The morning glory:
just another thing that will
never be my friend.
— Basho, translated by Robert Bly
I grew up in the disturbed and disturbing soil of Western New York, near Rochester. The area has been home to Great Awakenings, Chautauqua temperance assemblies, the revelation of golden tablets to Joseph Smith, and some lesser known psychic disturbances. It’s sometimes called the “burned over district” for the spiritual residue of those revivals. It’s also deep in the Rust Belt, where cities are defined by their grand, abandoned industries— Kodak, Love Canal superfund, mills and hydro works at every waterfall.
Growing up, I didn’t know about all that. I knew that the weedy lot across the street had been a skating rink when my grandparents were young. I knew that digging in our backyard could turn up bits of china and blue medicine bottles, and once, the remnants of a wheelbarrow holding a small engine.
Whatever history I knew of my home was only two generations deep and mostly overgrown. What really flourished in that dirt of those Awakenings and the Industrial monoliths were strip-malls, box-stores, and fast-food chains. I grew up on the small town story, and I didn’t realize until high school that all the “billions served” by McDonald’s didn’t come from Spencerport.
Fed up with my own adolescence and its uniformity, I went away to college, worked on an orchard for a few years, then had a sort of breakdown that I re-styled as a vision quest. I left most of my possessions to escape, like the revivalists and industrialists before, to a new frontier.
That turned out to be the west side of Kodiak Island, where I gillnetted salmon and packed hunting trips. The culture seemed ready-made for transplants and the directionlessly homesick, with easily inhabited codes of clothing, footwear, and conversation. I thought I had found what I was missing: an endemic community.
After my second salmon season, a friend from college came to visit. We took kayaks up a bay and spent a few days at an old cannery. Once we hitched a ride in someone’s skiff and I chatted with them (proudly, knowledgeably) about tides and fish prices and all the rest. When we waved goodbye, my friend called the conversation “authenticity theater.” I was hurt. These rugged fishermen, not the prigs we’d gone to college with, were my people now! I wasn’t just parroting them! Theater!
He nodded (granting that my whole sense of self had gotten entangled in formulaic exchanges) and said something to the effect of “…but you know you, can always leave.” At the time I didn’t know it, or not completely. Why would I (could I?) leave a place that offered such a sense of belonging?
I’ve moved around since then. Now, I live in a town of strip-malls that has its own formulas of belonging (wide-brimmed hats, Copenhagen, horses) that I haven’t felt compelled to mimic. I can still remember the click of a mending needle in my palm, the subtlety and violence of picking fish, the elegant, personalized skiffs and the feel of my knee against the bar, braced to catch a line. I remember fresh food, and vibrant colors, and the string of peninsula mountains going down below the horizon.
When people ask about that time, I cast about for comparisons. It’s like… it’s like… and I try to explain the thin lines between loneliness and belonging, the fragility and persistence of life predicated on small boats and planes, and come up short. I lived on the ocean, I say. I have, for money, pulled countless beautiful fish and untold tons of seaweeds and the sodden bodies of birds from monofilament nets.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” a friend might say, “but I was on a whale watch once in Maine when a storm came up and that was scary enough.” And because it must share some fundamental link with what I’m getting at, I say, yes, just like that, and allow that person to imagine me in a lobsterman’s slicker on the whale-watching boat, lassoing a brown bear or whatever.
That’s a roundabout introduction to a John Ashbery poem I ran across in Carl Phillip’s book of essays, Coin of the Realm. The poem is called “Meditations of a Parrot,” and Phillips says it “veers dangerously close to straining belief.” He suggests it belongs to the “realm of surrealism,” because “parrots, of course, cannot meditate.”
Here’s the poem:
Meditations of a Parrot
Oh the rocks and the thimble
The oasis and the bed
Oh the jacket and the roses.
All sweetly stood up the sea to me
Like blue cornflakes in a white bowl.
The girl said, “Watch this.”
I come from Spain, I said.
I was purchased at a fair.
She said, “None of us know.
“There was a house once
Of dazzling canopies
And halls like a keyboard.
“These the waves tore in pieces.”
(His old wound –
And all day: Robin Hood! Robin Hood!)
At first glance, it appealed to me. It’s pleasantly lyric and articulates the consciousness of an animal, which I sometimes try in my own writing. It moves through different tones and voices, and seems to say something about myth, memory and dislocation.
I continued with the rest of the essay, the rest of the book, and mostly forgot about the parrot. A few days later I stumbled into a conversation about who can say what on hot social topics like gender, indigeneity, race and so on. The implied answer was: nobody who resembles that most despicable and psychically neutered species, The Normal White Guy.
I very closely resemble the NWG, and it wasn’t the first time I had been asked to step aside by the rabidly just. I returned to John Ashbery, who not only fits some NWG tropes, but was born and raised in Rochester, NY. The meditating parrot appeared in Ashbery’s first volume of poetry, “Some Trees,” which Auden chose for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, when my grandparents were still skating on that old rink.
