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The Queer Nature of Waste in John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook
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The Queer Nature of Waste in John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook

"Nature is not natural, and that is natural enough."

Gertrude Stein, Ida: A Novel

In 1957, soon after the release of his first volume of poems, John Ashbery was asked by Poetry magazine to review Gertrude Stein's posthumously published Stanzas in Meditation. The title of Ashbery's review, "The Impossible: Gertrude Stein," was not intended to dissuade the reader from approaching what is arguably the least accessible of Stein's works. Rather, "The Impossible" identifies the ambitious compass of Stein's poem, which Ashbery would praise as "the most successful of her attempts to do what can't be done, to create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality" (Selected Prose 15). The difficult task Ashbery imagines Stein attempting in Stanzas, however, is not so impossible that the young poet himself was unable to accomplish it within the scope of his own review. Ashbery writes, "There is certainly plenty of monotony in the 150-page title poem . . . but it is the fertile kind, which generates excitement as water monotonously flowing over a dam generates electrical power" (11). This is a beautiful metaphor, slyly convincing and totally unreal—for dammed water passes through turbines housed within the dam or adjacent to it, not over the dam, as Ashbery suggests. Yet with this impossible hybrid of landscape and artifact, this dream dam, Ashbery not only "creates a counterfeit of reality more real than reality," he expresses in offhand form what would become a career preoccupation: to misrepresent the line between the natural and the artificial, and to recuperate what is normally deemed waste (here, monotonous writing) as a source of poetic strength. [End Page 71]

These are the very tasks that Ashbery will later accomplish in The Vermont Notebook (1975), an experimental book-length poem that has often been overlooked in favor of the more heralded Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in the same year. In fact, The Vermont Notebook has often been elided entirely from the Ashbery canon: excluded from Ashbery's bibliography in some subsequent volumes, the poem failed to make an appearance in the poet's 1985 Selected Poems. (The Vermont Notebook's notable inclusion in the recent collection of Ashbery's work from The Library of America promises a new readership for the poem.) An innovative hybrid of prose, verse, and line drawings provided by artist-poet Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook differs significantly from Ashbery's more classically Stevensian verse of the period. Formally, the poem is characterized by quasi-cinematic jump cuts, blatant appropriation of found material, and meaningful white space separating its mostly prose paragraphs. Beyond mere stylistic difference, this most essayistic of Ashbery's books reflects and refracts, with typically Ashberyian irony, a number of arguments about environmental and sexual politics regnant during the decade when it was written. Much literary criticism has turned away from poetry—especially Ashbery's sense-ravishing and tonally indeterminate work—as a vehicle of ideological investigation. But I think Andrew Ross is right in detecting a deconstructive ambition in The Vermont Notebook, which he claims "plays upon the purely artificial differences between 'town' and 'country' . . ." (220). In fact, I argue here that the poem goes further than even Ross allows, establishing what I call a queer nature, in which the boundary between the natural and the cultural is not only transgressed but thoroughly undermined. Ashbery accomplishes this queering through his attentions to waste, a growing concern during the 1970s and the most salient motif in a poem that itself qualifies as a waste book. While The Vermont Notebook is certainly not so straightforward as to be reduced to an argument, the poem is animated throughout by Ashbery's recognition that waste, in both its cultural and organic forms, possesses a power to disrupt the tidy categories that govern and normalize our behavior, nor least the categories of "nature" and "culture." Waste also functions in the poem as a node of identification for queer subjects, who are often imputed as wasters—an association The Vermont Notebook ultimately recovers, much as the word queer has been recuperated from a deformative slur...