Lush Breezes

The incomparable John Ashbery read last night at Dia Beacon along with Queens poet laureate Paolo Javier, of whom I am also a big fan. Paolo, who writes really interesting work, is one of the initiators of the exciting new QUILL Translation Prize. And John Ashbery, besides being one of the foremost poets of the English language, also translates from the French. His latest translation project, the entirety of Rimbaud’s cycle of prose poems Illuminations, is forthcoming later this spring from Norton. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can see one of the poems entitled “Cities” on their website, a reverie apparently based loosely on London, though one of the students in my translation workshop remarked yesterday that the fanciful descriptions (“copper footbridges, […] stairways that wind around covered markets and pillars”) reminded him of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The translation is elegant and also marked by effective shifts in tone (one sentence begins, journalistically, “For today’s tourist”) that remind me of Ashbery’s own poems. At its most lyrical, the writing here is breathtaking. Listen to this: “The upper zone has inexplicable parts: an arm of the sea, with no boats, unrolls its layer of blue sleet between quays weighted with giant candelabra.” I love the rhythms of the phrases, the opulently interwoven assonance of parts/arm, sea/sleet/between, zone/no/boats/unrolls and layer/quays/weighted, as well as the handling of the image “unrolls its layer of blue sleet,” inviting us to think of the sleet as somehow resembling a bolt of cloth. Can’t wait to see the book itself when it comes out. Meanwhile I was struck by the phrase “lush breezes” in one of the other Rimbaud poems Ashbery read. I myself would have written “luxurious breezes,” feeling that “lush” and “breeze” don’t quite go together. But Ashbery has built an entire oeuvre around putting together words that don’t quite seem to fit … until that moment when he juxtaposes them in such a way that the combination is instantly convincing. Come to think of it, I really do like my breezes lush.

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