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REVIEW-ESSAY TESSA JOSEPH-NICHOLAS University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “All Ways at Once”: A. R. Ammons, Poet, and the Poetics of His Prose LITERARY CURATION IS AN INVISIBLE BUT COMPLEX ART, REQUIRING A delicate balance of scholarship, editorial skill, and an absolute commitment to the text. Curation provides shape and context, culls and selects, clarifies and illuminates, then—as it should—cedes the stage to its object. Kevin McGuirk’s An Image for Longing: Selected Letters and Journals of A. R. Ammons is both entirely loyal to, and in service of, Ammons’s papers, legacy, and impeccable prose and also a striking and undeniable testament to the impact of truly skillful, faithful curation. McGuirk’s selection reveals unexpected moments of interest, often in unexpected places. Among the treasures collected in An Image for Longing, Ammons’s letters to his closest friends—many of whom were also colleagues in the literary world—figure prominently. One, a letter addressed to his then-editor at W. W. Norton and Company and lifelong friend, John G. Benedict, provides a particularly telling illustration of the complexinterplayofAmmons’sprofessionalandpersonalcommitments, loyalties, and identifications. Before closing, Ammons lingers to praise the backyard glories of his home in Ithaca, New York. In impeccable, delicate prose, he describes a pastoral vision so pure and uncomplicated that it’s clear he’s up to something. “The hollyhocks are ablooming,” he exults, “the morning glory vine has climbed up on the quince bush again, and the first crop of roses and robins is complete. Come on up before drought sets in” (381). The sentiment is sincere, if strategic. The pleasures of the Ithacan summer are bait; Ammons hopes to lure Benedict upstate. The context of An Image for Longing suggests a longstanding campaign for visits on Ammons’s part, which both men good-naturedlyrecognizeasexaggeration:fewrealplansmaterialize,but Ammons persists, calling on all his powers of persuasion, issuing invitations with gusto. This letter is also a striking example of Ammons’s tendency to assert and align himself via shifts in his diction and dialect. He dons lightly the 336 Tessa Joseph-Nicholas poetic and pastoral conventions of his 1971 letter to Benedict for the sake of their rhetorical effect (and quite possibly, to ensure Benedict understands the passage as jest). Having invoked the register, however, Ammons cannot let it stand: he corrects the situation in an instant with the affably rural vernacular of “Come on up before drought sets in,” realigning his concerns from the pleasures of summer and leisure to the vulnerabilities of rural labor. The specter of drought serves to inject a sense of urgency—come soon or you’ll miss it—but it’s also an unsettled, superstitious moment, especially for one who, like Ammons, was born and raised on a family farm. Those whose livelihoods rely on the whims of nature learn to avoid the appearance of excessive bounty; they avert their eyes from the sun, lest the pleasure they take in it offends the storm. In this sense, we might understand Ammons’s instinct to erase his celebration of summertime as a protective charm, an attempt to disguise his own bounty by acknowledging its inevitable destruction. Ammons knew well the ancient passages between science and superstition, concealment and revelation, thought and action, bounty and loss, as he knew that in Ithaca, every summer day is haunted by its own passing. It is An Image for Longing that makes this close, contextual reading of Ammons’s papers possible. The initial collection from which McGuirk culled its contents is truly vast, the majority of its documents loosely catalogued but unpublished. I remember it well, having spent one of my own Ithacan summers on a first attempt to catalogue the papers. It was the summer of 1998, I had recently completed my second year of coursework in the MFA in Poetry Writing at Cornell University, and Ammons, my thesis director, was retiring from full-time teaching. That spring, he had donated 26.4 cubic feet of his papers—most of a lifetime of journals, letters, manuscripts, notes, sketches, and more—to the Rare and Manuscript Collections at Kroch Library. A few items had already been placed on display during “Ammonsfest...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 335-341
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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