Quick Question

For more than fifty years now, John Ashbery's poems have constantly changed and eluded our sense of how we attempt to define them as we read them. This absence of subject and form has become an enduring subject, and Ashbery, now in his eighty-fifth year, negotiates this formlessness with tenderness:

     Dry-eyed from weeping I consent to the stratagems
     that brought us here: what collins, cooler, Cuba libre,
     grasshopper, gin sling, brandy alexander, Manhattan,
     martini, moscow mule, whatever sounded lush along the way

If Quick Question finds Ashbery looking back on a life lived in New York, in poetry, and in love, it also finds him staring into the uncertainty of the time ahead of him: “yet what," he asks in “In a Lonely Place," “of the nights still unplotted?”

Despite his nerves and his remembrances, Ashbery’s rollicks through poems like “Bacon Grabbers” and “Unlike the Camelopard” show that he’s still one of our youngest poets at heart. “You could say, ‘It stinks,'" he tells us with a wink at the camera, “but the mirror tells another story.” The irreverent, contemporary, and Romantic collisions confronted in Quick Question are among Ashbery’s finest. “Breathing revealed itself to me / and I was like a child seated beside a stream," he writes, “O dismal!”

This review was originally published in American Poet, Volume 44, Spring 2013.