Palettes & Quills 5th Biennial Poetry Chapbook Contest

I am not a reader for this contest, but I do help to promote it, and I do the layout and design of the winning chapbook, such as Michael Meyerhofer’s Pure Elysium (2010), Meg Cowen’s If Tigers Do Not Come (2012), and  Carine Topal’s Tattooed (2014).


Palettes & Quills

5th Biennial Poetry Chapbook Competition

With Judge Alan Britt

Open to All Writers


Palettes & Quills Logo


Prize: A $200 cash award plus 50 copies of the published book. Additional copies will be available at an author’s discount. All finalists will receive one free copy of the published book. All contest entrants will be offered a special discount on the purchase price of the published book. Deadline: September 1, 2016. Manuscripts postmarked after September 1 will not be read.


A complete submission should include:

  • Manuscript between 14-48 pages. Poems must be typed on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper and bound with a spring clip. Use a standard 12 pt. font, such as Garamond, Arial, or New Times Roman. Manuscripts should be in English and contain no illustrations. Please do not submit your only copy. Manuscripts will not be returned.
  • A cover sheet with the contest name (The Palettes & Quills 5th Biennial Chapbook Contest), your name, address, telephone, email, and the title of your manuscript.
  • You must also include a statement that all poems are your own original work.
  • A title page with just the title of the manuscript. Your manuscript’s first page should be the title page but without your name. Your name should not appear any place in the manuscript. The next page of the manuscript should be a complete table of contents.
  • An acknowledgements page. Poems included in your manuscript may be previously published, but the book as a whole may not. Please include an acknowledgements page listing specific publications.
  • A complete Table of Contents.


Two Submission Options:

  • Mailed Submissions: Mail your entry to Donna M. Marbach, Palettes & Quills Chapbook Contest, 1935 Penfield Road, Penfield, NY 14526-1434. Include a $20 check or money order made payable in U.S. dollar and made out to: Palettes & Quills. You may also pay for your mailed copy online at http://palettesandquills.simplesite.com/ (In header, click More, then click Reading Fees). Please include receipt number in cover letter. An email will be sent to you upon reception of manuscript. If you do not have email and want confirmation of receipt, please include a self-addressed stamped postcard. (International submissions must include an IRC.)
  • Online submissions: Email entry to: palettesnquills@gmail.com. Subject line: “Chapbook Contest. [Last Name].” Include two attachments as Word docs or PDFs: Attachment one: cover sheet, acknowledgements, and statement of originality. Attachment two: your manuscript. Online entry fees is $25. You may pay online at: http://palettesandquills.simplesite.com/ (In header, click More, then click Reading Fees), or you can mail your entry fee to the above address by sending a check or money order made out to Palettes & Quills.
  • All payments are non-refundable.
  • We prefer hard copy submissions, but accept emailed submissions.


Manuscripts by multiple authors will not be accepted. Translations will not be accepted.

Simultaneous submissions are accepted. If your manuscript is accepted for publication elsewhere, you must immediately notify Palettes & Quills. Multiple submissions are accepted but must be submitted individually.

Winners will be announced on the Palettes & Quills website in December 2016.


Alan_BrittFinal judge is Alan Britt. Britt teaches poetry/creative writing at Towson University. His recent books include Parabola Dreams (2013), Alone with the Terrible Universe (2011), Hurricane (2010), Greatest Hits (2010), Vegetable Love (2009), Vermilion (2006), Infinite Days (2003), Amnesia Tango (1998), and Bodies of Lightning (1995). He also served as editor at Black Moon.


To download the guidelines as a PDF, click here.



Outer Humor and Inner Seriousness: On Tom C. Hunley’s The State That Springfield Is In

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Tom C Hunley – The State That Sprinfield Is InIn Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt, at times, concerns himself with the lyric I. According to Burt, in the past, the lyric I represented a whole person, but in today’s contemporary American poetry, the lyric I (and maybe even the I in any contemporary poem) is not whole, it’s fragmented, it’s unwholy. In The State That Springfield Is In (Split Lip Press, 2016), Tom C. Hunley takes this splintered poetic I into a new arena. Hunley uses characters from one of the all-time great tv shows (especially animated tv shows) The Simpsons as the constituent parts of his poetic I, his “inner life” (“Notes” 65). Additionally, he often illustrates the inner fragmented lives of The Simpsons characters he portrays, which is probably where the fragmented lyric I is most noticeable. Not only does Hunley become the manifestation of Springfield, but he makes allusions to literary texts and uses poetic forms that have also shaped the constituent parts of a contemporary poetic I who grew up watching The Simpsons like a religion, as many of us did and as Hunley surely did.

The State That Springfield Is In opens with “Edna Krabappel,” a poem that teaches the reader how to read the poems and what to expect: the poems move dialectically (between characters, within a character, or between a character and Hunley), and the poems will sometimes use direct quotes from The Simpsons. In “Edna Krabappel,” the poem acts as a call and response between Hunley speaking for the grade-school teacher Edna Krabappel and uses direct quotes from what Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Hunley, however, is not appropriating the quotes just to use them for content, but instead, he is showing how they are part of his internal makeup or to highlight internal conflicts within a character, or himself. The final two lines of the poem, “Can we trash the ribbons and teach self-confidence instead of self-esteem? / They are laughing at me not with me” (with Krabappel’s line in plain face and Bart’s in italics), make it clear that this collection, on one level, will be dealing with the issues of identity and perceived identity.

Another example is in the two-sectioned cento poem “Barney Gumble” (33), where Hunley uses lines Barney spoke in The Simpsons and juxtaposes them with “excerpts from AA’s Big Book and Rational Recovery’s Small Book” (67) to contrast the sobering “Barnard Gumble” in Alcoholics Anonymous with the Barney Gumble who is consistently drunk and a more-than-regular patron at Moe’s Tavern. The quotes are so seamlessly worked in, one can’t distinguish Barney’s quotes from the quotes from the alcoholic-recovery books, and one gets a better understanding of the conflicts Barney, and many alcoholics, deal with on a daily basis. Barney is a person who was once a good and sober student until he drank a beer that turned him into an alcoholic with issues of self-worth, and he deals with these issues daily, as the poem suggests.

Another example of the conflicted I appears in “Moe Szyslak” (17-18). In this poem, Moe the bartender is on the phone with the “Listen Lady,” who is Marge Simpson “in one of her many temporary jobs” (66). Moe, after being sidetracked about prank callers, claims he is looking for advice on how to give “advice / like a bartender ought to be doing.” Moe is trying to improve himself, and if you know Moe, there’s a lot of improvement that can be had, which we learn a little about in this poem. During this phone call, however, he keeps talking and we never hear from the Listen Lady. We hear Moe identify himself as “Moe, of Moe’s Tavern” (so he won’t be confused with a prank caller), state his reason for calling, but then he starts self-analyzing himself, “I’m always fightin’ / with myself, that’s my problem.” He even briefly finds a remedy, “Somehow you just gotta / surrender to your own complexities, like that poet / who said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.” And so he keeps talking and analyzing, almost like a poet writing on the page jumping from association to association as he/she tries to better understand him-/herself while writing for an audience. This appears to be a cue for Hunley’s readers, too. Perhaps, Hunley is using the mask of Moe, some quotes from Moe, and a perfectly rendered voice of Moe to tell us about his own internal conflicts, such as “when you fight with yourself / you’re gonna lose, bet on it” or “some days you just don’t believe in nothin’,” which is also a conflict that arises with Reverend Lovejoy in the poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy.” But with Moe, his dialectical movement is within himself, despite talking on the phone with the Listen Lady (who is also a split persona, as he is really Marge). The reader’s expectations are subverted here because we expect a response from the Listen Lady, but it doesn’t come. Instead Moe battles with internal feelings and his outward appearance and actions by way of a monologue. He talks and listens to himself only to realize he will lose. As a result, one wonders what would happen if he let the Listen Lady enter the conversation, one wonders what would happen if he let someone into his life, one wonders if we (the reader) need another person in our life to have a conversation (a dialectic banter) in order to better understand ourselves. We also realize how fragmented Moe, as he is more than just a bartender, he is also a person seeking love, a person who judges other people, a hero, a person of ridicule, a former boxer, as well as his Dutch, Italian, Arab, and Polish ancestries which are all “at war / inside my [Moe’s] bloodstream). Indeed, he is large and contains multitudes, like Burt’s contemporary lyric I.

