Vertigo, Pumectation and the Ashberian plot

Aryanil Mukherjee


Maybe not a plenitude but a significant number of essays and articles have evolved in the past decade about the influence of films on the work of John Ashbery. At least one Ashbery poem takes on a movie title - Lonedale Operator [1]- after D.W. Griffith’s pithy film-drama from 1911.In his later life, while offbeat younger auteurs of the likes of Caveh Zahedi, Guy Maddin, Jorgen Leth had been drawn to Ashbery's work, Ashbery himself, at the same time, had either engaged in an occassional collaboration or written out of his experience of watching some of their films, especially Guy Maddin's [2,3]. Other filmmakers such as Phil Solomon, Abigail Child and Nathaniel Dorsky have acknowledged a strong Ashbery influence on their work which is evident especially in their handling of montage. The Harvard Film Archive has recently screened a small but smart collection of films that include influences both into and out of the poet’s work [4].

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to dwell on the silver screen's impact on Ashbery's poetry but to relate an isolated private reading of one particular film to the Ashberian plot in general and his Oulipian pumectation [ defined as the ostensible procedure that a writer adopts to mask the procedure he is actually using [5].

Although in the second or third stage of the information age cinematic experience has become more private than social or collective, the movie theater still exists and serves as our opening theme. It traps us inside its black box - one that has six sides like any rectangular prism; six boundaries that are often hard to figure in the dimness of its interior. Out of these six planes that bound our imagination, one side is eternally open. That face of the theater, as the open side of a stage or book, forms our window of transaction. Ashbery provides us with a quick metaphysical evaluation of the singularity of this openness -

         How are we to inhabit
This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,
As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,
In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet
Unrealized projects, and a strict sense
Of time running out, of evening presenting
The tactfully folded-over bill?

      (Pyrography/Houseboat Days)

A film is perhaps a serialized and often repititive array of graphic imagination augmented by sound, music and speech, punctuated by logical reasoning and perforated by dreams. In terms of Ashberian aesthetics it is a motion that would

only focus on the past through the clear movie-theater dark and you are a changed person, and can begin to live again. That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures; we can live as though we had caught up with time and avoid the sickness of the present, a shapeless blur as meaningless as a carelessly exposed roll of film. There is hardness and density now, and our story takes on the clear, compact shape of the plot of a novel, with all its edges and inner passages laid bare for the reader, to be resumed and resumed over and over, that is taken up and put aside and taken up again.
-The System/ Three Poems

Upholding the freedom an Ashbery reader is ubiquitously granted, "the tactfully folded-over bill", which, in my particular case, is Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 classic thriller Vertigo. Averting typical questions at this juncture as to whether Hitchcock has ever been an influence on Ashbery [6] or whether the film Vertigo in any bold or vague way had affected any of his poetic ideas ever, I need to emphasize my own private connection between this film, its many analyses including my own and certain major characteristics of John Ashbery's ouevre. He might have, as one would expect, taken Hitchcockian experience as something far more plebeian than the younger films and their makers he had associated with in later life. No surprise Ashbery would ask -

I wonder what's playing at the local movie theater.
Some Hitchcock or other, for there are many fanciers
in these unsightly parts.

      (By Guess and by Gosh /Can You Hear, Bird)

The Triumvirate

Vertigo's narrative begins with a roof-top chase scene where an outlaw is chased by a cop with the detective-protagonist Scottie [James Stewart] following closely. The relationship of these three characters and their interconnection is important. Each one presents the audience with an undisclosed motive. While the outlaw's motive may or may not be of immediate interest to the audience in this opening scene, the cop's action needs no guesswork. It leaves us with that of Scottie. Neither has his identity been revealed to the audience yet nor his motivation. When the scene closes with the cop's fall leaving Scottie precariously suspended from the building's soffit, we gather [through the alternate zooming of the street level from the roof] the master key to an unknown plot - Scottie's acrophobia.

