Review by Dean Rader
SOME ODD AFTERNOON
by Sally Ashton
303 Bedford Ave.
Buffalo, NY 14216
2010, 93 pp., $16.00
In “Ander Alert,” Ander Monson’s winky essay about Googling other Anders, Monson discovers, paradoxically, that unearthing his namesakes actually makes him feel more alone, his significance diffused. “The more Anders we run across,” he muses, “the less Ander begins to mean, to sound in the hollows of the mouth.” For Sally Ashton on the other hand, self-Googling serves as a portal into various modes of identity which multiply and accrue. The entire second section of her new book is called “In Which I Google Sally Ashton,” and not-paradoxically, the poems within it explore the many Sally Ashtons the poet encounters, the most compelling of which is an African American slave born in Kentucky in 1845. But there are others, and the tension (and difference) between those Sally Ashtons and this Sally Ashton can serve as a kind of metaphor for the main questions the poet poses in her new collection, Some Odd Afternoon—what is it we find when we find the self?
Ashton goes looking for the self in both high and low places—the poetry of Emily Dickinson, her own past, other Sally Ashtons, the stars, maps, and the hinterlands of memory. But, Ashton is leery of places. She seeks the self through seeking, through the act of finding. Wallace Stevens asks the same of poetry in the opening lines of his fabulous “Of Modern Poetry”: “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” Like Stevens, Ashton turns to the act of poetry as a means of locating that which the self needs in order to come to terms with its own selfness.
This is nothing new for the contemporary poet, but what makes these poems unusual is the form they take (which is itself a form of seeking). A solid half of the poems in Some Odd Afternoon are prose poems, while about another quarter are comprised of one-line sentences, while the remaining quarter are standard poems written in verses and stanzas (usually tercets or couplets). For many poets, form is linked to identity. Consider C. K. Williams’ stretched lines, Jorie Graham’s dropped lines, William Carlos Williams’ clipped feet, Stevens’ penchant for the qualification in apposition. But, like the many Sally Ashtons Google ferrets out, Ashton’s poetic identity takes many shapes, speaks in many voices, and embodies many identities. For her, fluidity of form—not consistency of form— is part of identify formation.
In general, prose poetry shies away from the formalist lens; its formlessness a beguiling beard that protects it from the critical paparazzi. If, as Charles Wright and others have suggested, the poetic line is a single unit of thought, the prose poet does not enjoy the luxury of form as a default organizer of ideas. Or of breath. Or halts. Or movements. Lines, line breaks, enjambments, stanzas and stanza breaks are the motherboard of poetry—without them, a poem can look like a tangle of wires. Where, the reader might ask, does the poet want me to stop? Where am I supposed to place emphasis? Is there a protagonist? Why isn’t this flash fiction?
Ashton makes this ambiguity her friend; she uses prose’s narrativy to take the pressure off of line making, opting instead for story-making.
Consider the opening lines—wait, scratch that—sentences of “Snowfall”: “The furnace knows something. The thermostat on the wall registers complaints. Snow cloud blots out the sky one shade darker than the ground. I can’t write by snowlight and covet lamps cushions, must build a fire, this house the animal I live inside like some kind of parasite worked in to its intestines most unwilling to leave.” Despite the lack of “line” we still hear and feel the heavy iambs in the first two sentences, and we know that iambs and snowfall are supposed to lull us. So they do. But by sentence three we encounter a run-on. We expect a period where a comma is. We expect a period where there is none. And suddenly, grammar, not line, has lifted the poem to a new register. However, we feel it internally before we see it visually. Since we can’t see a stanza break ahead of us, we don’t always know when the unit of thought will end. It’s a bit like walking a path with sunglasses on; you can kind of see your way, but not really. In this case, the two short sentences that begin the poem set us up for that long one, and we get sort of lost in it as it moseys along. And we love it.
One reason we love it is because the semiotics of prose indicate story. This is not the case with verse. So, we are prepared to be narrated to in a prose poem. Ashton takes advantage of this in a good way. She allows her poems to be stories. Mostly, they are stories of release, of escape, of liberation. In the title poem, for instance, Emily Dickinson, mired in starchy old Amherst, daydreams about visiting Italy. On the other hand, a poem like “The Map” begs the reader to believe that it just might be about an intergalactic romance! “She loved that he called her earthling, how she felt utterly alien yet most human in that same instant.” And then there are poems that go meta—that remind the reader he is not experiencing life but text, as in “Donkeys”: “I don’t remember if this happened or not but let’s say it did and you were there.” This poem gets its energy from poetry’s secret history of orality. We don’t always like to talk about that now in the age of print and text and visuality, but this poem’s poetry is found in the voice of narrative: “What did you say that I said that made us laugh and laugh until soda did shoot out our nostrils? It’s on the tip . . . you were there, I know it, whether either of you would ever admit it. I see every detail like ten minutes ago.”
As I was writing this review, I decided to reformat some of the sentences above as verse just to see how Ashton’s poetics would look as sound as more “formal” verse. Here is an example:
I don’t remember
If this happened
Or not but let’s say
It did and you were there.
As verse, it feels lazy, but, as prose, this opening line is sort of exciting. In verse, I actually feel more like I’m reading a journal entry; whereas as the opening sentence of a prose poem, this line prepares me for a fun story set in a poetic land that I have never visited but know well.
The final poem in the collection, “How To,” functions as an ars prose poetica. Of course, it contains advice on living (what doesn’t?) but it also contains advice on how to make poetry out of the story of our lives. Or, is it advice on how to make a story out of the poetry of our lives? “Don’t waste a feeling. Or a story. Or a way to worry. A minute . A birdsong. Not even one shade of green. Promise the crows anything.” Ashton’s inability to waste experience makes her a good chronicler of the human interior condition and good poet.
Some Odd Afternoon won’t please all readers. Some won’t like the prose poetry; others won’t like the line poems; and still others won’t appreciate the occasionally jarring shifts from prose poem to verse poem to line poem. These readers won’t know if Ashton is a “prose poet,” or a “traditional poet” or an “experimental poet,” so they won’t really know what’s going on with her project, and they will find her plurality of voices discordant.
They can have that.
Most others will see Ashton’s plurality as democratic. Despite her references to Dickinson, Ashton is, after all, strangely Whitmanian in her desire to modulate her poetic voice so that any reader might find herself on the same frequency as the poet. Do the Ashtons contradict themselves? Very well, they contradict themselves. The many Ashtons Google give us are vast; the many poems Ashton gives us contain multitudes.
Dean Rader reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle and most recently for The Rumpus. His own recently released book of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize.