Breezeway Homage No. 8, “Own the blankness.”

"Own the blankness." Susan Scheid (2015)

“Own the blankness.” Susan Scheid (2015)

The collage pays homage to John Ashbery’s poem “Heading Out” in the volume Breezeway. John Ashbery’s poem “Auburn-Tinted Fences,” in his volume Quick Questionincludes the word “glacis.After reading the poem at an Interview hosted by Al Filreis, February 12, 2013, [item 3 at ~4:10], Ashbery quipped, “I wonder if what I was really trying to do was to fit the word glacis into a poem. I’m not entirely sure what it means.” [listen to the audio here]  I suspect the same might be true for “sockdolager,” which Ashbery uses in “Heading Out.” “Heading Out” is, itself, a sockdolager of a poem, about which this collage offers but a glancing glimpse.

Listening List

Sergei Prokofiev, Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-17) (with thanks to Bert Carter at GCAS for noting these works)

On Spotify (Matti Raekallio, pianist)

On YouTube (Steven Osborne, pianist)

These twenty miniatures (average length about a minute) take . . . their title and inspiration from these lines by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, / Full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” . . . Prokofiev’s biographer Israel Nestyev describes them as “something like entries in a diary” and as “experiments from a laboratory, a storehouse of materials to be used in the future large works of a composer always eager to increase the scope of his art.” [citation]

Also on Youtube, with thanks to David Nice for noting it, Prokofiev plays Prokofiev, 9 Pieces from Visions Fugitives.

Bonus Track: John Ashbery at Kelly Writers House 2-12-2013, discussing Auburn-Tinted Fences with Al Filreis; photograph of John Ashbery by David Shankbone. (The discussion of “glacis” starts at 4:10.)


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

17 thoughts on “Breezeway Homage No. 8, “Own the blankness.”

  1. shoreacres

    I just read it. Then, I read it again. And, yes: a third time. It occurs to me that having a Kindle on which to read these poems is (here I go again) a mixed blessing.

    None the less, I tried. I think I found a reference to a bridge game. And I laughed at his “Lutheran tea party.” That’s such a strange reference: almost oxymoronish. Maybe I hung around the wrong Lutherans, but tea party isn’t the first social occasion that comes to mind.

    In any event, I’ve read another Ashbery poem. I even read it aloud, and then tried reading it without thinking about it. Maybe I should just own the blankness.

    1. shoreacres

      And, I very much like the collage. Clearly, you gleaned more from the poem than I did. I did read the poem again, from the perspective of an apartment manager. That helped to bring some sense to some of the lines.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: I love the idea of reading the poem from the perspective of an apartment manager and of course wondered how you arrived at that approach. Some lines that caught my imagination and to which I keep returning, are

        . . . Here or elsewhere
        both rank object and sturdy cult fixture, everything fits,
        and finding its place, loses it. Yet so much memory
        is stored in this little bin we’d be sure to trip over it
        if that were allowed.

        As I worked on the collage, its darker aspects, or what I perceived to be darker aspects, kept coming forward, winding down to that ominous line, “The song of mud/learning to handle it.” A motif of Ashbery’s I feel I often see, and that appears in this poem, relates to what’s acceptable (allowed) and what’s not, and where one stands in relation to that. Here, for example, are some lines from Some Trees I particularly like.

        Arranging by chance

        To meet as far this morning
        From the world as agreeing
        With it

        (Here’s a link to the whole poem:

        But I do continue to find, in Heading Out, many lines that continue to escape my grasp. I just figure, over time, the poem will reveal itself to me by degrees (or not). I, too, try to “own the blankness,” and seem somehow to enjoy the journey, for after all, “The place [is] above all creative.”

        Or, as Ashbery has written, “That, at least, is my hope.” (from Musica Reservata:

        1. Steve Schwartzman

          Speaking of “Arranging by chance / To meet…,” I’m reminded of the song “Hello, Young Lovers” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” The relevant stanza is:

          I know how it feels to have wings on your heels
          And to fly down the street in a trance.
          You fly down a street on the chance that you’ll meet,
          And you meet — not really by chance.

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            Steve: I wouldn’t put it past Ashbery to have had the very song in mind when he wrote those lines. (The musical premiered in 1951; Ashbery’s collection containing Some Trees was published in 1956.)

            1. Steve Schwartzman

              I hadn’t realized the closeness of the dates, a fact that supports your hypothesis of one set of words inspiring the other. I remember hearing songs from “The King and I” on Arthur Godfrey’s television show in around 1952, so I just did a search to see if I could find anything connecting John Ashbery and Arthur Godfrey. You probably won’t be surprised that I turned up nothing.

  2. Brian Buck

    Hey Susan, Strangely enough I got a CD of the Prokofiev this year. A nice recording by Anna Gourari on ECM, my favorite label. Among their other offerings this year was a recent compilation of Arvo Part, “Musica Selecta” chosen by the producer and label head, Manfred Eicher. But if you really want some amazing piano wait a couple weeks when Brad Mehldau releases a 4 CD set of his improvised piano concerts over the last 10 yrs on Nonesuch … I still remember that I first listened to Coltrane because you made us model a big blob of grey clay while listening to “Ascension” one Sunday’s eve. It was 5 years before I dared listen to him again and then I couldn’t stop of course. However be assured I will NEVER have a copy of Ascension on my record shelf. LOL

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: Now that’s a great coincidence about the Prokofiev. As for Ascension, your memory is far too good for my own good. Ah, such suffering for one’s art!