The Outlaw

The Police Officer

The Detective

The triangular nature of this opening suspense scene probably foreshadows the many other triangulations Vertigo consequently opens up to its viewer. Film scholar and Hitchcock expert Robin Wood [7] has observed the possibility of a "fundamental Freudian triumvirate" marking this opening scene. The three levels of human consciousness - id, ego and superego. "The Id is associated with unrestrained libido, pursuit of pleasure, hence (in our surplus repressive culture) commonly with criminality. The superego is conscience, the law, the internalized authority of the father- our psychic police officer, in fact. At the opening of Vertigo, then, the symbolic father is killed, and the id escapes to wander freely in the darkness. Stewart is left hanging (we never see, or are told, how he gets down): metaphorically, he is suspended for the remainder of the film." The much discussed quintessentially triangular nature of the Ashberian aesthetic concern is a similar one. Ashbery's poetics has a big stake in this aesthetic (and metaphysical) relationship between the poet, his created art (the poem) and its connoisseur - the reader. No doubt, intrigue thickens, as we are tempted to replace the “triumvirate” with the poet, the poem and its reader. The which is which question characterizes the puzzle that follows.

If the poem (experimental poem, in particular) is id reified as the illusory outlaw who “escapes to wander freely in the darkness”, it’s controlling guardian becomes the superego. The fact that in this case the superego turns out to be the law enforcer, is empowering for the poet entrusting him with conscientious authority. The reader, thus, is left to fill in for ego – Scottie, as we have labeled him – the most nebulous character at this point - complex, confused, ailing and vulnerable. Not only does he miss the poem but remains precariously suspended throughout – an experience commonly associated with many Ashbery readers. Interestingly, Scottie, although not quite a representative of the hand of law, works for the force very much like the average Ashbery reader who isn’t part of a mainstream audience but more aggrouped with the literary elite. The fall and thus loss of the police officer in this opening scene could very well remind us of Ashbery’s withdrawal symptom. The poet withdraws leaving an apparently uncontrollable half-made poem to wander in the darkness that surrounds the vulnerable reader. And this is only a harbinger of the grand plot.

A semiological perspective provides us with another vision that tessellates in a slightly different way. It builds for us the myth of the poem or which Ashberian wit inspires me to compare with the myth of crime. Roland Barthes [8] has a new way to describe our triumvirate, "In myth, we find again the tri-dimensional pattern which I have just described: the signifier, the signified and the sign."

If the poet, for example, has to serve as the signifier, the reader is almost immediately “signified” and the poem, thus assumes the form of the “sign”. We have a very interesting relationship to look forward to. A large number of poets around the world, however, in a variety of ways, in a range of compositions have reiterated that the poem or the sign is like a child - a direct result of the collaboration between the poet and the reader.

As other Vertigo triangulations begin to unfold, the poem-poet-reader model gathers gravy. Lets switch our “triumvirate” to the three main characters in the movie – Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) and Scottie. Suspense mounts until past halfway through the film when Judy (now merged with Madeleine and also exposed as “fake”) turns face-to-face with the audience and Hitchcock reruns the chapel tower scene revealing the plot to us. “Then, suddenly, we are in the room alone with Judy: the withdrawl of Scottie from the scne is like the withdrawl of our own consciousness, we have nothing to cling to. Then the screen darkens around Judy and the flaskback begins….We experience a moment of total bewilderment in which all sense of reality seems terrifyingly to dissolve; then, abruptly, the vertigo is over for us: over, anyway, until we begin to reflect on the quicksand of reality and illusion the film presents.” [7]

One side of this triangle - the relationship between Elster and Madeleine/Judy is shown “dotted”. It is a clandestine relationship which the audience gets to discover and conjecture during the course of the film, but is kept away from any direct public contact for the most part. There are precisely two scenes where Helmore and Novak appear together – a) the first time at the restaurant (Ernie's) where Scottie gets to cast his first glance at Madeleine and b) the rerun of the bell tower scene when the conspiracy is first revealed to the audience. In none of those two scenes are we allowed to hear any audible conversation between the two characters.

