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The Next-to-Last Act

I took off sick an hour early from work to sit on the sofa in my underwear, reading John Ashbery’s poem-essay “The System” and trying, unsuccessfully at first, to brew iced tea. It was hot; starlings were my stereo. I wanted to read “The System” because of the cover of the book it comes in,

and because my friend Loren from long ago told me it was her favorite poem (she would take photos of bee-swarmed lavender with lines from it written underneath).

The poem’s talk-topic is Ashbery’s I-guess usual: meaning emerging in real time from language that keeps gnawing back on itself, after some permanent habitation to make from momentary epiphanies, glimmerings, and despair. Where can we live? How do we talk?

Sometimes his language is a rubble of commonplaces (“Yet this seems not quite right,” “almost too abstract,” “the great careers are like that”); others it’s an expression of Blake-ish prophecy and beauty (“In the end the soul cannot recognize itself and is as one lost, though it imagines it has found eternal rest”). But Ashbery’s subject is always capital-lettered: Satiety, Numbness, Desire, Happiness. As in a metaphor he makes of the performing self:

The apotheosis never attracted you, only those few moments in the next-to-last act where everything suddenly becomes momentarily clear, to sink again into semiobscurity before the final blaze which merely confirms the truth of what has been succinctly stated long before. But there does not seem to be any indication that this moment is approaching.

“There does not seem to be any indication”: I like in a work of art–a tendon by Rodin or a dumb lovable cadence in Ashbery–when the as-if-I’m-saying-this becomes it-is-said, when I realize the glacier is a flame.

Throughout my adolescence and now about once a year (and hey, I turned 27 last week!), I was afflicted by the hallucination that the harmony of my thoughts was a real thing. Once in 1999 I experienced it while I stared at paramecia through a lab-period microscope. I forgot myself: concentrating on those crawling phosphenish dots, and on the feeling they provoked in me of symphonic structure and orderly melody, I gradually saw this architecture replacing its inhabitants, forgot the bacteria and saw only the musical moving form that their order took.

My head was humming. I looked up at my lab partner, Jake–it was spring behind him through the lab’s bay windows–, sure that when he opened his mouth, music, not speech, would pour out and swallow me.

Instead, he asked for an Erlenmeyer flask, and the feeling broke up; my face felt weirdly cold, like when I’m jarred out of a nap.

It was Jake who, when I was catching a night flight to visit a teacher friend in Fukuyama, taught me to say “you are already dead” in Japanese. Ata wa ima mo kuroshta.

In Ashbery and life: the talk likes itself, but, as characters comparing weather in a Chekhov play, the speaker thrashes behind the talk, finding bottomless depth and, terrified, reaches forward. Having sunk as deep as I can in myself, I’ll die scared if I can’t also fly limitlessly ahead.