A Graceful Kind of Non-Absence (essay)

John Ashbery might be the only poet capable of, on the one hand, naming a poem “The National Debt” and, on the other, making it sing. The commonplace diktats of Ashbery criticism—that the poems tinker with temporality (“Day is almost reluctant to decline / And slowing down opens out new avenues” [“Scheherazade”]); that they convert time to space (“further seasons coagulate / into years, like spilled, dried paint” [“Alcove”]); that Ashbery places into the commons of the poem a polyphonic collage of registers, speakers, and unbounded pronouns—all these are on display in “The National Debt”’s opening stanza:

We bought the pudding close to the ground
for the mewling sound its creases make. 
But there was another coming up, the goddess fixture
from whom no reckoning was assuaged. Ah,
the mathematics of earlier tea times.
And when he had sung into it, why,
it was useless to assert valid countervalences.
Yes, that was only for a few nobles
in the golden chamber. Starshine and a few good
fallen breezes, to remind us where else we were at.

As always, there’s pleasant treachery in taking Ashbery’s referents too literally; better, often, to be a netless lepidopterist and recognize the floating language without the bad alchemy of capture. (As Ashbery says later in this poem, “The content gets to be / infected, or slips out of focus.”) Still, “pudding” “bought … close to the ground,” the “mathematics of earlier tea times,” “nobles / in the golden chamber”—one could be forgiven for imagining an English setting, perhaps in the Thatcherite era. Ashbery has placed into the commons of the poem the sounds of folded bills (“creases”) and a set of unforgiving fiscal belt-tighteners: “the goddess fixture / from whom no reckoning was assuaged” (Thatcher, more or less) and “the nobles / in the golden chamber” (more or less, the House of Lords) on most of whom “assert[ing] valid countervalences” is lost. Countering austerity, so long as it bakes in elite reverence or nostalgic worship of bad deficit “mathematics,” is a snipe hunt, only ever liable to peel off one or two technocratic Lords. On to the (more populist) House of Commons, maybe, while the deficit hawks stay indoors, taking tea, and democracy flits outside: “Starshine and a few good / fallen breezes, to remind us where else we were at.”

Meanwhile, “time is money,” the harried entrepreneur reminds us, tapping his watch, and the critics remind us Ashbery is the poet of time become space. If money is not always his topical focus,1 by tracking the physics of space-time in Ashbery (how space and time interact, more than the mere fact of their interaction), I argue we can elicit an understanding of money, together with time, as a limitless social medium. This is a definition of money advanced by the neo-chartalist school of macroeconomics known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT); “Liberal” conceptions of money, on the other hand—traces of which pollute waters as disparate as trickle-down Thatcherite austerity and Marxist exchange theory—either misunderstand the power of money as social mediation, or else treat it as private and alienable, a physical and thus redistributable chit rather than an abstract creature of public law. Googling “Time is money” returns, as the top hit, a post on Medium.com (!) in which a blogger/financial planner explains “time is money” “doesn’t mean what you think it means”; actually, “time is a limited resource even more than money.” If time is money, the specific physics of space-time in Ashbery ought to line up with a specific figuration of money; while the aesthetics of neoliberalism and private money are what Scott Ferguson calls, in Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care, “gravitropic” (bought to the ground, say; contracted, contiguous), the aesthetics of public money thematize “the boundless public center” out of which, like the disjunctive commons of an Ashbery poem, social conjunction is coordinated at a distance. Where, in time and money, the Medium.com financial planner sees limited resources, MMT—and I argue Ashbery—sees a social medium of limitlessness; where the blogger has only his alternative in mind in saying “time is money” “doesn’t mean what you think it means,” any Ashbery poem testifies that though the poem doesn’t mean what you think it means, neither will it be b(r)ought down to a univocal meaning (“You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.” [“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”]); where austerity is, of course, often aesthetically austere, monetary abundance and sensuous abundance go hand in sparkling hand (“Meanwhile,” begins the stanza in “The National Debt” following the excerpt above, “I was pleasured.”). 

The physics in Ashbery’s poems assert their “valid countervalences” against a neoliberal atomism; Ashbery’s electrons are jumpy, abstract, orbital-hopping. A defining feature of movement in Ashbery is often unequal but usually opposite countermovement, in defiance of gravitropism. This too is on display in “The National Debt”: “the pudding close to the ground” countered by “another coming up” two lines down; “the weight of my hair shimmers” though shimmering has a veil-thin lightness to it; seemingly horizontal isobars of wind countervailed with verticality and falling: the “fallen breezes” whose antigravity nevertheless “remind[s] us where else we were at.” 

As if in poetical rejoinder to another trope of embodiment—the analogy of money to movements of water—menisci in Ashbery are always wavering, unstable; water may rise and fall, but that national debt can do the same need not drain our attention. “The National Debt” continues:

Meanwhile I was pleasured.
Alternate forms of transport
brought surf to the eyelids,
will be provided those unlucky enough
to find themselves in such a position
that time tomorrow. 

