Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First published in 1992, "Hotel Lautreamont," John Ashbery's twenty-first book of poetry is now available in a handsome paperback edition. Its title refers to the pseudonym of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, a precocious writer who lived in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. During the last year of his life, for reasons unknown to us, he moved from hotel to hotel; then, at age 24, committed suicide. Left behind were a few letters, a small book of enigmatic poems, and Les Chants de Maldoror (Songs of Maldoror), a book later embraced by the Surrealists as a masterpiece. In it, Lautreamont says, "I warn whomsoever may read me to be careful not to come some vague, and moreso, false, idea of the literary beauties I pluck off like so many leaves, in the rapid development of my sentences." A warning John Ashbery could have written himself.
Although Ashbery has said that he doesn't structure a book with a beginning, middle, and end, the first poem of this book, as with the last, is right where it should be. It begins, Dear ghost, what shelter/in the noonday crowd? I'm going to write/an hour, then read/what someone else has written. Ashbery is addressing his own ghost-of-a-mind, along with that of the poet whom he is honoring with this book. He continues: You've no mansion for this to happen in , pointing to the dismal hotel room in which Lautreamont died. Notice that Ashbery speaks in the present tense to the dead poet (in himself). But your adventures are like safe houses,/your knowing where to stop an adventure/of another order, like seizing the weather. Lautreamont hides from the "noonday crowd" in various hotel rooms, seemingly safe; and yet chooses to prematurely end his life.
It is interesting that Ashbery calls life, not death, "an adventure of another order," as if speaking from the other side, and that knowing when the stop it is as amorphous as trying to grab a handful of turbulent air. The poem ends by saying that life follows and falls behind. "Hotel Lautreamont" continues with poems whose relation to Isidore-Lucien Ducasse is to be found more in aesthetics than in substance. But a poem titled "How To Continue" concludes the book with: the people all got up to go/and looked back on love. In view of the details of young Ducasse's demise, I find this a particularly poignant statement.
Although the framework of his poems tend to reside in a formal structure, Ashbery rarely wavers from an awareness of the brain's disjunctive procedure of parsing information, saving it in various areas, then reassembling it, as memory, into a reality that agrees with patterns of experience already "wired in." We see here an opening for the postmodern ethic that allows meaning to be indefinitely postponed, and gives Ashbery the freedom to engage in the disjunctive leaps that antagonize some of his readers, and energize others.
The quarrel of his critics aside, John Ashbery's work is enthralled with life; rather, with consciousness, which he finds "marvelous."
© The Oregonian 2000