Breezeway Homage No. 5, “the inauspicious leavings of a day”

"the inauspicious leavings of a day." Susan Scheid (2015)

“the inauspicious leavings of a day.” Susan Scheid (2015)

The collage pays homage to John Ashbery’s poem “Gravy for the Prisoners” in the volume Breezeway. The poem’s gentle, often elegiac, rumination on the process of living puts in mind these lines from The Skaters:

So much has passed through my mind this morning
That I can give you but a dim account of it:
It is already after lunch, the men are returning to their positions around the cement mixer
And I try to sort out what has happened to me.

Listening List

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3

As a very slender reed of connection (really only in my mind) between Symphony No. 3 and Ashbery’s poem, Mahler described the opening of the fourth movement (Sehr langsam—Misterioso) as akin to “awakening after a confused dream–or rather a gentle return to consciousness of one’s own reality.” [Peter Franklin, Mahler: Symphony, Issue 3 at 66]

On Spotify (Nott/Bamberger)

On YouTube (Abbado/Lucerne) (the fourth movement begins at about 59:55)

Click here and here for program notes on Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.


Credits: The text in the collage is from Ashbery’s poem “Gravy for the Prisoners.” The image and underlying collage, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

10 thoughts on “Breezeway Homage No. 5, “the inauspicious leavings of a day”

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    I’m fascinated by the up-and-down motion of this one, with its figures falling and floating and that kind of lava of air flowing down to that vessel with its upward growing leaf. Those strange lines behind the doll figure are very ambiguous: suggesting (because of the figures) marionette lines detached from puppet, but also net or web-like and potentially able to capture someone or thing and yet at the same time slick. Meanwhile those strange blue dots seem to slide up and down. The viewer has a feeling of being unable to get a grip. The poem too evokes (for me) a somewhat perturbing sense of expansiveness, particularly that line about “wisps” that “buttonhole us in random moats.” I wonder what the gravy for the prisoners might be, other than the sense of uncertainty or the unknown being meager compensation for imprisonment.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: It’s such a pleasure–and a tremendous gift–to have your responses to the collages. While I hadn’t consciously thought of “marionette lines detached from the puppet,” I love that idea, and I did come away from the poem with a strong feeling of free-fall or at least free-floating, in response to the poem–so much of the language and imagery seems to go to that. Your observation about a “perturbing sense of expansiveness” makes absolute sense to me–powerfully present, to me, in this passage particularly: “The grounds were ultimately too large for the compound.” I like your take on the title, too, and I’ll note something on that in response to shoreacres.

  2. shoreacres

    For me, the phrase “gravy for the prisoners” brings to mind an Annie Dillard observation in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” She says: “‘The world has signed a pact with the devil. It had to. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. This is what we know. The rest is gravy.”

    The implication is that it’s the unknown that’s “gravy,” and there’s a hint of that in Ashbery’s last lines: “Was it this you were expecting, and if not, why not?”

    Even those of us walking around free can be prisoners of our expectations, and when the unexpected shows up, it can throw us into a free fall not unlike those shown in your collage.

    I do wish Ashbery had excised “Yeah, I know. Know what I’m saying?” I felt like someone had let Vinnie from New Jersey into the compound — but perhaps that was the point.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Interesting passage from Annie Dillard, which puts me in mind of the famous Rabbi Hillel story: “A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah, the five books of Moses, while standing on one foot. And Hillel did. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That’s the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Yours and Mark’s takes on “gravy” seem to me to be very much in accord. The title makes me stop and think about possible different connotations of “gravy,” and the juxtaposition of “gravy” with “prisoners” seems to further complicate the equation. So, for example, on the one side, there’s “gravy” as in “gravy train,” and on the other there’s “gravy” as a watery, low nutritional value substitute for solid food, as in “Supper consisted of potatoes and some kind of gravy.” Here’s an interesting analysis of the title (and of the poem as a whole) I ran across:

      1. shoreacres

        I’ve always enjoyed tales of Rabbi Hillel. This was one I hadn’t heard. As for my tongue-in-cheek comment about the apparent aside from the guy from Jersey, it seems that in a strange sort of way, I “got” what the analyst you quoted “got.”

        Something else that occured to me is that, down here in the South, “gravy” can be an important food in its own right. Sausage or ham gravy on biscuits is a perfectly acceptable supper, and there are restaurants that have “bowl of gravy” in their list of sides. It can be the ultimate comfort food. How that accords with the poem, I can’t say, but it’s yet another take on gravy.

        An amusing side note: one of my customers had a large Grand Banks trawler he named “Biscuit.” I tried for years to get him to name his tender “Gravy,” but it never happened.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres: You’ve just reminded me of two “southern gravy” memories: the first was learning that coffee grounds are an essential ingredient for red-eye gravy. The second was sitting with two colleagues in a coffee shop, I think in Milledgeville, when one of them (Alice) ordered cantaloupe with cream gravy.

      1. shoreacres

        Thanks, Mark. I used to be a little hesitant to add my two cents in the midst of all this erudition, but I’m getting over that. Dillard’s been a favorite for years, and I’ve read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” so many times, it’s my literary version of “The Rocky Horror Show” — in the sense that I remember and can call up many of her best lines.

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