Maybe, I thought, the parrot stands in for anyone without a strong personal vocabulary of self-expression. Substitute “slave” for “parrot” in the title and you get something reminiscent of Crusoe and Friday. Or “homeless,” or “Kodak factory worker” or even “John Ashbery,” and everything’s just dandy. It’s no stretch to imagine bigots from a century or a decade or a minute ago suggesting that any one of these groups, “of course, cannot meditate.” We all have old wounds and imperfect modes of expression.
Phillips, though, approached the parrot from the angle of associative imagery not social justice. His discussion centers on the enigmatic images – what could they suggest to a reader, especially without specific, contextual clues?
Taken alone, the images juxtapose threat and protection, comfort and danger. Their gaited, anapaestic meter and romantic “oh!” suggest not just a random list, but a complete nostalgic world toured in the speaker’s memory. I can’t quite picture the scene, but the longing and homesickness feel familiar from Alaska. You know, “Oh the rocks and the anchors, the cove and the shed…”
The parrot’s opening images conclude with a period, but aren’t a complete sentence. Without a verb, it’s even unclear if they’re subjects or objects. The speaker picks up this uncertainty in the next line, lumping them into a collective subject of the sentence “All sweetly stood up the sea to me.”
They “stood up the sea?” It’s an uncommon construction, because the verb “to stand,” doesn’t typically take an object. When it does, we can’t be sure of the actor and the sentence is paralyzed.
The indirect object, “to me” at the end of the line makes that uncertainty subjective, offering a potential for the simile to balance. The images stood in front of the sea? They set the sea (that unconscious symbol of the ambiguous) into relief? Either way, the comparison to “blue cornflakes in a white bowl” prioritizes contrast — not just blue against white, but singing memory against present banality. This line breaks the first stanza’s gait into plodding, equally stressed syllables and the heightened images of memory disintegrate into prosaic comparison – cereal in a bowl.
Later, I was walking on a beach with my socially just friends when we found hermit crabs in their borrowed shells. One of us thought that crabs might respond to humming, so we sat around humming until one of the crabs peeked out and dragged its shell off to hide among the others in the rocks.
Once, in Alaska, I left a large hermit crab in the car while I went to a party. I returned to find an empty shell on the passenger seat. The crab brandished its one oversize claw from the floormat, its slug-butt gross and glistening. Perhaps the crab was claiming the whole car as its new home. It had learned to be mistaken for all sorts of mollusks; now it would know what it meant to be a man!
Everyone knows that parrots speak only memorized phrases. Yet Ashbery’s opening stanzas suggest a complex interiority for the supposedly limited speaker. The second stanza breaks the reverie, showing how another’s statements can negate that complexity. “Watch this,” the girl says. Whatever she’s about to display, could it be as grand or as lovely as the past?
In the following lines the parrot tries, against the girl’s exhibitionism, to articulate what his previous meditations had only suggested – that he came from an exotic place, that he fell from grace and was treated as an object. These short sentences have no quotation marks and could be a mental re-rendering of the opening images — the sort of logical revision we employ on dreams and poems, and with which I silently counter Normal White Guy pigeonholing: “No… I have lived in other places. I have sold my dreams, the land and its animals, for money.”
To whatever extent the girl understands this intention, she negates it. “None of us know,” she says, leading into her own, elaborate version. While her stanza is also a self-contained block of images, it includes a verb (“was”) and some grandiose but vague comparisons. The ocean and waves seem related, but her rendering isn’t necessarily consistent with the parrot’s memory. Is it even the same environment? Possibly, but more likely a figment of the girl’s imagination, with no direct experience or investment in that story. She has taken what she knows of another’s past and re-framed it as a performance — the same appropriation that’s often pinned on the NWG. It can also, apparently, issue from the mouth of The Small, Fair-Attending Girl.
Her images prefigure the following stanza’s first line, finally closing the girl’s quotation marks. Here, with “These the sea tore in pieces,” the images become the object of the sea’s action (not actors on the sea, as the parrot’s version suggests). Instead of valuing the first speaker’s images, her version cheapens and finally destroys them.
I think that this is what I’ve been lectured about. “Don’t pretend to speak for another. You have no idea what it’s like to be a (woman, refugee, animal, redhead, coffee-drinker, ad infintum).” And yes, impersonation for personal gain (“watch this”) is fraudulent, unfair and has doubtless contributed to many “old wounds.”
Yet, we live by impersonating myths. A certain Westerner wears a mustache, cowboy hat and Wranglers; another has skinny jeans and headphones. They may or may not be listening to the same music. A certain Vermonter brings a wheel of local cheese to community chorus in his Volvo; another sprays down the milking stalls. A certain Alaskan eats moose, another eats Tyson chicken.
Stereotypes are not hard to articulate or to impersonate. If you don’t know who to be in this wounded world and don’t have a vocabulary to express your past or imagine a future, those shells come pre-furnished with images. In time, anyone can learn to repeat them.
