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Karin Roffman
Upstate New York
Karin Roffman's first book is From the Modernist Annex: American Women Writers in Museums and Libraries (University of Alabama Press) and will be published in May, 2010. An essay on John Ashbery is forthcoming in Raritan. She is an Assistant Professor of English at West Point.
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Unlike most people’s houses, personal photographs do not adorn the mantels or the walls of the Hudson house offering snapshots from a life, yet the house is very personal. Photographs do not offer narratives of a life in this house--but things do. For my final blog entry on the Hudson house, I want to linger on an object very likely to be overlooked on a visit to the house. It is a plain, metal desk lamp that sits on the piano in the music room. Here is a picture: The lamp deserves attention not only because of where it came from (more on that in a moment) but because of the room it is in. The music room, a very sophisticated and beautiful room, is also the first room guests to the house will know as it is used as a kind of formal sitting room. Yet the room is also a bit of an anomaly in the Hudson house as its primary centuries of inspiration are the eighteenth and the twentieth. Its décor is more French than American, its furniture more impressive than cozy, and its colors more bright than gloomy. In the music room, John Ashbery’s statements about the Victorian origins of the house (which I discussed in the previous blog on wallpaper), don’t really apply. Here is an image of the lovely room: There are many things to notice about this room and the plain, metal desk lamp isn’t one of them. How can one notice it when there are more impressive sources of light, including a chandelier? When it almost blends in with the color of the piano? When it is dwarfed by an eclectic array of sheet music? When it sits next to a Trevor Winkfield? And underneath an Alex Katz? And across from a Willem de Kooning? And yet it is arguably the most personal object in the room and the one that says the most about the origins of the house. The desk lamp belonged to Henry Lawrence, Ashbery’s grandfather, a physics professor at University of Rochester who did some of the early experiments with x-rays. Ashbery has spoken in interviews of his particular fondness for this grandfather, who he believes he resembled and with whom he shared a love of books and learning. Ashbery has other things of his throughout the house, but this desk lamp is perhaps the most publicly displayed since the music room is the place in which guests are invited to sit and talk. Its presence there, modestly but slightly out of place, functions as a quiet signal of the personal nature of the house and the nineteenth-century aesthetic that lies behind this room. “What lovely antiques…(fap, grunt). Isn’t it funny the way something can get crowded clean out of your memory, it seems new to you when you see it again, although some part of your mind does remember, though not in any clear-cut way?” (The Vermont Notebook, 1975) Walk through the house and one keeps meeting... Continue reading
Posted Apr 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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In An Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein suggests she learned to write by looking at walls. About 1903, she and her brother Leo began amassing what became one of greatest collections of modernist paintings. She wrote in the same room that the paintings were hung floor to ceiling, and she charts how her writing changed as the rows of paintings she looked at shifted as well. John Ashbery also has described the ways his aesthetic developed through looking at walls. Although he is known well for his art criticism and has, as one might expect, a wonderful art collection, the inspiring walls he describes, unlike Stein’s, are bare of paintings. In a 1980 review of a wallpaper exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum for New York magazine, Ashbery writes: “Many people’s first aesthetic experience is triggered by wallpaper, and it is usually the illusionistic, break-through-the-wall kind. One of my earliest memories is of trying to peel off the wallpaper in my room, not out of animosity but because it seemed there must be something fascinating beyond the surface pattern of galleons, globes, and telescopes” (Reported Sightings, 383) In the Hudson house there is a lot of wallpaper. The choices of pattern, however, are not exactly the child-like, peel-off-the-paper kind that he describes in this review, but they do provide a direct link to a feeling of childhood. Most of the Hudson house wallpapers, particularly on the second floor, are William Morris prints. These prints connect Ashbery to the very Victorian, nineteenth-century aesthetic that he remembers at his grandparents’ home and that helped inspire his choice to buy the Hudson house. In a 1985 interview, Ashbery explains: “I never intended to buy a house but then I saw this rather lovely nineteenth-century house, which was very cheap. It reminded me of my grandparents’ house where I lived when I was a child in the city of Rochester. My grandparents were both born in the 1860s. They were actually Victorian people and I spent a lot of time with them….I was always very attracted to the coziness and the gloom of Victorian life, and always felt very much at home in that environment.” (P.N. Review). That environment was very much an interior one; in Eccentric Spaces (1977), Robert Harbison identified why William Morris’s wallpapers epitomized Victorian interiority: “Ruskin and William Morris for all their allegiance to plants forms were not really happy till they had brought the leaves inside and got them down on paper” (20). Here are a few examples: First, William Morris’s “White Pimpernel” Print--in the context of the master bedroom (in Ahndraya Parlato's photo) and in a close-up: One more example, from the Upstairs Sitting Room, in context (with the corner of a Trevor Winkfield and some ceramic objects in a photo by Ahndraya Parlato): and in a close-up: Ashbery ends his review of the wallpaper exhibit by pointing out that looking at old wallpapers, even if “inconsequential” are “oddly fascinating” in part because wallpapers can provide some... Continue reading