As the plot is revealed so is its owner, Elster. He fits the bill best for the role of the “poet”, who, with immaculate Ashberian playfulness and guile, sets up a poem-perfect - Judy (as Madeleine). A “poem”, maudlin no doubt at least in the skin, but perhaps more gradually and soberly set out to enamor the reader (Scottie) almost to the brink of a commitment, while it remembers to execute the plan it was contracted to - bamboozle him into a de Chiricoan world where the real and unreal are equalled. In this triangular parallel however, tragedy targets the “poem” as both Madeleine and her impersonator (Judy) dies. We would refrain from drawing parallels any further for neither will the dying “poem” save the “poet” nor the “reader”.


Voyeurism underlines several Hitchcock films and remains a steady metaphor, (along with fetishism) through the width and breadth of his oeuvre. Three years before Vertigo, Hitchcock made Rear Window (1954) – a film that aggressively adopts voyeurism as a theme-form. In Rear Window, Stella, the male protagonist’s housekeeper, remarks, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms”.

Throughout the film in Vertigo, Hitchcock plays with the element of voyeurism to heart’s content although I would argue, he embarassingly avoids (carefully hides from the audience) its most intense moment – when Scottie fishes out an unconscious Madeleine (“play-acting” Judy) from San Francisco bay, brings her over to his apartment and undresses her to dry her wet clothes, while Judy (as Madeleine) is actually conscious. This scene was only hinted but never filmed.

Wondering what an Ashberian voyeur could be like we soon discover the poet addressing a “you” (which I read in a pluralistic way) as –

“Yes, and you are a voyeur, too, unfortunately, and the purity of your desire could hardly be extricated from all that. You are a voyeur with a conscience, the last thing anyone should be, I swear. No use trying to cover your tracks using archaic words like "leman"; the sense kills and you have the refrain to remind you.”

In the context of Vertigo, one immediately begins to realize how immaculately Scottie might embody Ashbery’s notion of voyeurism. As self-reflexivity becomes an Ashberian virtue, voueurism begins to relate to it. In certain poems of John Ashbery, voyeurism prompts identification. The poem Wet Casements (Houseboat Days) begins like this –

The conception is interesting: to see, as though reflected
In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through
Their own eyes. A digest of their correct impressions of
Their self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your
Ghostly transparent face.

There is a voyeurism to “The look of others through their own eyes” – the line assumes great importance when seen from several different perspectives of the characters in Vertigo, the Madeleine-Judy dual for example. The audience watches Kim Novak as Madeleine in the first half not knowing that she is impersonating. In the second half, Kim Novak’s screen presence assumes a third dimension as she now plays her real self but is coaxed (by Scottie) to dress up like her “faked” self. Does the “poem” as perceived by the readers through “a digest of their correct impressions” get overlaid on its real self much like how Scottie is so penchant to see a Madeleine in Judy? Isn’t this article trying to do something similar to both Vertigo and John Ashbery - see themselves through each other?

Car stalking assumes the form of Hitchcock’s favorite vehicle of voyeurism in Vertigo. When incited to think of the relationship between the reader and the typical Ashbery poem, this voyeuristic journey becomes almost immediately and scrupulously meaningful. There is one particular car stalking scene where Madeleine literally drives Scottie nuts meandering in squares around SFO streets (which have, by now, gained some familiarity with the audience) only to arrive at Scottie’s own apartment. There is a moment during that stalk-scene when Scottie brusquely throws his frustration as Madeleine takes another shady turn at the light – a scene that epitomizes for me the reader’s interaction with Ashbery’s incessant lateral shifts and serpentine logic (Three Poems, Flowchart and Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror in particular). While a sense of unfulfillment and frustration dawns, the urge to continue the stalking, continues.