Not only does this poem have dialectic movement between Moe and the listener and between one’s inner and outer selves, but there’s also the movement between serious and humorous, as with many of the poems in this collection. I’ve just pointed out how serious this poem is, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed so many times through it, and I probably laughed even harder because Hunley rendered Moe so perfectly. This type of movement recalls Robert Frost who said about the poem, “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” I think most of these poems achieve the latter, even in the meta poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-46), which takes on the most serious and philosophic questions about whether or not there is a god or divine creator.

In “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-6), the Reverend is giving a sermon about god and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Much like Moe’s phone call, Reverend Lovejoy is thinking out loud to a captured audience, his congregation, who, like the Listen Lady, do not respond. The poem opens with Reverend Lovejoy confronting the conflict of Matt Groening who created the “comic strip” Life in Hell but who also created The Simpsons. This divine creator created two universes, and Reverend Lovejoy is in one of them, a Reverend who is aware of his fictional existence but who also believes in a Christian god. That’s now two conflicts. There’s also the conflict that Groening “himself [is] an agnostic,” which is a paradox. This spirals into the Reverend saying he is “not sure I believe in myself either.” We have an existential poem on many levels with many gods. Not only is Reverend Lovejoy a fragmented lyric I, but the creator (god and Groening) is too. Not to mention “that Matt / Groening only penned four episodes of The Simpsons,” and “so it appears that Apu and his 700 million fellow Hindus / may be correct, friends, that there are many creators,” meaning there are many writers for The Simpsons as well as many gods. The existential confusion, the multiple lyric gods, becomes more confusing when we see that the character “Mr. Burns / proclaimed himself ‘The New God,” and when we see that Lisa Simpson “created a tiny world whose inhabitants built / a graven image of her.” The fictional characters (who were created by Groening and multiple writers who were created by a god or gods) probably believe they were created by god, then become gods themselves, and Reverend Lovejoy is trying to sort through all of this using his knowledge of the self-contained world of Springfield that he lives in, while also being aware that he is fictional. In the end it conjures up what many of us have thought about gods and creation, including Plato and his allegory of the cave, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, as well as the movie The Matrix. And all of this seriousness is mixed in with laugh-out-loud humor.

By the end of The State That Springfield Is In, we can understand why Hunley used this cultural phenomenon of a tv show to write about his “own scarred, departed youth” (65) as we must wonder whether we watch The Simpsons or if The Simpsons watch us. Plus, does any Simpsons fan really know what state Springfield is in?

Springfield State Flag




Hunley, Tom C. The State That Springfield Is In. Richmond, VA: Split Lip Press, 2016. Print.//


Redactions: Poetry & Poetics 2015 pushcart nominations

Redactions: Poetry & Poetics has made its nominations for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. In the order of appearance in issue 19 are:

  1. Gabrielle Bates’ “Infatuation.” Page 7.
  2. Susan Cohen’s “The Golden Hills of California.” Page 14.
  3. Michael Robins’ “Poem for Tony Hayward.” Page 17.
  4. James Grabill’s “The Rooster Is Nowhere If Not Awake.” Page 22.
  5. Les Kay’s “Scheduling.” Page 25.
  6. Jose D Trejo-Maya’s “Pane/Glass Glass/Pane.” Page 32.

