashbery’s name aloud as if committing it to memory. But I didn’t get a chance to further conversation—the plane kicked into high gear and within seconds we were over a flattened New York. When I turned back to the man, he put his earplugs in and was tapping on the monitor embedded in the seat in front of him. I continued reading.

In a plane, one is left almost entirely to the mind. Time does not noticeably pass, the body is made to be move without exerting any mobility. People speak in hushed tones, watch movies or, less often, read novels. The interruptions, when they do come, are anticipated. The periodic bathroom visit. The crawl of the drink cart. Revisiting Self-Portrait on a Convex Mirror enhanced this environment into a laboratory of the mundane. Where else to consider the checkered outfits of the stewards, the rows of lolling heads, a Hasidic group praying in the corner only to be ordered by the pilot over loudspeaker back to their seats.

I felt that I had stumbled upon that feeling Ashbery must of experienced daily. Not so much noticing the poetry in everything, but finding it impossible to ignore. Couldn’t disembark from the poetic. As he wrote in “Grand Galop”:

As long as one has some sense that each thing knows its
All is well, but with the arrival and departure
Of each new one overlapping so intensely in the semi-darkness
It’s a bit mad.

And so I sat there, letting these subtle stimuli overlap, until I got to the last poem, the title poem and an eponymous reference to, and meditation on, the painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Parmigianino. The edition I was reading from used the work as its cover image, and as Ashbery examined “the right hand / Bigger than the head / thrust at the viewer” I too flipped between poem and image. “Ekphrasis” is word defined as a poetic description of a work of art, and this is the word that came to mind after I clicked on the map and spotted the little plane icon: somewhere over the Eastern flank of Newfoundland, I was reading an ekphrastic masterpiece appreciating a painted one. When I finished, most of the cabin was asleep and I let the experience seep in. When I again checked our flight status, I spotted us in the vicinity of Greenland’s southern shore. Then I flipped off the screen and was left staring at my own reflection: a man sitting on a plane; a passenger from one part of the world heading to another.