Radial Time & Memory

As Scottie secretly follows Madeleine, who pretends to be unaware of it, the undulating cityscape of San Francisco is mapped out through Scottie’s windshield. This dynamic, thus momentary and somewhat surreal cityscape might remind one of Ashberian elements (from a large range of his work, especially from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Houseboat Days and Three Poems) that might have been influenced by the metaphysical landscapes of Georgio de Chirico. In a recent article on John Ashbery's Surrealism, Ernesto Suarez Toste [5] writes, "In fact, it is little wonder that Ashbery has felt attracted to de Chirico, since they share a wide range of obsessions. Traveling and the passing of time have become major preoccupations for both, and they have associated these in a very similar way.....Many of Ashbery's poems feature passages that recreate that wait in stations ("Melodic Trains" in Houseboat Days) or describe a metaphysical landscape as seen from a train.... Trains constitute an alternative timing system and at the same time they are subject to human delay."

There are no trains in Vertigo, but there are cars. The "poem's (Madeleine's) car" and the "reader's" (Scottie's) and in the latter part of the film the "poem" and the "reader" are mostly in the same car. The car metaphor has found more use in the later years of movie making. Abbas Kiarostami, the notable Iranian film-maker, makes incessant use of it. In his films, "car" begins to assume the role of what one might call a "teller vehicle". It resembles the trolly, on which the camera that tells the story, is mounted. However, in Vertigo, Hitchcock uses the "car" as if there is "no distinction between real and the unreal" - which is exactly how Gertrude Stein described the paintings of de Chirico.

Many have referred to the car-stalking scenes as "going in circles". In actuality, the cars did not go in "circles" but in "squares". The "circularity of time" has also been discussed with regard to the Sequoia scene where Madeleine points to a particular annulus on a tree trunk and says with the other worldliness of Carlotta Valdes, the dead woman whose mnemonic spell she is supposedly under, "Here I was born and here I died, you took no notice". Once again, the direction of time here is not circular but instead, radial (and therefore linear) as the annular areas between the tree-rings designate particular time periods and an abrupt jump from one to another is only possible through a radial movement. In fact, if one follows Madeleine's finger in the film, pointing to the tree-rings, it goes radially outward along a line.

However, it cannot be denied that there is indeed some circularity ( or, in the least, spirality) in the handling of the plot in Vertigo. The way fate works for example. At the end of the first part, both Madeleines are gone - the fake as well as the real one. It is as if consciousness merges with the unconscious and both camphorize at the same instant leaving behind their insensate hero who cannot be cured by Mozart, neither by the mothering ex-girlfriend. He takes months in the sanatorium to recuperate. Borrowing from Ashbery one might describe Scotty’s amnesiac state as

only in the gap of today filling itself
an emptiness is distributed
in the area of what time it is
when that time is already past.
- Self-portrait in a convex mirror/ Self-portrait in a convex mirror

Not all is lost for good though. The fake Madeleine is found and Scottie is able to transmigrate her into the lost beauty of his obsessive past. In the last scene of the film, however, cursed fate retraces itself and Madeleine is lost again. Ashbery seems to find a perfect poem with a perfect title for us -

We aren't meaning that any more.
The question has been asked
As though an immense natural bridge had been
Strung across the landscape to any point you wanted.
The ellipse is as aimless as that,
Stretching invisibly into the future so as to reappear
in our present. Its flexing is its account,
Return to the point of no return.
- Lost and Found and Lost Again/ Houseboat Days

Reconstruction & Duality

About the likeness of Guy Maddin’s work to his, John Ashbery told me in a recent interview, “What attracted me very much about Guy's work even before I met him was not only in fact was he sort of hypnotized by old style films (some of those old titles and his own titles bring out the poetry) but also he seems to have an artistic idea of form like mine. I have noticed in one of his movies, the end of the movie, seems to come, for me, rather early on and yet the movie kept going on, turning into a new plot when we thought the action was all over. A kind of a deviation from the formal structure which I intuitively tried to assimilate in my own experiments.” [2] Whether Vertigo, released as a mainstream American film made within Hollywood’s studio system five years before Ashbery published his starkest book of experimental poetry - Tennis Court Oath, can be seen as “a deviation from the formal structure” remains debatable. However, the other aspect of Maddin’s work that Ashbery is drawn to – “the end of the movie, seems to come, for me, rather early on and yet the movie kept going on, turning into a new plot when we thought the action was all over.” – could befittingly describe Vertigo.

