What is this?
Journal # 3 – Wonderful Things by Ron Padgett and Leaving the Atocha Station by John Ashbery
Ah, how I look back on that heady time in my life, not so long ago, when words were simply words. A time before Saussure came along to tell me that a text really had no meaning at all until I, the reader, assigned one to it. And, if I had any doubt of the validity of his argument, along came Ron Padgett and John Ashbery to test me. Both Wonderful Things by Padgett and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ashbery are “difficult poems”—poems that don’t “mean” anything in a literal way. Lyn Hejinian, in her essay “The Rejection of Closure,” channels Goethe and the idea that there is a “rage to know” and that language inhibits that knowing. Trying to know the unknowable forces me to confront the language in the Padgett and Ashbery poems in unusual and sometimes uncomfortable ways. For example, in Wonderful Things, what exactly is a “tuba that is a meadowful of bluebells” (28)? The only clue we receive from Padgett is that it is “a wonderful thing” (29). Perhaps I missed something. Maybe if I stare a little longer at the zany chirping birds that are, apparently, riding our radio waves I will gain a better understanding. Hmmm—or maybe not. Is Padgett trying to make me feel like, in his words, a helpless moron? Or maybe a translation of the only line in French, “buveur de l’opium chaste et doux” (3) will provide a clue. Yes, “drinker of pure and soft opium”—that’s it! He was clearly high when he wrote this—that explains everything! Or is he talking about the dead Anne from the first line? Nevertheless, imagining that he was writing this in a hallucinogenic haze encouraged me to look at the poem from a less literal perspective, to see and appreciate the humor in it, and to release my preconceived notion that it had to be “about” something. In letting go, I enjoy Wonderful Things a great deal. Even so, there does seem to be a narrative going on in Padgett’s poem that I can wrap my mind around—I could take no such solace in Ashbery’s piece.
If Padgett’s poem is the stoned guy at the party with the perpetual smile, Ashbery’s poem, Leaving the Atocha Station, is the insane, bug-eyed guy on the corner blurting obscenities at passersby. Trying to force Ashbery’s poem into some kind of storyline proves futile and frustrating. Although it may be fun to hang out at the “epileptic prank forcing bar” (40) it is hard to be sure whether he is talking about a place or an object—or, just as likely, neither. I finally gave up trying to make sense of Ashbery’s poem and instead focused on the images that he creates and the structure itself. Even if I don’t get it, I still like to imagine how the “arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness” (1), or “the fried bats they sell there dropping from sticks” (3-4). Why does the “garment crow” (31) get his own line? Perhaps only the “fist”(64) can truly know. When Hejinian’s talks about a dictionary full of words that “seem frenetic with activity” (654) and finding the exchanges in definitions to be “ incompletely reciprocal,” (655) she is describing Leaving the Atocha Station. Just like the lunatic on the corner, Atocha demands your attention. You walk quickly by, day after day, trying to tune him out. Because you don’t have a clue what he’s ranting about you try to ignore him. And then, one day, after crazy guy is gone—in jail, frozen to death, institutionalized—you realize that you miss him, that you wish you had paid more attention to what he was saying while he was still there, pissing and cussing in the alley.