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I like your choice of musical accompaniment to this poem (Balmont comes close to describing the poem, full of little visions). Visually this is one of the most striking of the series. I love what’s going on with the grays and blues and the contrasts, the drops like suspended planets, the drinking vessels next to that parched bird silhouette (eagle? And if so, the United States? But why parched? Just as those drops are like little moons, liquid refreshment seems to be offered but out of reach). Visually it’s rather Max Ernst-like. Poem aside one could construct a simple narrative with that army suspended, like those planet-droplets, against its thirst. But looking at the uniforms they seem to be North Koreans. And then I’m thrown off by the shape they’re in. If that’s a landmass I don’t know what it is. But then there’s so little about North Korea that we know…

    Your collage holds the attention as much if not more than the poem, which is a joy to read. And both retain so much mystery.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: “Full of little visions” is exactly it! I’m amazed that you recognized the soldiers as North Korean–I don’t know that I would have done, if I hadn’t known. Your commentary elevates my small imaginings; it’s a pleasure to see the collage through your eyes. In making it, much more by happenstance than by design, I became interested in the shapes created by cut-out silhouettes. I can’t recall exactly what I’d first intended with the bird (a seagull, as it happens), but I picked up the leftover cut-out around it, and turning it over, it seemed to me I had an element I couldn’t do without. Similarly, among the soldiers was a foreground head of one I didn’t want and cut out, leaving an inscrutable, peopled land mass of sorts. Elements of the poem seemed to waft through the visuals, notably the single drop, the rainbow glass, the sturdy cult figure, the hundreds of witnesses, the leader who had been staring fervently, and above all, the mud.

  4. shoreacres

    I was so caught up in the poem and your collage, I neglected the music. When I came back to see what you’d chosen, I was delighted by the coincidence. I just purchased tickets for a concert sponsored by Houston Da Camera — Solzhenitsyn Plays Prokofiev (specifically, the Piano Sonatas 7 and 8 in B-flat Major). The concert isn’t until March, but it’s being held at the Menil collection, where the space is small and ticket availability is limited. I didn’t want to miss out.

    Here’s the description, from Da Camera’s site:

    “Following the triumphant release of ‘Live from Moscow: Solzhenitsyn Plays Prokofiev,’ renowned pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn performs Prokofiev’s monumental sonatas, written after the composer’s return home to Stalinist Russia following 18 years of exile.

    Solzhenitsyn joins Sarah Rothenberg in a post-concert discussion about Prokofiev’s return, the Soviet Union, and the life and work of his father, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel prize-winning author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the historic publication that revealed life in the Stalinist gulag to the western world.”

    I’ve been pondering Solzhenitsyn recently: specifically, his essay “Live Not By Lies.” I’ve been wanting to do something with it, but hadn’t found a way. Maybe this will be it.

    In any event, I’m looking forward to re-reading many of your posts. I have this sudden urge to familiarize myself with Prokofiev.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You know, when Bert, at GCAS, posted the Visions Fugitives, I also had a sudden urge, to go back and listen to Prokofiev, including getting the complete piano concertos on CD, as I realized some I only had on vinyl. I may have only one “substantive” post about him, though it happens to be on the subject of the very piano sonatas you’ll be hearing., though I do include musical selections and some information in various listening lists. The recording I write about was my introduction to the war sonatas–two of which you’ll be hearing. How I envy you this concert and discussion, which should be fascinating, not to mention in a fabulous location. I hope you will write about the experience, as I’d love to read your take.

  5. David N

    That’s a lot of scrolling down in the Ashbery archive – and I must have got the wrong interview, because I got one of the longest pauses I’ve heard in a conversation and then an ‘I don’t know what I meant there’. He’s either a prickly or a thoughtful interviewee. I must go back and get the right one.

    Best performance of Visions Fugitives I’ve heard was Jeremy Denk’s at Bard. Absoutely all of a piece. And Prokofiev’s own recording of some of them is the best of the few things he committed to recording (in Paris in 1935).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You deserve some kind of medal for scrolling down all that. I’ve found a way to embed the mp3 directly, and it’s in the post and the sidebar. I would so love to hear Jeremy Denk perform the Visions Fugitives. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for that chance.

      Also, and entirely unrelated to all of this, I think you might enjoy this post by the Edu-Mate about Halloween at her school. (It’s called “I am not a fan of Halloween,” but as you’ll see, that’s a teaser leading, above-all, to an adorable slideshow of Halloween as celebrated at the school:

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    As for sockdolager: most dictionaries say the origin is unknown or speculate that the word may be an extension of sock in its sense of ‘punch, it.’ I just noticed, though, that the 1913 Webster’s, that enormous dictionary that used to be on a stand of its own in libraries, claimed that sockdolager is a corruption of doxology. That seems like a stretch, but stranger things have happened.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Yes, I remember running across that also, while searching for a definition of sockdolager (it’s referenced in the hyperlink). You may be amused to know that the full line in Ashbery’s poem that includes the word is “Well I was talking about it, doxology, sockdolager.” Wonder whether Ashbery has that 1913 Webster’s, too!

Comments are closed.