The storyboard of Vertigo is built following a reconstruction technique where the first half broadly repeats itself in the second, especially the growth pattern of the relationship between Scottie and Judy (now as Judy) – chance acquaintance followed by close camaraderie finally maturing into a committed love affair that spirals its way up the bell tower of San Juan Batista preparing itself for a terminal and tragic fall. It’s a reconstruction game for our protagonist Scottie.

Borrowing from Ashbery to sensitize his situation, one might say -

The wind is now fresh and full, with leaves and other things flying. And to release it from its condition of hardness you will have to take apart the notion of you so as to reconstruct it from an intimate knowledge of its inner workings. How harmless and even helpful the painted wooden components of the Juggernaut look scattered around the yard, patiently waiting to be reassembled! So ends the first lesson: that the concave being, enfolding like air or spirit, does not dissolve when breathed upon but comes apart neatly, like a watch, and the parts may be stocked or stored, their potential does not leak away through inactivity but remains bright and firm, so that in a sense it is just as much there as if it were put back together again and even more so: with everything sorted and labeled you can keep an eye on it a lot better than if it were again free to assume protean shapes and senses, the genie once more let out of the bottle, and who can say where all these vacant premises should end?

- (The New Spirit/Three Poems)

Scottie, now, unleashes his utmost efforts to convince Judy to impersonate as Madeleine. The move is thus reversed, so are the roles - prey becomes predator, predator prey. Its the male protagonist who sets up the game in the second half (in contrast to the female, Judy, as Madeleine, in the first). With each turn of the invisible dice he earns more points (gathers important clues, Madeleine’s pendant - the murder souvenir, being the match point). This duality of treatment bares while the plot begins to retrace itself by following the breadcrumbs it had left behind. A sense of the battle of the sexes begins to surface.

With these aspects of Vertigo in mind, lets turn to an Ashbery poem now –

Paradoxes and Oxymorons (Shadow Train)

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

In this much discussed poem, creative energy, in its entirety, is spent to describe the aesthetic and metaphysical relationship between a reader and the poem. This duality presents itself at once. Several ideas of meaning production, self-reflexivity, identification concerns and rhetorical personification come up and have been dealt with extensively by Ashbery scholars. The poem might find a completely new physical (and graphical) space if seen in the perspective of Vertigo, especially given the literary personifications we have just dwelled on.

The first eight lines (first two stanza’s) seem to be relating to the first half of the film if we continue to take Scottie as the “reader” (you) and Madeleine as the “poem”. When Ashbery writes, “The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.”, Judy’s (as Madeleine) romantic dilemma buoys up. What should have otherwise been “plain love” isn’t so plain anymore. Ashbery explains – “What's a plain level? It is that and other things,/ Bringing a system of them into play. Play?”. Yes, Play. The need for a drama has been cinematically justified by now. The audience has approved it.

As we migrate to the second half of the poem, a tone of adjustment and understanding comes about. Reconstruction is hinted – “It has been played once more.” The reader’s prerogative to rediscover appears to be automatic by this time – “I think you exist only/To tease me into doing it, on your level”. Roles have been reversed, the trap remains the same, but it’s the reader (Scottie), who is now in charge. Judy is made to play her own game by her own rules. Ashbery’s pronoun play is beginning to whisk – “And the poem/Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”. You – the reader ? Is the poem (Judy) getting ready to submit to the reader (Scottie) ?

Its also interesting that in some respect, the second half of the film is somewhat gendered. It seems to theme on female-avenge. Scottie’s confidence curve gradually ascends, he is increasingly playful and insinuating and in the process can completely reconstruct the “abstract” woman of his dream – Madeleine – out of Judy. The fates of Scottie and Madeleine seem to have been welded by destiny. They remain duals of each other thoughout the length of the film amidst character and identity transformations and reversals. The following lines from Flowchart, perhaps, give a prudent and precise description of their relationship -

      The words have, as they
always do, come full circle, dragging the meaning that was on the reverse side
all along, and one even
expects this, something to chew on. I'm rubber
and you're glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you;
in which gluey embrace I surrender. We are both part of a living things now.


