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Girls on the Run: A Poem
John Ashbery
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $20

by John D’Agata

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 didn’t trust you. He was an artist, but no one knew it. He was a writer, but never published. Henry Darger’s 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: it’s Girls on the Run. It’s a toy chest full of options, full of secrets, full of nothing. It’s 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."

Here’s 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 sister–the 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 Chicago’s 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, literature’s 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. There’s 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 world’s 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 Ashbery’s new book-length poem on the work of Henry Darger, Girls on the Run, is, admittedly, a little flaccid at times–but not really any more so than other Ashbery books. Here, the evanescent manner of the writer’s 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. You’ll go poking into Girls on the Run–trying to find the in–but 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, it’s silver, children, the unbearable letdown
has gone under the hill to bide its time. Centuries shall pass away this way.
When we wake up it will be over. The motor will have started up,
and peas have been planted in Wyoming. Time grabs us
again, it’s terrible, for a little while. And then it becomes more and more like this
in its way. Then time broke off
discussions, they were shunted to Sheboygan, some mystery wolf came to the appointment
instead, there were further negotiations, a child lay dying, there was more other
to be sad over, the whistle charged doom, its impact
was tremendous, light exploded all over the football field, the nails were there,
puns of the sun, brooding, help, it looks more doctrinaire, than we can handle, I mean
and goes on and on, not just changing in the fire
from the attic bathroom.

The poem is inspired by Henry Darger’s work rather than demonstrative of it–a distinction, I think, of some importance. Like a Warhol or Lichtenstein, Ashbery’s Girls on the Run reimagines the naïve, illogical, sexy worlds of our childhoods–the realms we shared in comic strips, coloring books, nursery rhymes, games–in 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 Darger’s own paintings–complete with the grammatical kinks that commonly blotch the artist’s work. Such language, as Ashbery has shown us, is often sacred language–cultivated 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
before his recital, by turning the knobs on either side of it
until he feels he is at a proper distance from the keyboard,
so did our friends plan their day. Sometimes, after a leisurely breakfast,
they would get to work immediately, cutting, gluing, stitching
as the model came entrancingly into view. Other days it was more of a pain,
or more elaborate. Persnickety Peggy was frequently at the heart of things,
her strength often an inspiration to the others, though offset by her tendency to brawl
and generally make a nuisance of herself. The other girls took this in stride,

Such free-wheeling "innocence," of course, has been called other things in Ashbery’s 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 won’t 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 . . .
for the end that doesn’t come any more.

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 Darger’s obsessive (some would say phallocentric) cataloguing of kinds of tornadoes, military ranks, flags of the world, or ways to kill a girl, John Ashbery’s proclivities for lists, long sentences, and ambiguous grammar is a trademark system for distorting reality–but all in an effort to dig closer to the real. Indeed, as one critic recently called the poet’s slippery tactics: "It is a fear of death ... death without a comforting narrative for reproductive continuation."

Hence Henry’s penises? Hence Ashbery’s forms?

John Ashbery is gay, in case you haven’t 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 poet–a "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 Ashbery’s stature should be so categorized.

That’s for you to decide.

But however hip it may be to not read an artist’s work through the lens of his or her own political, social, racial, sexual, or cultural associations, it’s 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 you’ll wonder why queer theorists haven’t more enthusiastically rushed to claim Ashbery as one of the pack. (He isn’t even indexed in Penguin’s massive Book of Homosexual Verse.)

When it was over no one had the courage to come out into the daylight,
or knew there was any. I fell asleep
on a sandhill, and dreamed this, and gave it to you, and you thanked me, solemnly,
but we were not permitted to associate, only to correspond, and you came out
to me again, as we wished one another good afternoon, and then went away
into the fog-lit embrasure. Not that we didn’t have good reason
to do whatever we did, but the question never came up again.

Soon, however, Ashbery reminds us why he’s no clear-cut romantic, why he’s no poster-boy, in fact, for any distinct poetic tribe: "Where was I?" he interrupts himself after the preceding lines–and we’re 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 Ashbery’s career have consistently emphasized in the poet’s work, it is just these kinds of discontinuities, leaps, and narrative distortions that are our semiotic carte blanche to Ashbery’s work, to that feeling of innocence just a snatch out of grasp, to the poetry’s own tentative handle on what’s human.

Here, in this case, the girls’ lost innocence becomes achingly apparent in the book’s 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 they’ll find their way back home. Stories don’t coalesce in this book; stories are feared lost, kidnapped, eaten by wolves. Like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Ashbery’s Girls on the Run finds yet another way to illustrate what we’ve 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:

I’m in correspondence with Mary, a girl I had a crush on all through childhood and adolescence. We had a mythical kingdom in the woods; various of our friends had castles in trees, and I was always trying to get plays that we could produce spontaneously. Then my younger brother died just around the beginning of World War II. The group dispersed for various reasons, and things were never as happy or romantic as they’d been, and my brother was no longer there. I think I’ve always been trying to get back to this mystical kingdom that Mary and I inhabited.

And from the book itself:

You see we all thought the ride would be lovely
and worth the trip, which it was, but now we cannot go anywhere
having already been everywhere. No, do you
understand how realistic it all is?

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 Darger’s 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, who’s 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 him–Henry was schizophrenic, but was never treated for the illness–Darger 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 Darger’s paintings sell for 85 grand. Of course the Swiss have built a castle for him.

He paints with his prick–and who cares what you think? At first the most striking element in Henry Darger’s work is that boys don’t exist, and yet the girls all lack vaginas, a place of origin, a womb. Where did Henry come from? I’m 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 odalisque’s seduction of the garden completely oblivious–as if her long stretch of mounds across the landscape were the very hills they run up and down.

In Ashbery’s cover, the girls run up and down except there’s 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 Darger’s 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.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review

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