Book Reviews

Update, Backup

by Jack Chelgren | Associate Editor

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2
Paul Legault
Fence Books, 2016

“There is no man so unsuited for the task of speaking about memory as I am, for I find scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe there is another man in the world so hideously lacking in it. All my other faculties are poor and ordinary, but in this I think I am most rare and singular, and deserve to gain name and fame thereby.” – Michel de Montaigne, “On liars”

In the mid-1960s, Elaine Sturtevant began copying works by other artists and showing them under her name. She did Duchamp’s Fountain, Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, Johns’s Flag, and quite a few others. The stunt wasn’t unprecedented—in fact, many of the artists she imitated were early pioneers of appropriation-based art. But Sturtevant differed from her peers and forebears in two key regards: she executed her reproductions by hand and almost entirely from memory.

In recent years, a number of artists across the disciplines have followed suit, turning to memory as a way of reiterating existing works into new forms. In 2007, Dirty Projectors recreated Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged after reportedly not having listened to it for years, trading the textures of hardcore punk for bright, virtuosic guitar work and hocket-heavy vocals. In 2016, an Italian-American designer named Gianluca Gimini asked people to sketch a bicycle with no help or references, then produced highly realistic renderings of the generally unrideable results. Even more recently, six Pacific Northwest artists redrew the first 151 Pokémon as best they could remember them and published the set as a zine. In each of these pieces, as in Sturtevant, errors and omissions are as important as accuracy: they’re what set the works apart from replicas, and what distinguish the style from strict appropriation.

Perhaps the most ambitious take on the replication-by-recollection model is a collection of poems published this year by Fence Books, where the author, Paul Legault, rewrote John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror from memory. This is familiar territory for Legault: in 2013, he released an “English-to-English translation” of Emily Dickinson’s entire oeuvre. Choosing Ashbery for his latest project, which he calls Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2, confirms Legault’s fearlessness in poaching from high-profile, overdetermined cultural objects. Though not quite a Dickinson, Ashbery is one of the most critically acclaimed and notoriously difficult poets alive, which makes him a daunting figure to write through. His poems are also uncommonly tricky to memorize, on account of their shifting, meandering syntax and rejection of conventional narrative structures.

Thus, much of the intrigue of Legault’s enterprise comes from the question of how closely he’ll adhere to his premise, and from the corollary of what will happen when he deviates. Memory tends to distort and complicate its objects, and Ashbery is a poet particularly interested in the distorting and complicating movements of the mind. It follows that refracting his poems through Legault’s brain might raise both of their styles to a higher power, navel-gazing squared to a brilliant end.

Legault must have had the same thought, because the book frequently alludes to its status as a reproduction. There are scads of references to mirrors, reflections, and portraits, not to mention moments of shameless advertising like “Steal the book, burn its contents, read it back to me / From memory.” Even the title bears the mark of the compositional conceit, as do the titles of the individual poems, which read similarly, “[Ashbery’s Title] 2.” But the titles do more than belabor the book’s creation story; their most significant effect is actually to frame the project as an update, not a copy, of Ashbery. Whereas a different nomenclature might have acknowledged the work’s derivation but highlighted its similarities with the original, the 2s imply a moving-beyond or revision that emphasizes precisely the differences. Here, the differences are variations from Ashbery’s text brought about by errors and lapses of memory, and such variations are present in no short supply.

But in spite of the changes, Self-Portrait 2 doesn’t read like an update. It’s more nearly an intensification of certain aspects of its predecessor’s style that wavers noncommittally between homage, exegesis, and parody. Certain poems, particularly “As You Came from the Holy Land 2,” do strike out from Ashbery’s idiom to develop their own voice and lexicon. Here are the openings of both versions of that piece:


As You Came from the Holy Land


As You Came from the Holy Land 2

of western New York state
were the graves all right in their bushings
was there in a note of panic in the late August air
because the old man had peed in his pants again
was there turning away from the late afternoon glare
as though it too could be wished away
was any of this present
and how could this be
the magic solution to what you are in now
in parts of New York there’s this state
of being lit as a bush with god or the future
what was driving that old panic into the air again
what’s not classic about being something old
when did the magic lantern evolve into tv
we had been thinking of time in the miniature
as something worth avoiding at all costs
and the accountant stopped his installments
from reaching the interior immediately
in the habit of one born of an impetus