The Notion of Structure

Is structure a revealation of the exterior or a virtue of the interior? One could perhaps resort to modernistic architects like Wright, Gropius, Le Corbusier and engineers like Roebling & Strauss etc. to determine the true nature of its aesthetics. Obviously, in both cinema and poetry, the notion of structure and its aesthetics is far more abstract and illusory. A perfunctory observation neither does help identify its shape, nor expose the flaws or virtues of its construction, not to mention the binding of its facade to the viscera that goes largely unnoticed.

In Vertigo, for example, not only does the plot and the musical score have a structure (noticeably ellipsoidal or spiral as exemplified literally in the opening title scene and several dream sequences of Scottie) but many actual modernistic structures are constantly depicted in the film. Elster is in ship building business. His office window offers us a crisp glimpse of modern ship and overhead crane structures. A fancy bra is displayed in fashion designer Midge's apartment which is "built on the principles of a cantilever bridge". Although that's not quite the same principle on which the design of the Golden Gate bridge is based, it, as expected, is integrated into the backdrop of several scenes, each time from a different angle. This includes the famous scene of Madeleine's attempted suicide at San Francisco Bay. The wavy neo-modern cityscape of San Francisco, depicted from Midge's apartment and other vista pointes provide other vignettes of urban structures.

Ashbery's work, in a similar vein, houses artistic concerns inside his own art in a rather pluralaesthetic way. A wide gamut of his poetry addresses not only the relationship concern between the writer and his reader but also their relations with respect to the created art extending to relationships of poetic art to other arts. Fred Moramarco, one of my favorite Ashbery scholars, observes, “In many of Ashbery's major works, the central metaphor embodies a specific conception of art and/or the life, usually connoting something about the relationship of art and the artists to the world around them. These metaphors have been drawn from nature, sports, art itself, religion, music and, in Flowchart, appropriately for the post-Reagan years, the corporate and institutional world."

The structure-within-a-structure awareness leads us to a sort of inward looking which now, probably for the first time, sanctifies the poet as a "private investigator". His probing, reading and deciphering of life tends to mirror that inward looking. Ashbery writes in Houseboat Days,

We must stay in motion. To flash light
Into the house within, its many chambers,
Its memories and associations, upon its inscribed
And pictured walls, argues enough that life is various.
Life is beautiful. He who reads that
As in the window of some distant, speeding train
Knows what he wants, and what will befall.

Its an interesting coincidence that amongst the many neo-modernistic structures Vertigo refers to, some are incomplete. Like the structures at the ship-building works overlooking Elster’s office, or the cantilever-bra (probably a futuristic design not yet in vogue) etc. Paul Valery had once remarked “poems are never completed but abandoned” to which Ashbery seems to retort “completion is abandonment” [9]. There is indeed a strong presence of the “incomplete” in Vertigo. Not only does it’s first false “end” come quite early on, the poem-reader/art-connoiseur relationship is also left undone. While the second half of the film seems to decode the mystery, it ends with a separation of realities thicker than dream. Judy and/or Madeleine is lost for good. The incompleteness, thus seems to linger on

For it builds up into something, meaningless or meaningful
As architecture, because planned and then abandoned when completed,
To live afterwards, in sunlight and shadow, a certain amount of years.

- The Double Dream of Spring

Immediately, after the first tragedy (Madeleine’s fall from the bell tower), comes Scottie’s dream sequence. If we turn to the tapestry of that carefully woven visual abstraction, sometimes colorful and and at other times monochromatic, we will be able to see a deeply metaphysical world of desire and identification, past and present (both immediate), death and life spin into a turbid vortex. It begins spurring with the flowers and its multicolored petals coming off Madeleine’s bouquet - something Wood [7] calls the “disintegration symbol” – gradually swarming into a vortex of flowing paint. “Here at the center of the film, is the clearest statement about the nature of the “vertigo”. In his dream he achieves identity with Madeleine: first by sinking into her grave (as described by her earlier in the scene by the sea), then by falling onto the roof. He wants to die in her place, or to join her in death; but looking back we can see his whole attraction to her as a matter of identification” [7]. The dream sequence basically folds past, present, reality, illusion, desire and death one on top of another so as to lead into a rather confused but open structure which John Ashbery might accentuate as -

