On John Ashbery, The Couple in the Next Room


        She liked the blue drapes. They made a star
        At the angle. A boy in leather moved in.
        Later they found names from the turn of the century
        Coming home one evening. The whole of being
        Unknown absorbed into the stalk. A free
        Bride on the rails warning to notice other
        Hers and the great graves that outwore them
        Like faces on a building, the lightning rod
        Of a name calibrated all their musing differences.

        Another day. Deliberations are recessed
        In an iron-blue chamber of that afternoon
        On which we wore things and looked well at
        A slab of business rising behind the stars.

        (from Houseboat Days, 1977)

Reading this poem, whatever you take from it, I think you would agree that what happens happens in the sentence beginning "A free / Bride on the rails..." Just prior to that, the word "stalk" spits at us with a sudden brassiness, displacing the ambling narrative of the opening. Before we have time to think about what this image is doing, the epic sentence hits us. It may be signalled by the word "great", but what makes it stand out is the difficulty of "free", "rails" and "Hers". (Ashbery loves to use his unfashionable capital letters to provoke syntactic uncertainty.)

The last line of the poem is mainly there to hold in check the elegy that would effloresce in our minds if the poem ended "that afternoon / On which we wore things and looked well". It is true that the "stars" (like "blue" and "name") refer back to the poem's opening, and you can extract a biography out of this which makes sense of the poem's title and typifies the way that we always do infer stories about neighbours we don't know. Perhaps they are getting married or having a baby (what else do such couples do?).

You can admire a traditional kind of skilfulness in the multiple meanings of "outwore" and "looked well". What I like still better is Ashbery's awareness of ways in which we understand a stalk – (a) the bit that isn't the essential thing itself (e.g. the stalk of an apple); (b) the bit that IS the essential thing itself, what a plant has instead of a mind or skeleton; (c) its conductivity, something that stuff passes through, like a lightning rod. But what I like best is that sentence in the middle, the place where you can dive repeatedly and be in rough contact, without quite knowing what it is, with the thing that happens.

By Michael Peverett

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