Monday, September 4, 2017

My John Ashbery Story

Lost in the bustle yesterday of both Labor Day weekend and Walter Becker's death (and that is tragic; I am a closet Steely Dan fan) was the death too of American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery is eulogized quite nicely by the New York Times but I want to add my memory too.

My friend Rick Robbins has a collection titled Famous Persons We Have Known and I've often thought about writing a book with just such a title. My John Ashbery story would be one of the best, in my opinion, because I've rarely met anyone as full of grace and politesse as John.

In the late-80s, between my divorce and last marriage, I spent a lot of time spooning with many, many people (sorry, none of them were famous), and one of them was Shelley. I've spoken a little of what's become of her since but she's not the focus here. Anyway, Shelley came from money and she knew a lot of moneyed people, most of them through her dad, a nutrition guru. One day she was driving me back from somewhere up north we'd gone, Vermont or the Adirondacks, and we passed through the town I'd grown up near, Hudson, New York, in those days just becoming a tourist mecca, and as we drove down Fairview Avenue, the main drag into town, she pointed at a pretty, older home  and said, "My friend John lives there. Let's go see him."

Now, keep in mind two things. While I had grown up near the town I knew almost nothing about it or the more well-heeled people who lived there. And that this was 12:30 at night and we had been drinking wine since probably 3 the afternoon before.

Shelley swung into the driveway--there was almost no traffic on the street--and we noisily got out of the car and giggled our way to the door, where she rang the bell. The bell's sound was mellifluous, less like a buzz summoning the host and more like a relaxed chime saying, "Hello, I've come to see you." A light came on in the hallway and the curtains covering the window on the door parted a bit to admit a white, questioning face, that became more questioning as it recognized who had rung the bell.

The door opened and John Ashbery asked, "Shelley? Is something wrong?" And she said quickly, "No, we just dropped by so I could introduce my friend Bobby to you." I was a dabbler in poetry then, writing some and reading more, and while I hadn't read any of his work, I had heard the name John Ashbery, so I knew if I'd heard it then it must have been a well-known name. We shook hands and he said, "Well, come in, please." He led us to a small cozy room that I could probably remember if I'd been more sober, but I was not. He offered us something to drink, and we wisely asked for water as we had at least an hour's drive ahead of us.

So the three of us sat there in his little sitting room in the town near where I'd grown up, the so-famous-I'd-heard-of-him poet, the drunk girl from money, and the drunker me who didn't need fame or money. The two of them carried the conversation, which was good, because it mostly revolved around Shelley's family and other wealthy people they knew, and my head was reeling at the recognition we'd just rung the doorbell of a famous person and waltzed in during the middle of the night when by rights we should be sleeping our drunks off and he should have been let alone. His water I can describe in detail: It was wet and cold, probably Poland Spring and doubtless kept cold in the refrigerator, and the glass, which was the same heavy, dull glass my parents had, sweated in my hand. It tasted lemony and clear, not like the water I'd grown up with around there. John asked me some polite questions--"What do you do? Where do you live? How do you know Shelley?"--none of which really had the sorts of answers I wished I could have told him.

But I mentioned his politesse and I can describe that, if not as completely as his glass of water, then nearly so. The word I would use about him was attentive. I felt as if he was completely there in the room with us, which again remember were two people who had invaded his home in the middle of the night for no better reason than an introduction. That he should be that way with Shelley, the daughter of a friend, didn't surprise me. But that I should be treated the same way did surprise me. I remember thinking, "This man is paying attention to me, an overfed, long-haired hippie who showed up on his doorstep out of nowhere to drink his water and take up his time, and who really has no claim on that time beyond sharing his sitting room for a little while." (This is in retrospect. I think I thought more in pictographs back then as I was rarely coherent enough for words.) I never felt, either, that I was being watched closely because of what I might do or break or steal--a sort of watching I was very familiar with in those days--but because this was how he sat with everyone. This attention I think came from his being at peace with himself and with the world, an impression that he knew what his place in life was and how he was to live it. I have since tried to emulate that peace, and if I have, it's a tribute to how well John Ashbery treated me.

After about 20 minutes, he said, "Well, if it's all right with you I would like to go to bed," which sounded from him less like an invitation to leave and more a straightforward telling us of his plans. I drank the rest of my water--Shelley had gulped hers down in a quick, impulsive way, the way she did everything--and we stood up and he walked us back to his porch and bade us goodnight. We got back in the car and drove the rest of the way talking about mundane things. At one point she asked, "What did you think of John?" and I said, "I liked him. I really liked him. He was a real human being."

Here is a poem by Ashbery. I like to pretend he might have written if he'd known what my meeting him had done for me.

"My Philosophy of Life"

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one... 

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