Out of this intolerant swarm of freedom as it
Is called in your press, the future, an open
Structure, is rising even now, to be invaded by the present
As the past stands to one side, dark and theoretical

- Fragment/The Double Dream of Spring

Power & Freedom

In the Vertigo script one of the most recurring words is “freedom”. The word “power” is also mentioned frequently. These dual themes of power and freedom, in a lopsidedly male-dominating way, represent the “west” – not only the “west” as in the western hemisphere but also the “west” of the Americas. Robin Wood [7] points out several details – Gavin Elster...refers to the “power” and “freedom” of Old San Francisco. The Argosy Bookstore owner while explaining the fatalities the deceased Carlotta Valdez had experienced remarks, “Men could do that in those days – they had the freedom, they had the power.” Towards the end, Scottie, asks Madeleine contemptuously, if Elster “with all that freedom and all that power” just “ditched” her. Thus this “freedom” is essentially one that is used to “dominate women, or to throw them over (or even murder them) when they become inconvenient” [7].

The Ashberian take on “power” has a distinctly different aura to it although it does, at times, self-examines it roots both in terms of geography and history. “Power” to Ashbery, is mostly an aesthetic virtue that resides in the annals of mainstream modes of artistic production and “freedom” is a recklessness with which the artist needs to defy those ornate stylizations. He writes - -

that those who assumed that they had reached the end of an elaborate but basically simple progression, the logical last step of history, came more and more to be the dominant party: a motley group but with many level heads among them, whose voices chanting the wise maxims of regular power gradually approached the point of submerging the other cacophony of tinkling cymbals and wailing and individual voices raised in solemn but unreal debate
our plans will remain at the stage of dreams or armies in the fire: we carry both inside and outside around with us as we move purposefully toward an operation that is going to change us on every level, and is also going to alter the balance of power of happiness in the world in our favor

-The System/ Three Poems

One could argue, (given the vaguely misogynistic charges Ashbery had at times has been bombarded with) if this abstract “power” is still androcentric. Most importantly, however, it “balances” and “in our favor” and any producer of innovative arts would readily embrace it. There is also the “power” of “freedom” or free will, which in Ashberian domain, presupposes the uncertainty principle – in another & perhaps a better word – possibilities - the endless possibilities throbbing around what apparently has been perceived as the singular infallible truth. This indeterminacy, that wraps around art and life, is powerful enough to amaze us. Ashbery says,

we are amazed at the power of the possibilities enfolded in each thing, but above all how long they have lasted---longer than consciousness itself. We can go on building and the structure, the shed that joins ours, will always be there, kind, undermining. And the strength to be indeterminate overtakes one.
- KAMARINSKAYA/ Hotel Lautréamont


1. David Kermani, John Ashbery's longtime companion and literary steward, mentioned this poem during a personal conversation (summer, 2007).
2. John Ashbery and his Poetry of Mud. Interview with Aryanil Mukherjee. Internet article. (Aug. 2007)
3. “Plenty of Sublimated Rin Tin Tin” Guy Maddin talks about John Ashbery, Jessica Winter, Poetry Foundation, Internet Article. (2007).
4. John Ashbery at the Movies, Internet Announcement. (2009).
5. "The Tension Is in the Concept": John Ashbery's Surrealism, Ernesto Suarez-Toste, Vol. 38., No. 1., Style. (2004).
6. Ashbery Resource Center. Flowchart Foundation. Website. (2009).
7. Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Robin Wood, Columbia University Press, NY, (1989).
8. Mythologies. Roland Barthes. Hill and Wang. NY. (1984).
9. “The Shield of a Greeting : The Function of Irony in John Ashbery’s Poetry”, David Lehman, 'Beyond Amazement': New essays on John Ashbery. Ed. David Lehman. Cornell University Press, pp. 101-127. (1980).

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