To read these poems, stories, and more, order a copy of issue 19 from here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/redactionspoetry.

You can also read the Pushcart Prize nominated poems here: http://www.redactions.com/pushcart-poems.asp.



The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot


This comic version of Prufrock by Julian Peters is terrific, and can be a helpful teaching aid, too.   The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot


Quick Notes on Charles Wright

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Charles WrightCharles Wright (August 25, 1935) is an American poet and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. In 1983, his book Country Music: Selected Early Poems shared the National Book Award with Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems; in 1998, his book Black Zodiac won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2014, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the materiality of language and what it means or is. After some research, I think I have an idea. The materiality of language suggests, in part, that language is a material substance that is part of the phenomenological experience of the world, and as a material, it is malleable – it can be changed, reshaped, and regulated. So language is two things: it’s part of the experience and it’s a tool to engage with an experience. Language becomes the landscape of vision, and we become language. Or as Wright says in “Tennessee Line”: “We are our final vocabulary, / and how we use it. / There is no secret contingency. / There’s only rearrangement, the redescription / Of little and mortal things” (17). Those last two lines act as an aesthetic principle for Wright, too. Poetry is old words in new orders exploring the same content. Poetry is style laid atop the content of experience. As Wright also says in “Chickamauga,” “The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath, / Absolute, incommunicado, / unhoused and peregrine” (33).

Part of this linguistic experience is to give contour to the visible in order to experience the invisible, and by invisible I also mean abstract. Wright’s poems (at least in Negative Blue) move back and forth between abstraction (especially in statement form) and image. He creates juxtapositions of idea and experience. Usually the movement is on a small scale, such as in the middle of “Waiting for Tu Fu” (with Wright’s rare use of apostrophe):

     O we were pure and holy in those days,
     The August sunlight candescing our short-sleeved shirt fronts,
     The music making us otherwise.
     O we were abstract and true.
     How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin,
     That reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down.

This stanza opens with the abstraction of “pure and holy,” and then shifts to images in the next two lines, then back to the abstract with “we were abstract and true,” but in the final two lines is where the movement is more sudden, as it goes from “grace” to “shed skin” in one line, and then in the last line, from the abstraction of “reality” to the concrete of “piebald dog,” and then the blending of abstract and concrete in “would hunt us down.” Wright concretizes the abstraction and makes it come alive in action as reality begins its hunt like a dog. Not all of Wright’s movements concretize abstractions as here, but the juxtapositions do give shape to the abstractions, or what cannot be seen.

A larger scale juxtaposition occurs in “Yard Work”:

     I think that someone will remember us in another time,
     Sappho once said – more or less –
     Her words caught
     Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible.

     I hope so, myself now caught
     Between the edge of landscape and the absolute,
     Which is the same place, and the same sound,
     That she made.

     Meanwhile, let’s stick to business.
     Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible.
     My job is yard work –
     I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.

The “more or less” in line 2 is acknowledgement that language is not exacting. It’s a means of communicating something close to what we mean, or as Wright says in “Sprung Narratives”: “The world is a language we never quite understand, / But we think we catch the drift of” (23). So even though language is part of the experience and a tool for experience, it’s not perfectly mimetic. It’s almost as if language is a gesture towards the truth. But what is truth in “Yard Work”? Is it that space between the visible and invisible? between the utterable and unutterable? – “Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible”? Or is it between the physical and metaphysical? – “Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute.” Or is it the sign? – the word Sappho “made” out of signifier (“the same place”) and the signified (“the same sound”). The word as mediation of experience. Or is truth just keeping busy? Is truth action? Consider his work in the last line: “I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.” here there is measurement (“inch”) and movement (“from here to there”) and distance (however far it is from “here to there”), and are all three of these things are what one needs to identify time. Without movement, there is no time. Wright enacts the passage of time not only by the movement of inchworm, but also with the juxtaposition of past (Sappho) and present. That juxtaposition coupled with the more intricate juxtapositions of language (stanza 1), thought (stanza 2), and action (stanza 3), enables one to record memories and the invisible and the passage of time. Or as he more aptly says in the opening of “Basic Dialogue”:

     The transformation of objects in space,
                                                                or objects in time,
     To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise . . .
     It’s always the same problem –
     Nothing’s more abstract, more unreal,
                                                               than what we actually see.
     The job is to make it otherwise.