In the late 1800s, about the time my hometown was hot in the fires of revival, the Adirondack Mountains became popular with the New York City elite. Frontier images — plaid shirts, axes, canoes — came to represent a contrast from “blue cornflake,” city life. Emerson’s “The Adirondacs” makes a good, if accidental, catalogue of these stereotypes:
“…In Adirondac lakes,
At morn or noon, the guide rows bareheaded:
Shoes, flannel shirt, and kersey trousers make
His brief toilette: at night, or in the rain,
He dons a surcoat which he doffs at morn:
A paddle in the right hand, or an oar,
And in the left, a gun, his needful arms.
In sooth, red flannel is a saucy test
Which few can put on with impunity…”
Fine. Emerson did his little vacation of impersonation and the moguls wore plaids while sipping Armagnac in their “cottages.” Meanwhile, locals recognized the market value of those images. They said, in effect: “watch this,” and lo, a great field of curio shops selling pack-baskets and painted canoe paddles bloomed in the wilderness!
That is, the culture reinvented itself in reference to profitable images. It dressed as a parrot and sold itself at the fair and eventually, over generations, learned to repeat “dazzling canopies” from its purchasers until whatever was there before (mostly foreign land speculation and trappers) atrophied and was forgotten.
Ashbery introduces a new, parenthetical speaker for the final couplet. Neither parrot nor girl, this voice simplifies the whole situation to only three syllables – “his old wound.” That assessment includes a space-holding dash, allowing a few blank beats to fill the line. For me, the poem’s preoccupations of subjectivity, displacement, nostalgia and imitation, flood into the dash space and set up the final line as a response to all those wounds.
Carl Phillips takes the concluding response, “Robin Hood,” as a nonsense phrase (“what sense could we have expected from a parrot?). “Robin Hood,” though, calls up the wealth and class disparities hovering behind the poem. The speaker has been taken from the rich and given to the poor, or at least to a girl who eats cornflakes and goes to fairs. He becomes just another coin of the realm, transferring value from one group to another.
One time on the Green River in Utah, I saw a beautiful little wave. It curled off a grassy bank shaded by junipers, and its bubbles swirled into an eddy with a shallow beach. The sun hit it just so, and before I could pull the boat over, we were past it.
That wave is probably still there. At different water levels it must change, and every day the underlying ledge loses a few grains of sand to the current. But I got the feeling that the little scene began in the deep past and had no discernible ending. My fleeting view of it was only that – I had no choice but to leave it behind. Like every coincidence of comfort and welcome, like Basho’s morning glory, it was gone before I could hold it.
Butch Cassidy could have seen that wave. He hid out on the Green and might have watered horses in that very eddy. Everywhere I’ve lived in the past few years seems to have a sign commemorating Butch. He robbed the bank in Red Lodge, where I worked for the Forest Service. He holed up in Patagonia, where I guided hiking trips. He was incarcerated at the Territorial Prison in Laramie, Wyoming, where I’m currently prisoner to winter.
The most recent plaque I saw called him the “Robin Hood of the West.” The frontier, despite its promise of fresh starts and equality, has always had its rich, poor, and go-betweens. Fishermen indenture themselves to a cannery. Cowboys slave for the ranch manager or absentee landowner. The seasonal worker primps the land; the guide pimps her to tipping clients.
We all have wounds related the the shame of these inequalities. As Ashbery says in “The Illustration,” another poem from the same, first collection: “Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble a taller // Impression of ourselves…”.
Is there any place where everyone feels tall? Where everyone speaks their own mind? If yes, it’s not for long – the tide coming in meets the tide going out. Enter Shiva and the wave that tore them in pieces. Enter the wanderer and the migrant, riding differentials of fear and faith to the next patch of dirt, carrying the nutrients and seeds of memory. Welcome, Butch, redistributor of wealth and power. Welcome to the hermit crab, and coyote, and Robin Hood!
Even with all that re-arrangement, the dream of equality (whether democracy or communal living or spiritual enlightenment) is a fleeting moment, not a stasis. Thanks to my Normal White Guy upbringing I know that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” And it’s always possible, like the girl in the poem, to impersonate someone else for gain. We can wear masks to rob the 7-11 or to sneak into fancy parties.
We can also recognize our own masks as temporary, borrowed shells. We can change disguises with others, learning what the sweat of their fear smells like, and what shade their mask casts on our own wounds. As “The Illustration” continues, such voices are only “…an effigy / of indifference, a miracle // Not meant for us, as the leaves are not / Winter’s because it is the end.” Ashbery’s parrot, instead of spouting nonsense, invites us to offer up those shells (poet, essayist, man) and join a universal company of the vulnerable and compassionate.
Ashbery, John. Some Trees. Edited by W.H. Auden. Yale Series of Younger Poets, 2011.
Bly, Robert. Talking All Morning. University of Michigan Press, 1980.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Poems and Translations. Edited by Harold Bloom. Library of America, 1994.
Phillips, Carl. Coin of the Realm. Graywolf Press, 2004.
Christian Woodard is a wilderness guide based in Laramie, WY. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, FriGG, Artemis Journal, BlazeVOX, Pudding, Cirque, and others.