Someone else's work obliquely inspired your
new book: the paintings of Henry Darger, an outsider artist who
chronicled fictional armies of little girls. How did the paintings
The girls are constantly under attack by violent
enemy forces and being saved and surviving storms and evil armies.
I was fascinated by little girls when I was a little boy, and
their clothes and their games and their dolls appealed to me much
more than what little boys were doing. Therefore I was sort of
Interview with John Ashbery in the New York
Times Magazine, April 4, 19991
on the Run: thought smashed against
rock. It swirls off in the wind like the little girls on the cover,
whimsy breaking the apt phrase, sending the word back for reconstruction,
soaking up primary color. Oh, flowers are twirling, hats and beach
umbrellas and little bell-shaped skirts. Maybe the little girls
are earthlings representing life on this planet, and language is
what holds them down, what connects them to us. In the wrap-around
jacket illustration, the trees are bent, the sky blackening like2
Heade's painting of an approaching storm. However, in Henry
Darger's drawing, the world is menaced by enormous flowers and strawberries
the size and solidness of boulders. Hurricane force winds have risen.
Huge blue bells and lilies clutch the air. The girls run because
that is what to do, all we are able to do, faced with disaster.
On the Run
by John Ashbery
And so it starts: a run to get out of the way
of "the great plane." Then a fashion discussion (well,
it's about GIRLS). The Children's clothes as Darger draws them,
after all, are traced from old comics, hopelessly out of date.
There is an invocation to the muse, like an oath in blood, "Write
it now, Tidbit said,/ before they get back./ And, quivering, I
took the pen." And a magic potion, "Drink the beautiful
tea," the Principal orders Henry. Then "Dimples builds
an ark...a big, blue boat." All the preparations are made.
The adventure can begin.
Henry Darger. Night-shift dish washer, hospital
aide. Picture the old duffer, blue-eyed, straggly-bearded, poking
through back-street Chicago for interesting rubbish, his single
room appointed with stacks of Sunday comics in juicy colors, children's
books, eye-catching rags, broken furniture, towers of Pepto-Bismol
bottles. And sandwiched among it, the 19,000-page illustrated
epic of war, evangelism, and child slavery, undiscovered until
his death, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known
as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm,
Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Then picture the decorative
panels with titles such as "Angel with American Flag Wings";
going for $75,000, hanging in world-class museums.
Darger's collage of life, and his own life as
well, serve as ironic commentary on our own. The Vivians (their
last name), seven "Abbiennian" princesses, are his heroines,
aided by angel or warrior guardians, his alter egos. The little
girls escape pursuit or are caught and jailed or endure tortures
such as flogging and crucifixion that Ashbery only hints at in
on the Run. What the Darger and the Ashbery works share:
an apotheosis of childhood, among other things. One of those "things":
the little girls are not entirely little girls. Darger pictures
them with penises in various scenes of undress. The ambivalent
sexuality is captured in the poet's morphing appellations, Larry-Sue,
The action in Darger's epic unravels like the
single strand of an enormous ball of string, amassed over years.
on the Run keeps the characters in hopping, word-mad motion,
as if they are spinning off the edge of the world. Here is poetry
wound up like the first days of a permanent wave. Language is
skewed in each line, aphorisms lopped in half, non-sequiturs vie
with one another. Like someone plagued by Tourette's, Ashbery
cannot resist a pun: "elastic trains," "compacted
truths." In 1976, in Figures of Capable Imagination,
Harold Bloom saw two Ashberys: he of The Tennis Court Oath
had reformed to write The Double Dream of Spring. "Ashbery,
at last, says farewell to ellipsis," Bloom unreliably predicted.
Sometimes in his twenty or so books, the poet's
words relax back into sentences, conventional stanzas. Sense,
the more common kind, becomes paramount. This first stanza, for
instance, of "Sometimes in Places" in And
the Stars Were Shining:
And patient, exacting
no confirmation from those who know him,
the poet lies down under the vast sky,
dreaming of the sea. For poetry, he
now realizes, is cleverer than he.
But what it tells us we already know: the poet
trusts what he does. In Girls
on the Run, we have the madly whirling Ashbery, difficult
to pin down, and in other books, the still-inventive but somewhat
"deflated" one, the one who gives us more of a chance
to catch up.
Although Ashbery maybe be considered an interpreter
of Darger's vision, Girls
on the Run seems more process than statement. Ashbery
is a reflective commentator, facilitator, and prime mover who
ecstatically snips and pastes, spacing out sign and idea, letting
chance operate. In an essay in the Hollins Critic, Harriet
Zinnes calls Ashbery "Cagean." 3 The concept
of chance operations does seem to be guiding Ashbery. Maybe when
he produces a book like Girls, it's the difference between
writing with the window open, as Cage would say, and writing with
it closed. It's wide open here. When you go out on the errand
of a sentence there is no straight ahead, only intriguing, devious
turnings. You meet again what you passed without noting fifty
lines back. Bats. Silos.
But I love the way it flies by.