Works Cited

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.



Quick Notes on Stephen Dunn

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Stephen DunnStephen Dunn (1939) is an American poet. His book Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He studied under Donald Justice, Philip Booth, and W. D. Snodgrass.

At the end of Dunn’s poem “Introduction to the 20th Century,” he writes, “In difficult times, we come to understand, / it’s the personal and only the personal matters” (83). I think that is a good summary of part of Dunn’s poetry, but there’s more which I’ll I get to in a moment. I also think these lines speak to contemporary American poetry, in general, especially when this poem is read, on one level, as an allegorical history of 20th century Anglo-American poetry. The first stanza traces the metronomic meters and Edwardian poetic imagery of early 20th century poetry to which Modernist poetry reacted. The first stanza also presents the bourgeois sensibility that was beginning to develop at the same time. The next stanza introduces a modernity of people working for “hours, days, weeks,” as well as the rise of city life with its subways. Then there’s the hint of the poets who “felt they had a say in the universe,” as the poet of Modernism felt he/she was a hero doing the important work of saving culture. And so the poets create “a rhythm and a hunch, something local / we could possibly trust.” They created free verse, new localities, and something to believe in. Part of Modernism poetry is the move away from temporality, or causality and the narrative flow of time, and the move towards the place, especially the juxtaposition of places to represent the poly-perspectives of reality, which is best evidenced with Cubism. And then Dunn’s poem arrives at the personal of contemporary American poetry. And when I think about this some more, especially in relation to Dunn, I find the personal also means less hermeneutic. When I read a poem between around 1914ish to 1945ish (the time of Modernism), I feel like a lot of work has to be done to read and understand those poems. I have to look up allusions, look up etymologies, scan quantitative and qualitative rhythms, and, in essence, I almost feel like I’m measuring poetry for how good it is. After 1945, I feel less of that, especially with Dunn.

Dunn, I think, is concentrated on choosing words and putting them in the most evocative and/or effective order, but he’s also creating experiences but not excavation sites. The reader doesn’t have to dwell on each word and dig layers down into the poem. The reader just needs to experience the poem of the personal level that is filled with detail, and then think about what it means to have inhabited that experience. Dunn’s language is easy to follow, but it’s certainly tight.

I think one way to look at Dunn’s poetry, in general, is too look at “Essay on the Personal” (139), which appeared in Not Dancing from 1984, six years after “Introduction to the 20th Century,” which appeared in A Circus of Needs.

     Essay on the Personal

     Because finally the personal
     is all that matters,
     we spend years describing stones,
     chairs, abandoned farmhouses –
     until we’re ready. Always
     it’s a matter of precision,
     what it feels like
     to kiss someone or to walk
     out the door. How good it was
     to practice on stones
     which were things we could love
     without weeping over. How good
     someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
     bankrupt and desperate.
     Now we can bring a fine edge
     to our parents. We can hold hurt
     up to the sun for examination.
     But just when we think we have it,
     the personal goes the way of
     belief. What seemed so deep
     begins to seem naive, something
     that could be trusted
     because we hadn’t read Plato
     or held two contradictory ideas
     or women in the same day.
     Love, then, becomes an old movie.
     Loss seems so common
     it belongs to the air,
     to breath itself, anyone’s.
     We’re left with style, a particular
     way of standing and saying,
     the idiosyncratic look
     at the frown which means nothing
     until we say it does. Years later,
     long after we believed it peculiar
     to ourselves, we return to love.
     We return to everything
     strange, inchoate, like living
     with someone, like living alone,
     settling for the partial, the almost
     satisfactory sense of it.

