Ashbery, John and Joe Brainard. The Vermont Notebook. Calais, VT: Granary Books, Inc., 2001.
The Vermont Notebook is a collaborative effort containing the prose poetry of John Ashbery and charcoal sketches by visual artist Joe Brainard. With regard to Ashbery's poems, lists comprise the first third of the book, which range from names of other poets, corporations, board games, and urban minutia, just to name a few. Following the aforementioned lists, the poet employs a variety of different forms, such as diary entries and personal letters so as conduct a “reinvestigation and reapprasial of the whole situation” (43) that is prose poetry. While these experiments, no doubt, offer readers an interesting lens through which to view poetry, Ashbery also invokes the prose poem tradition of Gertrude Stein, at times, when exploring the use of wordplay and repetition; for example, he writes: “They say we are treason to understand what goes on not to understand what goes on. They say gals understand more. They say guys understand more. They say guys and gals glued to surprise partition understand more. They say all understand more. They say no one understand more” (31). At the close of the book, the penultimate piece, “The Fairie's Song,” is the lone poem written in lineated, verse form and speaks to the fact “that whatever we arrange,” in this case prose poems, “Will sooner of later get all fucked up” (93) with a more traditional, lyric sensibility. With regard to content, Ashbery explores late-twentieth century conceptions of Americana, whether that be with a Whitmanian catalog of southern cities, such as “Charlottesville, Washington, Baltimore, Macon, Manassas, Asheville” (19), etc., or unapologetic polemics wherein the poet notes: “What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is...part of our so-called American way of life” (59). Another theme explored by the author is the confluence of culture and nature, specifically, when he writes about the “Marco Applied Marine Ecology Station” in the “southern Gulf coast of Florida” (77) and the company's subsequent efforts of “finding ways to protect and enhance the environment” (79) through man-made contraptions and consumer refuse. In one instance, scientists created artificial reefs from “57,000 old automobile tires...wired together” (81), in another, bald eagle nests were re-located and “strapped to a concrete piling in a mangrove thicket” (77). While Marco's plans do provide animal life with certain amount of “environmental protection,” they also have an ulterior motive: capital; with regard to to the previously mentioned reefs, the impetus of the project had more to do with raising a fisherman's catch-rate from one fish every two hours, to “sometimes...up to 15 fish per hour” (83). The relationship between Ashbery's text and Brainard's sketches is also worth mentioning because, throughout the course of the book, it alters frequently. The first page of the book contains the silhouette of a solitary figure standing on the horizon, instilling within the reader a sense of isolation; on the next page, there is a short list: “October, November, December” (7). By pairing the list with the drawing, the isolate figure imbues the months with a particular emptiness or solitary existence. Several pages later, readers encounter the following list: “Industrial parks, vacant lots...arenas...tarmac, blacktop, service roads, parking lots...” (11), but the image on the opposing page is that of a country road, a farm, and various livestock. While the juxtaposition of rural landscape with a list of urban spaces, no doubt, initially jars the audience, further examination encourages them to gauge the differences, as well as material-economic relationships between them. Of course, there is no mandatory manner in which to conceptualize the images, nor their relationship to the text. Sometimes they may cause an audience member anxiety or confusion: to “teeter...on the hem of sleep, disrobing this way or that, clenching his teeth [at] all those distraught objects...seeming not seeing but just seeing” (35). Yet, if one thinks through the text and image relationship thoroughly, the zone of transition between the two develop into “signposts toward an infinity of wavering susceptible variables, if one but [knows] how to read them aright” (61).