Not every reader may be willing to play Ashbery's
game. Say you are just skirting, or read that skating, too, the
thin ice of the real world. He's not taking you anywhere concrete,
and he'll give you a hard time getting there, but it's a hell
of a ride through the shooty-shoots of his brain. Ashbery is for
giving a jolt to the linear personality.
Think of all that fashion that revs up the poem.
Is Ashbery in the middle of reading a Vogue article? Laure
(an allusion to Ralph Lauren?), Tidbit and Pliable. Tidbit, little
girl or sliver-sized fashion model? So clothes "are in fashion
only briefly, they go out/and stay that way for a long while."
A mutt named Rags. Think of "the tiny doggy door Rags had
made with a T-square,/surplus sequins." (He's fond of these
phonetic melanges). Later, a broken garbage disposal and perhaps
a conversation between a paint-store clerk and customer. A drugstore
package insert: "Daytime drowsiness, dizziness, headache,
nausea, stomach upset,/vomiting, diarrhea, lightheadedness, muscle
aches and dry mouth may occur." And there are echoes of Gracie
Allen ("there were no two ways to have it," "it
was just their pot luck"), Groucho Marx ("The fat clock
ticks. It's time to repair/to the orchard, or just to repair.")
and '30s film comedies. The insistence on disparate or conflicting
meanings: how their invalid adventure "takes a little blancmange"
Darger's work is a collage of real and imagined
worlds. Ashbery's is a collage of the real and imagined worlds
and of Darger's invention. It's not, as some have said, that Ashbery
has cleaned up Darger and omitted the violence; he has omitted
the story. There is no continuous narrative in Girls, as
there is in Darger. There are 21 beginnings, sections like an
odyssey's, many of which tell us that they represent the events
of a single day. And so we have the fragmented beginnings of story,
coming out of the longings of childhood, somewhat like Once upon
a time or There were seven beautiful princesses or Drink the magic
potion. Maybe that's what we remember most, after all.
And the characters, Jack, Heidi, Rags. (Each section
of Girls adds a few new ones, Angela, Bunny and Philip,
Aunt Clara, Tootles, General Metuchen, etc.) And maybe an accent,
reminiscent of Dickens or Peter Pan: "I just want to say
I respects/all what is good, and don't come here any more, I won't."
The story is only alluded to, "The thread ended up on the
floor,/where threads go." So we are busy cutting and making,
to no avail. "Such a lot of going around and doing! Sometimes
they were in sordid sexual situations;/at others, a smidgen of
fun would intrude on our day/which exists to be intruded on, anyway."
In a beautiful passage about time and death, "a child lay
dying, there was more other/to be sad over." Duration kills,
Ashbery tells us. And, although you have learned a language, what
is there to do, he says, but forget it? Whereas, "an illustration
changes us." But Ashbery's illustrations take the form of
words. He goes to the same primary sources as Darger: children's
books. Comics-"Aw, don't be such a grouch, Dimples curdled,"
and "Hold it, I have an idea, Fred groaned."
We come upon a dated diary entry, Nov. 7, and
a song lyric, "Dream lover, won't you come to me?/Dream lover,
won't you be my darling?" There are allusions to the Mass
and to the Psalms, to self-help manuals: "They danced and
became meaningful to each other." And a whole canon's poets,
invoked by a word or two, a line here or there ("the great
here and there"): T.S. Eliot, "Often a strange desire/mingles
cats and near greatness," "April surprised us with mistrials"
(mistrals?). Stevens, "that crow ululates, undoing me."
Milton, "the bower of empowerment." Lowell, "But
the skunks were swaggering among us."
Is one meant to think of Girls as a collaboration
between Ashbery and Darger? And does that necessitate a comparison
of Girls with Darger's epic? A. Ashbery, too, fragments
reality. Checkmark. B. Ashbery creates a new reality. Checkmark.
C. He, like Darger, offers us a collage of things we have seen
or heard somewhere but where? Checkmark, decidedly. And
why look for correspondences at all? Partly because Ashbery must
have seen them. It's unlike him to "collaborate" although
he did before in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (with
Parmagianino, another dead visual artist). Partly because, even
if Darger is unknown to many readers, the alien, exile character
of In the Realms of the Unreal lends a resonance to Girls
on the Run. From the get-go, there's the mystery, the
shadow quality of Darger's world, which Ashbery takes for granted
and in which he finds fertile ground. For Ashbery is himself so
much a loner and an original.
ALSO DRAWN ON IN THIS ESSAY
Ashbery, John. And
the Stars Were Shining. Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
1994. Hard cover, 88 pages, $18
Ashbery, John. Can
You Hear, Bird. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Paperback, 188 pages, $12
Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination. New York:
The Seabury Press, 1976. 273 pp. Out of Print.
1 Rehak, Melanie. "Questions for John Ashbery:
A Child in Time." The New York Times Magazine, April
4, 1999: p. 15.
2 Martin Johnson Heade was a nineteenth-century painter
of the Hudson River School.
3 "John Ashbery: The Way Time Feels as It Passes."
The Hollins Critic, June 1992: l-13.