The poem’s, or essay’s, thesis is, “the personal / is all that matters,” and the poem attempts to prove this twice. The first way occurs in lines 1 to 19, and the second from line 20 to the end. In line 6, Dunn writes, “it’s a matter of precision,” and there is precision of detail throughout Dunn’s poems. It’s a concern of Dunn to be exacting, as he explains in an interview with William Walsh. Dunn tells Walsh how Philip Booth influenced him with this need for this precision: “Philip was an old Puritan and he would write in the margins [of Dunn’s workshop poems], ‘Deepen your concerns!!’ I couldn’t get away with anything. He loved exactitude. Anything imprecise pissed him off” (78). This precision allows Dunn to get intimate and personal. As Norman Dubie says, “details create intimacy,” and I think this is true for Dunn, too, but not wholly true. In the middle of the poem is a turn, and this turn also mimics Dunn’s poetry. The turn begins and ends with, “But just when we think we have it, / the personal goes the way of / belief. What seemed so deep / begins to feel naïve, [. . .] because we hadn’t [. . .] held two contradictory ideas.” This also describes how Dunn’s poetry moves. Dunn also tells Walsh, “My working habits are essentially to doubt everything I write, to refine, and to work myself down the page by disagreeing with myself until I have something I can hold. Then doubt that for a while” (77). Dunn moves by questioning what he writes or assumes. His poems present and consider in order to create hard, believable, and felt experiences. His poetry in other words is a “style, a particular / way of standing and saying, / the idiosyncratic look / at the frown which means nothing / until we say it does.” His poetry, in part, is the poetry of interpreting the personal experiences of himself or a loved one, and then, through language, sharing what the experience means, but it’s a meaning that doesn’t have to be excavated for like a Modernism poem. It’s excavated by the reader turning inward and experiencing the empathy that Dunn experienced.

And now for a non sequitur. In a note I wrote in this book a long time ago, I said, “Stephen Dunn takes the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary, and makes them magical. It’s magical realism that gives middle-class America life, movement, meaning, love, and awe. . . . His poem are ‘approximately true’.”


Works Cited

Dunn, Stephen. New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.

Walsh, William. “An Interview with Stephen Dunn.” Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art 16.1 (2014): 74-91. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. PDF.



Quick Notes on John Ashbery

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


John AsberyJohn Ashbery (July 28, 1927) was born in Rochester, NY. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won the hat-trick of literary prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This book is considered a masterpiece, or at least his masterpiece, and it is what I will try to work though.

In “The Tomb of Stuart Merrill,” Ashbery has a character ask a poet, “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” While it is jesting commentary about what someone might say to a poet at a reading or post-reading party, there is some truth in it, at least for me. It occurs is in the last part, “the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” I think I will mostly focus on this, because the circling back is caused by the manner in which Ashbery writes.

Like Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery is concerned with the reality or the presentation of the real. In that regard, both are metaphysical poets, but Ashbery may be the more metaphysical. Both think that reality is a fiction created by a person or an era, and that it does not sustain itself, which is what Stevens calls the “supreme fiction.” Stevens however tackles the metaphysics of what is real in a traditionally more poetic way – he uses meter, rhyme, and forms. Stevens has developed thoughts about reality. Ashbery, however, is in the moment of thinking and in traditionally non-poetic forms. It’s almost as if Ashbery is thinking on the page or retracing recent thoughts. When I read Ashbery, I find that I am following his thoughts, and then all of the sudden I feel lost. My expectations are subverted by his wandering mind. But this is the reality he is creating – the mind thinking in associations. It’s like a stream of consciousness, but not exactly. With stream of consciousness, the unconscious or suppressed emotions will often reveal themselves, but with Ashbery, we stay on the surface of language and a conscious mind as if “A speech in play consisting entirely of stage directions” (“De Imagine Mundi” 451). Whose mind that is or what stage it is I am not sure, nor is the speaker of “De Imagine Mundi,” who opens the poem: “The many as noticed by one: / The noticed one, confusing itself with the many / Yet perceives itself as an individual” (451). Is the “I” one person? or is fragments of people? or both? Are all fictions and possibilities something to be considered?

