Poem of the week: ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery

Paul Norris 22 November 2018
Credit: Wikicommons

A breeze like the turning of a page

Brings back your face: the moment

Takes such a big bite out of the haze

Of pleasant intuition it comes after.

The locking into place is “death itself,”

As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth;

Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot

Be a pinch of death more sharp than this,” for,

Though only exercise or tactic, it carries

The momentum of a conviction that had been building.

Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it

Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains

The white precipitate of its dream

In the climate of sighs flung across our world,

A cloth over a birdcage.

‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, from which the above is a short extract, is an ekphrasis (description of a work of art) about a painting of the same name by Parmigianino. When I saw the painting in Vienna, I was rather disappointed. Like a celebrity who looks taller on television than in person, the canvas is surprisingly small, its subject matter unexciting. Perhaps Sydney Freedberg, paraphrased by Ashbery, is right that ‘The surprise, the tension are in the concept/ Rather than its realization’: it was radical at the time to mimic the perspective of a convex mirror, and in concept something of this radicalism survives, but I didn’t learn much by seeing it in person.

I’m not sure Ashbery did either, given that the poet’s own sight of the painting takes up only a single line (out of six hundred): ‘I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959’. This prosaic side-note comes in the middle of the poem; it seems completely peripheral. ‘Self Portrait’ is not about a gallery visit. It starts not with the painting as an object to be viewed, but as its own imagined universe:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,

Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together

In a movement supporting the face, which swims

Toward and away like the hand

Except that it is in repose.

Yes, there is a ‘viewer’, but there is no intervening space between him and the painting’s subject. The poet deliberately ignores perspective (the right hand is not closer to the viewer than the head, but ‘Bigger’) and sees movement where there is none (as the components of the room ‘run together’). If this describes an experience of viewing the painting, it has been chemically enhanced.

John Ashbery made his living, as far as one can, as an art critic. This will surprise no one who has read ‘Self Portrait’, replete as it is with references to critical responses from Vasari to the present. Is the poem itself a work of criticism? The painting is increasingly absent from the poem as it continues; when it appears, it seems more and more to intrude. By the end, Ashbery seems to dismiss Parmigianino as one of ‘those assholes/ Who would confuse everything with their mirror games’. Unlike Parmiagianino, who painted in a studio, Ashbery wrote poems by walking around, rummaging through thrift shops and book shelves. This is useful as a way of understanding the rather random selection of references (in the passage quoted above, Shakespeare and early twentieth century classical music are used as different routes to the same point), but also the sense of wandering which pervades all Ashbery’s work. Ashbery does not argue so much as rummage. While Parmiagianino’s painting closes down possibilities, Ashbery’s poem opens them up. ‘Self Portrait’  is, as Wallace Stevens writes in ‘Of Modern Poetry, a ‘poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.’

But Ashbery is not rummaging for the sake of rummaging alone: in this poem he searches for a means of expressing consciousness. What to make of his search is always difficult, as concrete things become abstract and vice versa. Every time Ashbery seems to give us a clue as to how to read his work, for instance the idea that his ‘words are only speculation’, he immediately wrongfoots us. In this case he points out in parentheses that speculation comes ‘From the Latin speculum, mirror’, implying that language is reflective. But if it were to be a convex mirror it would mould its reflection into a globe: the shape the poet finds so restrictive in Parmagianino’s painting. This distorted shape may be inadequate and restrictive, but perhaps it is the best we have: ‘life englobed’.

The section quoted at the beginning of the article suggests otherwise: that there might be a better way of living, or of representing life, than that represented by the portrait. The ‘breeze like the turning of a page’ might be literature itself, but this seems unlikely given that elsewhere in the poem language is part of the restrictive human condition rather than a solution to it.

It is Ashbery’s tendency to revise and undo himself which makes him so hard to quote. Whenever he seems like he’s created an aphoristic phrase, removing it from its context makes it fall apart. Take the beginning of the third verse paragraph: ‘Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted’. This has a confident, Emersonian ring which makes the reader want to put it on a poster and stick it on the wall. But to pause over it for a minute, what does it actually mean? Of course it inverts our expectations: we think of the future as uncharted territory rather than the present. But once the reader has got their head around this paradox, the injection of mystery into the everyday, the content seems to break down into cliché. Is Ashbery simply saying: ‘Doing things “tomorrow” is easy because it means you don’t have to do them right now’? That writing the essay tomorrow is easier than the slightly frightening reality of writing it today? What is this difference between this saying and commonplaces about the importance of acting today? Is Ashbery simply finding a way of making platitudes palatable?

Palatable is the wrong word, but platitude is a useful way of thinking about the style of ‘Self Portrait’. To isolate a line, or a few words, is to find clichés, erudite references, snatches of everyday speech. It is how these are jostled together, or rummaged around, that creates the poetry. In this sense, the poem is like the painting, as (here Ashbery again quotes Freedberg) ‘Realism…/ No longer produces an objective truth’. The objective truth is not what Ashbery is after in his ‘Self Portrait’ (not, incidentally, a portrait of himself but the self): instead he’s searching for a truth which is subjectivity itself.