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Author: John Ashbery

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (1998)

The eighteenth collection of poems by one of America's major poets. If John Ashbery pays any allegiance in these poems, it is to the syntax of dreams. Wakefulness captures the spirit of the sleeping mind, a place where past, present, and future function simultaneously, and where one might find, for instance, seraphs and parking lots, or jesters and dashboards, whimsically juxtaposed. As is often the case in dream worlds, the speaker embarks on a journey. Just where he is going remains elusive, but we do know that there is madness "in the next sleeping car" and "no release in sight." True to the unconscious mind, these poems follow their own idiosyncratic logic, as in, "It was a misunderstanding, mudsliding / from the side where the thing was let in. / And it was all goose, let me tell you, braided goose . . ." Ashbery deliberately roughens his edges, as if he genuinely believes, as the speaker warns in "Added Poignancy," that "millions of languages / became extinct, and not because there was nothing left to say in them, / but because it was all said too well, with / nary a dewdrop on the moment of glottal expulsion."

"Exceptional in their daring wordplay and rhyme, teeming with the unexpected, the eccentric, and the downright freakish, these poems capture our attention by refusing to conform to narrative expectations. Here we enter the mind of an exacting genius, a mind so taken with the subtleties of language, with the way words are laid down, that when he states: 'Each is truly a unique piece, / you said, or, perhaps, each / is a truly unique piece. I sniff the difference,' we believe him."

–Martha Silano