The collage takes its name from the poem “The Pie District” in John Ashbery’s collection Breezeway. Many of Ashbery’s lifelong preoccupations and motifs are present in this poem, or so it seems to me. Just as one glimpse, in reading the second stanza, I think of What Is Poetry: “In school/All the thought got combed out,” and from Soonest Mended, this:
. . . the avatars
Of our conforming to the rules and living
Around the home have made—well, in a sense, “good citizens” of us,
Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
The title and reference to it in the poem takes me back to Part IV of The Skaters and its allusions to classical Chinese poetry, though this marks only a small aspect of the poem’s “goofy elixir/locked in its dark depths.”
The Pie District refers to a “bandoneon.” I learned that Astor Piazzolla is considered not only a modern master of the instrument, but also the composer credited (or blamed, depending on one’s perspective) with revolutionizing the tango. When I went in search of his music, however, I kept coming back to Giya Kancheli‘s Instead of a Tango. . . instead. That is all the reason or excuse I can offer for presenting it here now.
Kancheli’s work is included in an album, featuring the brilliant violinist Gidon Kremer, that includes mostly Astor Piazzolla’s work, and may be heard in its entirely on Spotify here. Since Spotify’s metadata is, well, spotty, this link will help readers parse which works are Piazzolla’s, which are not, and which are somewhere in between.
Credits: The text in the collage, aside from the title of the Ashbery poem to which the collage relates, accompanied the description of the image of the woman with the bird on her shoulder. The image and underlying collage, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
There’s a tropical flair to your pies, with all that lemon and lime (key lime pie is a big deal down here). I love that you used ‘Instead of a Tango’ to accompany this collage/poem. Not that it’s a cheesy knockoff, any more than the “fake” Frans Hals is (one of the most forged painters, if I’m not mistaken). But it never quite becomes a tango. Speaking of cheesy knockoffs, that’s kind of what “Four negatives makes a positive” is. It sounds like some kind of rule for logicians or designers, but it’s meaningless. Unless you consider four items that have no positive content in themselves (in the sense of a real nail you can hang your rational hat on) coming together to produce one whole poem or collage. Your collage has a very four-square grid construction, like a Mondrian. I’m going to resist reading any significance into the Hawaiian motif and the reference to Nixon (or Adams’ ‘Nixon’), since last time I read too much.
On the poem itself, I have to say I like the other poems you’ve referenced much more, especially ‘Soonest Mended’. But ‘The Pie District’ has a lot of charm and whimsy going for it. It seems to be very much a product of Ashbery the collector. The various components of the poem seem as if puzzle pieces manufactured by the same toy company from the same time period–long defunct. But they’re pieces from different puzzles–all the same style, but taken from different wholes, so we can’t put a picture together. We can create analogues though, just as you have done. No childhood game was ever this much fun.
Mark: Do you know that “Four negatives make a positive” got right by me? Nonsense that masquerades as sense, though, as that does, seems to me a central strand of this poem. My antenna always go up when he makes reference to things like joining city hall or getting straight A’s. Foiled expectations are sure to follow, and indeed they do. The poem certainly swerves and swivels. Your idea of pieces from several different puzzles makes a lot of sense–and not so far from the “truth” when it came to putting together this collage. The materials I have at hand, far more than any idea I have, dictate what ends up on the page. So, Mrs. Browne, “streaking past the hedges/sparkling with dew” becomes that Hawaiian woman, whom I thought had a certain flair, or even exuberance, and the Nixons arriving in China are some sort of bizarre amalgam of “city hall,” that “self-monitoring system,” and the (to me), classical Chinese poetry-inflected pie district itself. Or something like that, who knows? You are right. No childhood game was ever this much fun.
I must confess I was looking forward to this post: not so much for the poem as for your collage. I think this one is splendid, and one of your best. I’m not sure what it is that makes it so compelling, but I do have a fondness for lemon and key lime: and hibiscus, for that matter.
As for the poem? I have my suspicions. For example: what if “pie day” also could be read as “pi day”? After all, “the number π is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.” In short, pi is quite pie-like. It’s often given as 3.14, and I’m reminded of the lines:
It’s been three years now —
That’s just it — we don’t know!
Do it the hard way.
And then there’s that 180 degree swivel.
At any rate, what with the Fifth Avenue bars and the streaking through the dew, I liked this the best of any of the poems you’ve presented. I even read it twice, and then again.
shoreacres: That you were looking forward to this post for the collage, well, I’m speechless! I was delighted, finally, to have an opportunity to use that Hawaii postcard (which in turn demanded that I use yellow in the background). Once again, you’ve brought a fascinating angle to the poem. It never occurred to me to think “pi,” but of course now that you point it out, there are several mathematical allusions. “Four negatives make a positive” is another, and how about “Two things that went up and never/came back.” What it all adds up to? Hard to say, but it sure makes for an entertaining ride. I know that part of its particular charm for me lies in the closing lines, ending with “And we go out and visit,” which put in mind immediately the epigraph for this blog: “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit.”
“Do it the hard way” could qualify as a math reference, too. One of my cousins teaches math from time to time, and a few years ago he was infamous for insisting that his students be able to use a slide rule. When they begged to be allowed to use their calculators, he’d say, “Do it the hard way.”
shoreacres: Slide rules! I haven’t thought about them since the age of the flood. I remember a fellow, quintessential nerd, probably went on to win a Nobel prize or something of the sort, who carried one in his shirt pocket. Never know when you might need to make a calculation! I can’t remember whether, in the age of the slide rule, the hard way was doing calculations by hand.
“Cleaning the teeth’ is simple good sense. I wish I’d paid more attention to it when I was a child (and adult, for that matter). Do I see the prelude to “News, news, news, news has a, has a kind of mystery’ in the collage? Spirit of 76?
Ashbery continues to baffle me, but I’m still only getting fragments.
David: Well, when you’re right, you’re right (about “brushing the teeth”–I was well drilled in that and loved visiting my dentist, if you can imagine, so I was lucky on that score). The metaphorical level works differently, of course. Yes, indeed you do see the prelude to Nixon in China in the collage. Various lines in the poem suggested the Nixon years and China under Mao and otherwise, but I wouldn’t be able to carry the reference too far, just an association between materials I had at hand and language in the poem. On Ashbery, you’re game to come on by and comment, and I thank you. Though I enjoyed playing around in collage form with this poem, like Mark, I also prefer What Is Poetry and Soonest Mended, particularly the latter. Much in those poems, too, that one might find baffling, but there are for me so many resonating lines. One of my favorites in Soonest Mended is “This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.”
I simply need to get hold of a hard-copy volume of Ashbery poems and concentrate, instead of glozing superficially on a couple of lines as I keep doing here.
David: Please don’t feel obliged on this, but if you’d like, here’s a poem I really cherish: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/just-walking-around, “Just Walking Around,” which he wrote for his longtime partner, David Kermani. Ashbery is a deadpan reader, so I’d say read, rather than listen to the audio.
David: I just came across something Leon Botstein said about Ashbery I thought you, in particular, might find interesting. (Ashbery was on Bard’s faculty from 1990-2008.) “I have done lots of rare opera but it was John who put me onto Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus which I went on to record. His taste and discernment is extraordinary and the breadth of interests is absolutely remarkable.” The quote’s source is here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/apr/23/featuresreviews.guardianreview13