Flames Against Indifference: On John Ashbery’s “Illustration”

A stylized photo from John Ashbery's dusk jacket for his poetry collection, "Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror". Ashbery is looking at himself in a tall, narrow mirror.

So much has been said of John Ashbery, pro and con, regarding the man’s poetic accomplishment, that to go over the details here would be to dither between a number of points better analysts have already raised. Since his death in 2017, there have been and will continue to be many encomiums, and I’m sure a few open critiques, too. I won’t engage in such, here, as I haven’t read enough of Ashbery’s entire oeuvre to launch into full-throated hagiography, and I’m more than happy to let a hardier soul tackle whatever the hell Flow Chart is.

But “Illustration” from his 1956 collection Some Trees is a perfect example of John Ashbery at his best, although less mysterious, and less remarkable, than some of the pieces from, say, 1976’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In this way, however, such sensitivity to frontal analysis lends itself well to younger poets learning the craft who might otherwise be stumped by the later book’s longer, more densely-packed enigmas.


A novice was sitting on a cornice
High over the city. Angels

Combined their prayers with those
Of the police, begging her to come off it.

One lady promised to be her friend.
“I do not want a friend,” she said.

A mother offered her some nylons
Stripped from her very legs. Others brought

Little offerings of fruit and candy,
The blind man all his flowers. If any

Could be called successful, these were,
For that the scene should be a ceremony

Was what she wanted. “I desire
Monuments,” she said. “I want to move

Figuratively, as waves caress
The thoughtless shore. You people I know

Will offer me every good thing
I do not want. But please remember

I died accepting them.” With that, the wind
Unpinned her bulky robes, and naked

As a roc’s egg, she drifted slowly downward
Out of the angels’ tenderness and the minds of men.

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves. Moths climb in the flame,
Alas, that wish only to be the flame:

They do not lessen our stature.
We twinkle under the weight

Of indiscretions. But how could we tell
That of the truth we know, she was

The somber vestment? For that night, rockets sighed
Elegantly over the city, and there was feasting:

There is so much in that moment!
So many attitudes toward that flame,

We might have soared from earth, watching her glide
Aloft, in her peplum of bright leaves.

But she, of course, was only an effigy
Of indifference, a miracle

Not meant for us, as the leaves are not
Winter’s because it is the end.

The poem’s in two parts, with the first being (as the title suggests) an illustration of a scene and the second an attendant “zoom-out” that contextualizes/ties the previous part to a greater meaning. It’s a boring title, and John Ashbery has better, almost Stevensian ones elsewhere, but workable enough for its purposes, and, as we’ll soon see, not without other meanings.

What is being described? At first, I thought this was some city bum’s suicide off a parapet somewhere along the municipal skyline. Something about her half-mad ravings and resistance to the watching crowd’s pleas, maybe. It’s a potential option, for sure, but look at that beginning word choice: a novice. Matching that with the bulky robes mentioned later, and the repeated inclusion of angels, I then had to rethink my initial assumptions and my guess changed from bum to nun, or some other novitiate in a religious order. That we are operating on this high-minded register, of course, will be important in exploring the poem’s second half.

So there is a nun (likely—although UK artist Ethan Pinch pointed out to me that this figure might also be a devotional statue, hence the flowers and the use of “effigy” later on. This gives the proceedings much more metaphoric heft) at the end of her tether, who stands on the edge of a building, and is resistant to the many negotiations of those who wish to save her life. The earthly things—friends, clothes, food and flowers—are rejected in favor of abstraction, but not wholly. Although the nun wants monuments (to what, and what kind?) she still accepts these many proffered items as she plunges. As to the nature of their acceptance, she is mute, and despite the seeming finality of her fall, Ashbery’s comparison of her nude frame to a “roc’s egg” signals the idea of (mythic?) origins, not mere termination.

The second part begins with an elegant aphorism: “Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble a taller // Impression of ourselves…” The rejection of aesthetics for a barer, less decorative truth? Self-denial, to be sure, with the metaphor of the moth beguiled by flame so that the moth becomes the flame bringing in the idea of transcendence beyond self. Is the nun’s rejecting life for God a signal for us to reject the mundane for higher things?

But Ashbery complicates the proceedings. He interrogates his own illustration of the nun’s suicide (“the somber vestment”) and its putatively being “the truth.” He re-illustrates: in the midst of her plunge, there are festivities, involving rockets (fireworks?) and plentiful dining. These seem to be divorced from her solemn fall and are themselves their own “truth.”

In a moment we might perceive to be total, and totalizing, other attitudes converge and conflict: who’s to say what is beautiful, and what must be discarded, and which movement on high counts above others? Does the nun’s rejection, and what we might perceive to be its holy attitude, necessitate our own rejection of what we deem to be valuable and real? Monumental, even, as the ascent of rockets and a feast’s giddiness? Where the rockets are, it is she who is below, with her seemingly unadorned denial now ornamented by the trees. Even the angels, in the beginning, move against her choice.

Then more nuance is added: the nun and her plight are now only an “effigy / Of indifference, a miracle // Not meant for us, as the leaves are not / Winter’s because it is the end.” An effigy of indifference? Do we take it that she simply symbolizes indifference—or is meant to be a mockery of it, to be burnt in retaliation to indifference?

Maybe the former: perhaps this nun’s epiphany on the cornice is not available to anyone but herself. Maybe some things really do belong to themselves alone, as the leaves exist separate from what the seasons impress upon them. Maybe both: maybe the separateness of things, however actual, does not necessitate wholesale denial of them, and in illustrating what we cannot fully know, only sheer indifference is denied. Note how Ashbery pins the woman’s want for ceremony in the midst of her public, and publicized, death. Aren’t so many of these moments simply pleas for recognition, with indifference being the condition of such suffering and not its balm?

What if, as Pinch suggests, this is in fact a devotional statue? Was the first part simply John Ashbery’s narrativizing of an unfeeling object’s collapse? An embellishment (“illustration”) used as a launching pad for his headier ideas? That there is a multiplicity of interpretations, with all carrying more or less equal intrigue, speaks to the poem’s strength.

To conclude, anything in the way of cliché, here? We have pithy description, tunefully phrased, and artful philosophizing in addition to that. Psychological realism, rhetorical flourish, and more importantly, enough ambiguity in these lines to invite an engaged reader’s return, which is what one ideally wants from poetry, via Ashbery or anyone else for that matter. And such is the very antithesis of indifference.

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