And now I cannot remember how I would have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place. The place, of movement and an order: The place of old order. But the tail end of the movement is new. Driving us to say what we are thinking. It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand and think of going no further. And it is good when you get to no further. It is like a reason that picks you up and places you where you always wanted to be. This far. It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed. Then there is no promise in the other. Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence, small panacea and lucky for us. And then it got very cool.
from Hotel Lautréamont, by John Ashbery
This poem opens in the congenial mist typical of his style, in the onset of confusion more welcomed than troubling: “And now I can not remember how I would have had it.” The second line of the poem is a potent blend of hesitancy and declaration, pushing off from the bottom of an old idea, in this case the bridge as conduit, and even adding a second side note, complete with a question mark “(confluence?),” to soften the declarative blow of the essential message: “It is…a place.”
And it is a place. Beyond the bridge’s function as a tool to get us from one place to another, it is somewhere to stand, something to consider on its own terms, at the very edge of its supposed usefulness. Poems such as this, that do not attempt to communicate any particular information or feeling, but instead try to situate the reader at the edge of his/her own sense of the ineffable, “It is so much like a beach after all,” are arguably already part of the “old order” by now. Yet the easy gate, the conversational method by which this poem walks us to the limits of consciousness, especially evident in the line “and it is good when you get to no further” still, to me, has a freshness about it, a whiff of something just up from the earth.
That the poem is affixed to the beams of the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is not an occasion for pomp and circumstance, that “old order”, but rather, I would suggest, one in which to subvert the very trope of monument itself. “It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed,” Ashbery writes with his trademark diplomacy, yet in this cross-section of a disembodied poetic monologue and the irrevocable material of industry, “Steel and air, a mottled presence…” our attention is drawn away from the occasion of this intersection and any received ideas of a bridge/poem’s function. Instead we are invited to focus on the elemental way the changing weather is absorbed by the mineral and the beams become cool. (And isn’t “mottled” a perfectly humble modifier to employ in this instance?)
This unlikely marriage works because, “lucky for us,” Ashbery has undertaken this collaborative project not as an empirical poet affixing his signature to steel, but as a child coming in from the yard with his hands around a trembling bird.
Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name. He is at work on a second collection, Earworm. He currently lives in Brooklyn.