on the Run: A Poem
by John DAgata
If Henry Darger knew you would be paying this much attention, he definitely would have put the pants back on his girls. He would have erased all their penises. Would have burned everything that he ever wrote, and orphaned the world of his art.
Henry would have done this because he didnt trust you. He was an artist, but no one knew it. He was a writer, but never published. Henry Dargers tiny efficiency in Chicago is still papered by images of little girls being pretty, little girls being buggered, little girls being saved by giant sequin-winged beasts. Yet the first time anyone on this planet saw his art was the day that Henry died, in 1972.
Cleaning up after him was difficult to do. Do we keep the beautiful watercolors of girls holding hands; throw away the watercolors of girls with erections? Do we keep the pencil sketches, and toss out the collages? What about the landscapes? Storm scenes? Bloody eviscerations? Do we keep the dozen first edition Ozbooks that he collected, or do we make room instead for the hand-bound novel in twelve volumes, the one the critics have deemed "impenetrable"?
John Ashbery has a notion: its Girls on the Run. Its a toy chest full of options, full of secrets, full of nothing. Its a diary, a dream, a dump, a dead end. "It was just dandy where you were standing," Ashbery writes. "It was like everywhere. It was just average."
Heres what I know: Henry Darger was born an orphan; he died an orphan; and in between those two big book ends of his life, he assayed to catalogue all the things the world abandoned. We know that when Henry was young he clipped a photo of a little girl from the Chicago Daily News, May 9, 1911. The headline above it: GONE! Current theories have it that Henry thought she was his sisterthe infant girl who died at home with his mother during labor.
Henry could be seen thereafter on the streets of Chicago rummaging through trash heaps and pulling out dolls. He saved all the shoes he found, the magazines in which little girls appeared in ads, even, mistakenly, the horsehair spilling from an old chaise lounge. Who could say what was out on those streets in Chicago? There was a garbage strike, then a mob war, then a great, long Depression. Things piled up on Chicagos streets as if the city had orphaned them. Nevertheless, his search went on: newspaper clippings of children lost in fires, rusty metal toys, torn sewing patterns, comic books, candy wrappers, stout pink bodies of Pepto-Bismol bottles everything, eventually, would have to be taken in. And so Henry began to log each and every forsaken thing.
It began simply as a list of what Henry had found, literatures ancient origins in the desert rolls of sheep and wheat and debt. But the brief history of art always goes like this: lists, Henry discovered, are too simple for this world. Theres a story that connects things. Henry hoped to find it. "The world needs a narrative," he wrote in 1950. In the end, 753 wound balls of twine and fish line and rubber bands and thread were found in his apartment after Henry was dead. He collected snarls of string from the garbage heaps, practiced untangling their knots, and then rolled them up and bagged them like the worlds reserve of plots.
Meanwhile, the novel: 15,145 single-spaced, legal-sized pages, typed. Meanwhile, the paintings: 318 double-sided, manila-papered scrolls unrolled to lengths as long as twelve-and-a-half feet. Meanwhile, a memoir: 5,000 pages, and never once mentioning art. Diaries. Notebooks. A transcribed Bible. Unmailed fictional letters to the pope. And journals: detailing, in seven massive volumes, for thirteen years, the daily inconsistencies in local weather forecasts.
"I paint with my prick," Renoir once said.
As far as pricks go, John Ashberys new book-length poem on the work of Henry Darger, Girls on the Run, is, admittedly, a little flaccid at timesbut not really any more so than other Ashbery books. Here, the evanescent manner of the writers style is as pointed and exhilarating, or as squishy and vague, as in his earlier classic volumes, April Galleons and Houseboat Days, which have been reissued by the publisher in concert with this book. Youll go poking into Girls on the Runtrying to find the inbut eventually you will realize, hopefully at least, that the "in" you are looking for, as with any Ashbery book, is several blocks ahead, behind, in an undeveloped lot, several years away from the front door at which you are knocking.
Come, its silver, children, the unbearable letdown
The poem is inspired by Henry Dargers work rather than demonstrative of ita distinction, I think, of some importance. Like a Warhol or Lichtenstein, Ashberys Girls on the Run reimagines the naïve, illogical, sexy worlds of our childhoodsthe realms we shared in comic strips, coloring books, nursery rhymes, gamesin order to recreate an innocence that once felt true, but which now, as the book illustrates, is long since lost.
To accomplish this mask of innocence, Ashbery employs his often exalted clichés, his quick ear for slogans, sometimes even the camouflaged titles of Dargers own paintingscomplete with the grammatical kinks that commonly blotch the artists work. Such language, as Ashbery has shown us, is often sacred languagecultivated over time by a community of people rather than invented by just one individual. It is therefore appropriate language with which to paint the Edenic landscapes his characters inhabit:
Just as a good pianist will adjust the piano stool
Such free-wheeling "innocence," of course, has been called other things in Ashberys work: a "fluid style"; a "stream of perceptions"; "abstract expression"; "seething ambiguity"; "tuned agitation"; "new geography"; "associative realism"; and even, more than once, just plain "bullshit."
Whatever tag they bear, however, his lines are torqued, we know, intentionally; the syntax reordered because the old just wont do; clichés strewn willy-nilly like coins to humanity.
Early in the book, its disembodied narrator wonders out loud, "Once / you have learned a language, what is there to do but forget it?"
The poem takes place in a world gone wrong, where the little girls try their darndest to live in the paradise provided them, yet who endlessly find themselves the victims of a monster race of gray, militarized, angry men:
How strange it all seems lost! How white it then. was! Page torn from a notebook
. . .
