Forties FlickAside from the ways -- obvious to me and perhaps those of you who read kdotdammit regularly -- in which this poem captures something applicable, however abstractly, to the person in the photo, it also speaks to the transformations that occur when reality is fixed in the stillness of a picture, whether held for inspection or speeding by as one of the 24 frames in a second that constitute the motion of film.
The shadow of the Venetian blind on the painted wall,
Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti, the plaster animals,
Focus on the tragic melancholy of the bright stare
Into nowhere, a hole like the black holes in space.
In bra and panties she sidles to the window:
Zip! Up with the blind. A fragile street scene offers itself,
With wafer-thin pedestrians who know where they are going.
The blind comes down slowly, the slats are slowly titled up.
Why must it always end this way?
A dais with woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair
And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her
Into the silence that night alone can't explain.
Silence of the library, of the telephone with its pad,
But we didn't have to reinvent these either:
They had gone away into the plot of a story,
The "art" part -- knowing what important details to leave out
And the way character is developed. Things too real
To be of much concern, hence artificial, yet now all over the page,
The indoors with the outside becoming part of you
As you find you had never left off laughing at death,
The background, dark vine at the edge of the porch.
-- John Ashbery
Ashbery's poem has special meaning for me too because I first encountered it when I was still living with Annalee. She was taking Jim Breslin's 170 course on the relationship between literature and visual art. One of her assignments asked her to do something with "Forties Flick" and she was baffled by it, her extensive experience in New Criticism-style analysis of poetry beaten back by the poem's refusal of depth. She was a Modernist and couldn't deal with Ashbery's Postmodernism. That was then, of course. She would have had a different reaction a year or two later. What struck me at the time, though, was that my lack of training actually made it easier for me to make sense of the poem on its own terms. Indeed, I got it, in part, by observing the ways in which Annalee's informed expectations prevented her from getting it.
That course was in the spring of 1988. Annalee and I broke up that summer, were a couple again in the fall, then broke up for good the following summer. When I met Kim in October, 1989, I was sure I'd seen her before. And then I learned that she'd been in that same Breslin course, as well the English 131 poetry course Annalee was taking when I met her in the fall of 1987. I suddenly had a clear picture of Kim, walking down the steps of Dwinelle into the courtyard. Perhaps it was a fabrication, a desire to have seen her back then. But I don't think so. She was friends with Priscilla in the spring of 1988. So were Annalee and I. There must have been moments of convergence, even if I could never pin them down with precision. You have to know what you're looking for when you're scanning your visual field. And that's not easily done in retrospect, even when you have photographs to help you, as Antonioni's great film Blow Up demonstrates so beautifully. Kim certainly remembered me sitting with Annalee in the ground-floor Dwinelle hallway before Breslin's 131, even if she had been focusing more on Annalee than me.
Anyway, one of the first things I asked Kim, once I regained the capacity to speak that abandoned me in the rush of our initial encounters -- "lip goddess" was about the only meaningful phrase I recall being able to utter -- was what she thought of "Forties Flick." She'd understood it back then, in the course, she told me and then had something great to say about its greatness. I was impressed. It was the moment in which I recognized the degree to which I would have to educate myself in order to keep up with her intellectually. In the first weeks of our relationship Kim got books on German out of the library, thinking she might try to teach herself the language -- pretty near impossible with her work schedule at the time -- in order to be able to communicate with me about something that mattered to me. But I did similar things, from listening to some of her favorite records to watching some of her favorite movies to reading some of her favorite poems. I worked very hard to feel my way into the aesthetic that motivated her poem "3-D" that she spoke from memory the night we met, the one I've quoted from here before that starts out, "Say you're fifteen and never seen a gun. I mean a real gun. . . " Last night Kim described the incident that inspired that poem to the friends who'd met us at Congress. So I suppose that's the coming-full-circle to close this particular entry.
I'll leave you with a question, though, one that I've pondered every time I read "Forties Flick". When Ashbery writes, "death, the background, dark vine at the edge of the porch," at the end of the poem, are "background" and "vine" appositives for "death" or are they, rather, each distinct objects of "laughing" with no intrinsic connection other than their shared grammatical status? That is, to put this question less abstractly, is "death" also the "the background" and the "dark vine at the edge of the porch" or are they all merely things that the "you" never stopped laughing at?