Monday, January 08, 2018

A passage from John Ashbery's "The Skaters"

In the middle of this passage from John Ashbery's "The Skaters" is a description of a picture in a calendar:
A broken mirror nailed up over a chipped enamel basin, whose turgid waters
Reflect the fly-specked calendar—with ecstatic Dutch girl clasping tulips—
On the far wall. Hanging from one nail, an old velvet hat with a tattered bit of
            veiling—last remnant of former finery.
(John Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956–1987, Library of America, 162)
The poem does not say whether the picture in question is a photograph, a painting, or even a drawing, but the image of the "Dutch girl" is clear and vivid. It is a vision of ecstasy that also stands more broadly for a genre of pictures in whatever format–Dutch pictures, of course, with the tulips as further confirmation of the nationality of the image. The image is both complete in itself and an image of completion, of elements fitting together, of ecstasy as a momentary emotion of wholeness.
            Yet this moment of wholeness and even wholesomeness at the center of the passage is surrounded by images of broken and tainted things. The calendar that contains the image is "fly-specked"; it is seen only in its reflection in the water in a "chipped" sink; above the sink is "a broken mirror"; the "veiling" on the hat hanging on the wall is "tattered". A "broken mirror" does not produce accurate reflections; whoever looks into it will see a distorted version of themselves, and the room described so precisely here will also be distorted. The water in the basin is also a kind of "broken mirror" that also offers a distorted vision of the room. With the hat, the broken doubling of reflections is replaced by the concealment of a veil–but it, too, does not work as it should. The veil, like the mirror, does not serve its purpose effectively. All this "former finery" frames an image of the ecstasy that such finery could create, if it still existed. All that remains of ecstasy is the image of ecstasy–all that remains of an aesthetic of wholeness and sentiment is this "fly-specked" image from a calendar hanging in a room full of broken things.

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