Posted Apr 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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For today’s blog on objects from Ashbery’s Hudson house, I thought I’d walk down the attic steps to the second floor landing. The landing is large. All the rooms on the second floor have doors off the landing. There are also two staircases off the landing: the main staircase, leading downstairs to the first floor landing, and a back staircase that leads to the kitchen. The landing is not only large but well-lit. It looks out onto enormous stained-glass windows (below is a picture). The stained glass adds a particular kind of light to the house; it gives the impression of giving off a lot of light without actually being too bright or direct. And, of course, there’s that connection with churches. What these windows do to the objects in the house, in fact, is perhaps best explained by a quotation from William Davies King’s Collections of Nothing (U of Chicago Press, 2008). (I’m a big fan of this book and was pleased and actually not surprised to discover that King is a big fan of John Ashbery’s poetry. By the way, I noticed that Professor King will give a talk at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City on April 15, 2010: “Suited for Nothing: Collecting Second-Hand.”) King makes a point about the collector, which suits a discussion of what the stained-glass light does to Ashbery’s real objects: “If the tendency of human thinking over the last three millennia has been to deanimate the objective world—to see the divine not in the wind or sun or trees but in abstractions—then the collector is a throwback” (32). Ashbery's house is a house; it functions as a place for living but it also provides a backdrop for thinking and there is definitely, at certain times of the day, a sense of the divine in the light coming through. And what does that divine light shine on? One of the things it briefly illuminates is a Popeye wastebasket that sits on the landing under the desk that holds the telephone. Ashbery recently spoke about about this can: “This wastebasket has all the characters of Popeye. I bought it new, I think, in 1979…. this [garbage can] has all the characters in it that you don’t normally see. Well, there’s the Sea Hag. And there’s Professor O.G. Watasnozzle. Castor Oyl above Olive Oyl. Eugene the Jeep. Actually, the Jeep originated in Popeye this funny animal and in World War II, the army started referring to Jeeps as Jeep after Eugene the Jeep. Alice the Goon. There was a tribe of Goons that all had the same heads. John Sappo had his own strip for a while. Popeye’s mother who bears a close resemblance. Swee’pea and Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s father…” (21 July 2009) Ashbery also wrote about Popeye in “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” the (only ever) Popeye sestina from The Double Dream of Spring (1970). Here is stanza four: "Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched Her long... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Doorway to John Ashbery's Hudson, NY home. Photo(c)Ahndraya Parlato I want to thank David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me to blog about John Ashbery’s Hudson, New York home, and I want to particularly thank John Ashbery and David Kermani for letting me share a piece of the Hudson house with readers. I am in the midst of a study on John Ashbery as a poet and collector, a project that considers his house (and the collections of objects in it, of which the house itself might be considered the first major piece of the collection) as a space just as important to understanding his poetry. The house is autobiographical (whose house isn’t?), but since Ashbery is a writer who has repeatedly deflected autobiographical inquiries in interviews, the house, as one might expect, rarely, if ever, offers up evidence of direct autobiography. Robert Harbison’s classic Eccentric Spaces (1977), a book Ashbery very much liked when he read it in the late 1970s, provides a nice articulation of this idea of architecture as modern narrator of a life: ““If one takes architecture as the expression of an individual life, one starts at the center rather than at the face, asking what space is created rather than what plot is filled” (22). Over the next few blog entries, I will introduce readers to a modest and hopefully intriguing sample of things from Ashbery’s house, which was built in 1894 and which he purchased in October 1978 (the house was featured once in the 1987 book American Victorian). The items I have chosen to highlight are what I might call a selection of amuse bouches and are meant to, in Harbison’s metaphor, highlight the center(s) of the house rather than reveal its face. If you are curious about the house and would like to learn more, please let me direct you also to two sites: the Ashbery Resource Center, a project of the Flow Chart Foundation and Micaela Morisette’s wonderful 2008 Rain Taxi special online edition of essays on John Ashbery’s Created Spaces. For this first entry today, I thought I would start in the attic and pull out one piece that is both quirky and representative in some ways. My choice is Ashbery’s first French textbook, le Francais et la France, which I found lying on a shelf there last summer. He used the book while taking French class during his sophomore and junior years at Sodus High School (a small town about thirty miles from Rochester). Having skipped a grade, he began high school in the fall of 1940 at the age of thirteen. The heavily annotated book contains a kind of Ashbery in miniature: on an empty page at the beginning of the book, he copied down the lyrics (in French) to “Deep Purple,” which his French teacher used to sing a lot in class: “When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls…” Inside, there are many sketches; he added drawings (signposts, people, captions) to illustrate some of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 26, 2010