There is an innocence to reading this new book that readers may have long felt the presence of in past books by Ashbery; but like the surreal physical landscape in this particular poem, it is an innocence that feels also long out of reach. Like Henry Dargers obsessive (some would say phallocentric) cataloguing of kinds of tornadoes, military ranks, flags of the world, or ways to kill a girl, John Ashberys proclivities for lists, long sentences, and ambiguous grammar is a trademark system for distorting realitybut all in an effort to dig closer to the real. Indeed, as one critic recently called the poets slippery tactics: "It is a fear of death ... death without a comforting narrative for reproductive continuation."
Hence Henrys penises? Hence Ashberys forms?
John Ashbery is gay, in case you havent heard. He came out to the draft board during the Korean War. Yet it is seldom that we think of him as primarily "a gay poet."
Why is this? Could it be because Ashbery is a universal poeta "Whitman for our times"as Harold Bloom has recently opined? Is it because it is so difficult to pinpoint anything "gay," "straight," or even "bi" in the pronoun-shifting arena of an Ashbery poem? Or is it because identity politics in American poetry has become so boring in our neoconfessional, memoir-plagued age that no writer of Ashberys stature should be so categorized.
Thats for you to decide.
But however hip it may be to not read an artists work through the lens of his or her own political, social, racial, sexual, or cultural associations, its hard to ignore the personal intimations made in recent reviews, profiles, and interviews with Ashbery following the publication of this particular book.
"I was fascinated by little girls when I was a little boy, and their clothes and games and dolls appealed to me much more than what little boys were doing," Ashbery commented in April to the New York Times. "Therefore, I was sort of ostracized."
And at times in Girls on the Run there are moments of such quiet, sad, lyric beauty beauty that youll wonder why queer theorists havent more enthusiastically rushed to claim Ashbery as one of the pack. (He isnt even indexed in Penguins massive Book of Homosexual Verse.)
When it was over no one had the courage to come out into the daylight,
Soon, however, Ashbery reminds us why hes no clear-cut romantic, why hes no poster-boy, in fact, for any distinct poetic tribe: "Where was I?" he interrupts himself after the preceding linesand were thrust back in a flash into whimsies about "Uncle Margaret," "jelly-bean screwdrivers," and "tours to East Testicle" without as much as a breath. Yet as critics throughout Ashberys career have consistently emphasized in the poets work, it is just these kinds of discontinuities, leaps, and narrative distortions that are our semiotic carte blanche to Ashberys work, to that feeling of innocence just a snatch out of grasp, to the poetrys own tentative handle on whats human.
Here, in this case, the girls lost innocence becomes achingly apparent in the books formal inability to gather up its loose ends. Plots start, skip about for several pages, and then suddenly disappear, like crumbs left by children with the hope theyll find their way back home. Stories dont coalesce in this book; stories are feared lost, kidnapped, eaten by wolves. Like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Ashberys Girls on the Run finds yet another way to illustrate what weve all now assumed: that the innocence we imagined to have filled all our childhoods was only in our dreams"castles in the air."
From a recent interview about Girls on the Run:
And from the book itself:
You see we all thought the ride would be lovely
It is only our naïveté, Ashbery suggests, which allows us to construct castles in the sky. And this is perhaps why the naïveté of Henry Dargers world is so infectious for the poet. It is colorful, earnest, encyclopedic and real. It cannot possibly be thought of as naïve, affected, or, even, as art. For unlike Darger, whos trying to construct a world out of the fragments of an existence, Ashbery is the direct inheritor and reigning master of a literary tradition long stewed in aesthetic, historical, cultural, formal, political, social, and psychological attempts to slip itself somehow deeper into the experience of the world. As the saying has it, more has been written about John Ashbery in his own lifetime than there has been about any other writer, ever. Henry Darger, on the other hand, died alone, unknown. Biologically and chemically ignorant of the world around himHenry was schizophrenic, but was never treated for the illnessDarger ultimately created his own imaginary planet not so much as a psychologically alternative world, but rather as his own real world, the place his consciousness inhabited in between his scavengings through our trash cans at night, scrounging for a self he could fashion from our scraps.
Of course John Ashbery is in love with this man. Of course Dargers paintings sell for 85 grand. Of course the Swiss have built a castle for him.
He paints with his prickand who cares what you think? At first the most striking element in Henry Dargers work is that boys dont exist, and yet the girls all lack vaginas, a place of origin, a womb. Where did Henry come from? Im sure Ashbery would like to know. But none of us ever will.
In a later version of the Darger painting which Ashbery chose for his book cover, an odalisque reclines in the same tropical garden. Flowers all around her are fecund and rotting, producing blooms so fast and so large that nobody bothers to pick them. Instead, the girls in the background, in the foreground, all around the woman, play amidst the odalisques seduction of the garden completely obliviousas if her long stretch of mounds across the landscape were the very hills they run up and down.
In Ashberys cover, the girls run up and down except theres no odalisque in this garden for them to ignore. Long trains of girls with outstretched arms clutch beach balls, giant strawberries, hats blown from their heads. Some of the girls clutch nothing at all but whatever they can see in the distances ahead.
"I like it here," John Ashbery writes, "but why should anybody else?" It is perhaps the same reason why Henry chose to make his girls all look like paper dolls. All cut from the same mold. All repeated, so often, that their origins are moot.
All those girls: just one girl.
Nobody was supposed to see Henry Dargers art. Nobody was supposed to ask why? or who? or what?
Yet where the two artists want to take this little girl is the real question unfolding in all of our laps. Like a rhyme they keep repeating, or syntax reordered in the act of translation.
"It is with my brush that I make love," Renoir also could have meant.