Legault’s rendering isn’t a total departure, but the voice is more clipped and direct than in the earlier version; the transitions come faster, the emotions are more immediate. It’s as though a trace of Frank O’Hara has slipped into the otherwise pristine waters of Lake Ashbery, and the contamination makes “Holy Land 2” one of the liveliest and, frankly, most enjoyable poems in the book. It’s furthermore a testament to Legault’s good instincts that he selected this piece for his most decisive alterations, since Ashbery’s version is itself a kind of appropriation, riffing on and lifting its title from a poem attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Most of the rewrites don’t so much develop as double down on the originals, surfacing their quirks in ways that are sometimes illuminating, sometimes not. In “Grand Galop 2” and “Farm 2,” Legault captures Ashbery’s preoccupation with vanishing pastorals and hazy bureaucracies, and nails his signature, maybe-metaphorical-maybe-not slipperiness. “The contract began somewhat sporadically,” opens “Farm 2,” “Involving the land animals’ removal / From plain-life to life at the agency / That bridges one thing from another.” If you squint hard enough, you can see in these lines an abstract account of humans’ manipulation of other animals for profit, even a critique of industrial agriculture. The purposeful vagueness of the diction admits other possibilities, too. The “land animals” could, after all, include humans, making this a broader discussion about the alienating effects of modernity: note the distancing implicit in “bridges … from.” Here, Legault proves himself capable of sustaining the same balance of sense-making and slippage that is a defining feature of Ashbery’s style.

But too often the book’s attempts at reproducing the contours of its predecessor prove muddling. Memory appears to have exaggerated for Legault the whimsy and randomness that, while present in Ashbery, are usually kept on a leash. As a result, the rewrites lose their proximity to a consistent narrative, giving way to free-association and unmoored abstractions. Their interpretations of Ashbery’s syntax push the collection still further into imprecision. Passages like this one from the title poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2,” so amplify the elusiveness and verbosity of Ashbery’s syntax that they can hardly read as anything but caricature:

Because these things get parceled
Out to restore the properties
That demand the thoughts that will be
Given to establish a prominence
Of the balled-up course surrounded
By its tensions—to return to
What was its center that must show itself
And be what must hoard
This landscape of attention
Close to the origin of what the artist knew.

Things aren’t nearly this torturous in the original. Though lengthy and complex, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is the most purposive poem in Ashbery’s collection, a verse essay on epistemology and aesthetics that consistently re-grounds itself in a relatively consistent narrator’s contemplation of the titular Parmigianino. Legault allows his version to become all about Ashbery’s perceived ambiguities and ramblings, letting the particularities that make the source poem interesting slip away.

The problem isn’t that Legault seems to want to poke fun. There’s no sin in a spoof, and let no one contend that Ashbery wouldn’t deserve it if this were one. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what a parody is doing here when this poem and many of the others depend on an unironic imitation of Ashbery for their viability. Lampooning Ashbery in one moment while attempting to emulate him in the next is a strange tactic indeed, particularly when the emulations don’t always come off as well as the originals.

Over the course of the collection, through shifts of style and tone more Ashberyian than Ashbery himself, Legault makes it impossible to tell where his priorities lie. Filling in the blanks doesn’t clarify much. If the point of the book were simply to execute a concept, inconsistencies or trivialities in the content wouldn’t matter, because the quality of the finished piece would be at most of incidental importance to the project. But the poems are too carefully composed for this to be the case, and besides, the recollection-with-a-difference model isn’t new or provocative enough to carry the book by itself. It’s especially insufficient for Legault because of poetry’s particularities as a medium. If a visual work of appropriation varies from its source in ways that are uninteresting or inconsistent, this is less frustrating than if the same thing happens in a textual piece, for the simple reason that it takes longer to get through most books than to look at a visual artwork. To avoid annoying and exasperating readers, the book has to differ from Ashbery in ways that are interesting—and frequently it does. But just as frequently it’s unclear in what ways Legault wants to differ. There’s no unified logic or program to his variations.

Self-Portrait 2 lays out a range of responses to its precursor, and challenges readers to make sense of them. Part of the point may be to ask whether consistency is overrated. But the book is, above all, an archive of Legault’s evolving relationship with the text, documenting the poems as he knew them at a particular point and relived them. The best analogy for it isn’t, therefore, an update of Ashbery’s book, but rather a backup of Legault’s recollections of the Ashbery. It’s memory in multiple senses: as recall, yes, but also as external storage. The poems are specific, private things—records fully navigable, let alone user-friendly, for only one person.

Jack Chelgren lives in Seattle. He writes about poetry, music, and political theory. For two years, he has been an associate editor at Poetry Northwest.