Commotion of the Birds by John Ashbery
In Commotion of the Birds, John Ashbery’s twenty-seventh book of poetry, puzzling poems read like textual collages: meticulously arranged words and phrases torn and reassembled into abstraction. They’re enigmatic, but far from anything Dadaist: although wildly difficult to decipher, these works possess a distinct element of control and an impressive tonal palette. While some poems may read like delightful strings of nonsense, Ashbery’s lines consistently scramble into a warning knell. A message rings out through the static: be weary of the inevitabilities of aging, be weary of our political developments, trust the past and hope the future will turn out better than it seems.
Poems like “Rainbow Laundry” are beautiful but confounding: “At Opium Bridge / an apple with orange signature. // No but a cat came in, / rushing around as though its life depended on it // and lets you deal with / all of that. // Just remember the Red River Valley, that’s / all I ask, // the color sergeant said.” Although it would likely take an Ashbery expert to figure out what’s going on here, one could look to other poems for clues.
Death in the twenty-first century permeates Commotion of the Birds. “The Old Sofa” begins “Hello. I have to go / in a little while. Well, / maybe later. If at all.” In “Understandably,” one of the more comprehensible poems in the collection, Ashbery writes:
What do you want, John? Informally, a
new body, and an assistant.
I’ll bet the place is swarming with printers.
I wrote them yesterday. Really reached out,
plugnutty. Like the noiseless farts of antiquity
squeamishness is best, yet still.
This somewhat cogent glimmer informs the poems throughout Commotion of the Birds: the desire for a new body in a world that appears to be swarming with technology suggests an “out with old” sentiment that surely stings to the 90-year old poet. But what about the world we’re rushing into?
Politically poisoned, and frankly quite frightening. “The same ideas or different ones condense, / and you don’t have to sleep again.” begins “Hillbilly Airs and Dances.” “Garbage is necessary. That’s another issue / that hasn’t been talked about.” The poem continues with one of the collection’s many explicitly political lines: “everyone is standing / outside some movement.” In “Written with a Ballpoint,” “No words on minor injuries. / Some, not all, bled artificial tears, / very nice and fresh, / in a fancy hotel room. Diversity / gets better all the time, yet wound up taking pictures.”
In “Whatever the Old Man Says is Always Right”, Ashbery confronts his fate: “Sure enough, other young adults / will take our place at the helm.” He considers this “bitter pill,” saying “Already Fred Flintstone / was having second thoughts,” and understands that aging is an inescapable truth. But his weariness of this new generation has taken its toll. “Two more is all you get after we’re outta here,” he warns them. “I saw it and no one believed me. The old man wept quietly.”