Spurning the default gravity of debt levels, surf can be brought to eye level and countenanced without resort to what MMT economist Stephanie Kelton calls the deficit myth. Alternate forms of transport here might mean literal means of conveyance—perhaps a modernization of the fraying London Tube system—but might also convey publicly-funded sensuousness—aesthetic transport; a trip to the Tate, famously defunded under Thatcher—“creasing” the abstract bills of public money in service of, as Ferguson writes, “not only an economic floor for collective production but also a sensory floor for worldly experience.”

Ashbery’s poems, then, are everywhere flicking the antigravity switch for those unlucky enough to truck in gravitropic figures of money. Consider these lines from “Clepsydra” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966):

… likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: but
The sky has pleaded already and this is about
As graceful a kind of non-absence as either
Has a right to expect: whether it’s the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as parts of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival …

“Clepsydra” is itself taken to be a staggering arrival of a developed Ashberyian grammar. Ben Lerner, in analyzing more or less this segment of the unbroken, 260+ line poem, notes the titular metaphor of a Greek water clock, not only an apt image for the flow of Ashbery’s language—more form than content, more money-as-time than money-as-space—but also for the discombobulation wrought by the bad mathematics of the debt clock. Ashbery’s “bounding from air to air,” an antigravitropic truth, never grounds us in the zany, too-embodied chaos of federal debt mechanics, keeping us aloft in the boundless public center, where money is generated out of thin air (via public law; via Ashbery’s slippery authorship) and circulated “from air to air” (via remote social mediation).

In “Clepsydra,” Lerner also sees three of Ashbery’s signature formal tics: (1) near-boundless sentence length, whose subjects tend toward abstraction by the time the tidal syntactic waves come to ebb; (2) hypotaxis, the lexicon of logic (if, yet, so, whether), a threat to dam the lines with rationality that never materializes because the logic within the poem is unresolvable; and (3) deixis—or I would say a kind of counterdeixis—in which the many instances of it, tomorrow, this, and so on invite the reader, as Lerner writes, “to defer identifying antecedents and to await a clarification of context that rarely arrives.” The combination of these produces, then, the precise affect of the modern money relation, in which what I am calling counterdeixis emanates from the boundless public center, nominates an unfixed set of pronominal abstractions (the shifting you, I, and we of the commons), initiates a shared aesthetic and ethic of care (if the poem’s referents don’t cohere outside the poem—if the clock’s droplet only drips and never touches down—there is a kind of social coherence and mutualism inside the poem), and proceeds with boundlessness, its long lines daring the graceless charge of inflation, its teasing hypotaxis lampooning the technocrats’ bad debt mathematics. 

All of this amounts to a poetics of care, mediated at a distance—a graceful kind of non-absence. Lerner focuses on how thwarted reference in Ashbery cultivates a sort of Buddhistic attention, because content is never reified, always remains “beyond the plain level” (“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”): “when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately.” What Lerner calls Ashbery’s lyric mediacy or, as above, immediate mediacy is itself a countervalence to what Scott Ferguson calls mediated immediacy, using the latter term to critique discourses that insist money is social mediation but mediation bent on immanence, ready to fall for Ashbery’s faux-hypotaxis and be b(r)ought, crashing, to the ground. Poetry, though written alone, need not contract to the solidity of a singular “I”; money, whatever its grounding stench of private exchange—itself a product of incomplete or willfully distorted histories of money—is better understood as an organizing public utility, a limitless medium through which future social provisioning can be collectively molded. Just as Ashbery’s poems are prototypes for raising the “sensory floor” while the debt clock and its peddlers exhaust themselves (“Meanwhile I was pleasured”), the poems sometimes name the symptomatology of collective interdependence beset by gravitropic privation. Again from “Clepsydra”:

I see myself in this totality, and meanwhile
I am only a transparent diagram, of manners and
Private words with the certainty of being about to fall.

But the poems don’t fall for it. As MMT demonstrates, there is limitless money to pay for not just production, linguistic or otherwise (“Workmen install the fish vulgate” [“The National Debt”]), but for social reproduction, a focus on care and social—not national—debt to those not immediately before us, but whose presence is nevertheless in the poem; a graceful kind of non-absence. Each Ashbery poem is thus a miniature record of interdependence, debt less grave and gravitropic, but no less beautiful: as Ashbery writes in the very next line of “Clepsydra,” “this crumb of life I also owe to you.” 


1 Though later Ashbery—particularly after the Great Recession of 2008—frequently talks about money, politics, and the politics of money. [See “Rest Stop,” in Quick Question; “The Ritz Brothers” in Breezeway.]

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Natan Last

Natan Last is a graduate student at Columbia University studying the law and political economy of migration. He writes crosswords for The New Yorker and The New York Times. His poetry and essays appear in The Atlantic, Narrative, The Rupture, and Asheville Poetry Review.