Nonetheless, the mind, whoever’s mind it is, is concerned with the present, the moment that is “perpendicular to the ground” (“Voyage in Blue” 445). I like that image of the present. It’s how I envision the present, at least the lyric present, or what Li-Young Lee calls “the vertical moment.” And while the present is perpendicular to the ground, it moves, or as he says in “Grand Galop,” “Here, as elsewhere / April advances new suggestions.” Which is to say the present advances with new suggestions, which feels like a metaphor of the mind thinking, or waiting, which is a theme of “Grand Galop.” The waiting is what “fills up the time between” the now and the future, but this waiting is a creative time – “The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. / Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait / Invests everything in its climate” (436). In this poem, the speaker inhabits, or waits in, the in-between space/time between the present and the next present, which is all anyone can really do. One way to try and describe an Ashbery poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is to refer to the end of “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

     knowing as the brain does it can never come about
     not here not yesterday in the past
     only in the gap of today filling itself
     as emptiness distributed
     in the idea of what time it is
     when that time is already past

This, in part, also describes my reading process of Ashbery, I often find myself reading a poem, then midway through stopping and going back a dozen or so lines to an earlier present in the poem, and starting over again, as I mentioned above. That can happen often in just one poem. This method, I assume, is his way of challenging the reader.

The pace or emotional intensity of Ashbery’s poems are even keeled. There are no rises in sudden enlightenment or understanding, no epiphanies, no grand gesturing. Though there is humor and parodying, such as “Love” (part one of “Poem in Three Parts”), where he parodies Wordsworth idea of “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he says about oral sex he once received, “Now years later, I think of it / Without emotion” (443). Later in the section he will also parody “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A better example of even-keeled manner and parody mixed together is in “River.”

     It thinks itself too good for
     These generalizations and is
     Moved on by them. The opposite side
     Is plunged in shade, this one
     In self-esteem. But the center
     Keeps collapsing and re-forming.
     The couple at a picnic table (but
     It’s too early in the season for picnics)
     Are traipsed across by the river’s
     Unknowing knowledge of its workings
     To avoid possible boredom and the stain
     Of too much intuition the whole scene
     Is walled behind glass. “Too early,”
     She says, “in the season.” A hawk drifts by.
     “Send everybody back to the city.”

This recalls Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” where “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But in Yeats’ poem there is great drama as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “Spiritus Mundi” arrives. Ashbery’s poem, however, is less dramatic. There is a surreal river thinking and picnickers arrive, and the only dramatic thing to occur is that they are out of place, as they are there too early in the season. They are unexpected as the “hawk [that] drifts by,” as opposed to Yeats’ dramatic “rough beast” and other mythic creatures. This poem, like many Ashbery poems, meanders like a “river of consciousness.” The mind moves from noun to noun with only the stream of consciousness connecting the movement, and here in this moment, with no beginning, or an in media res beginning, drifts around from river to people arriving to a hawk to people leaving, which isn’t an end it’s just part of the ever flowing and shifting present. It’s almost as if Ashbery’s poems don’t try to create meaning; they just try to create a mind creating a fictive understanding in a real and mutating moment.

Much of what Ashbery is doing might be best realized in the second stanza of “Ode to Bill”:

     Or, to take another example: last month
     I vowed to write more. What is writing?
     Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
     Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe;
     Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
     Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
     Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.


Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery: Collected Poems: 1956-1987. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 425-487. Print.


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