Ashbery’s Rebus

27 Jul

I wrote “Bagatelles” mostly in 1980, while I was in the graduate fiction writing program at Brooklyn College. While most of my teachers were fiction writers, I also did a tutorial with John Ashbery. Ashbery had agreed to work with me, I think, because my prose work fell between the cracks of genre, and he also had liked some translations of French poetry (Apollinaire and Eluard) I had published in college literary magazines. Every other week, for a half hour or 45 minutes, I’d have a one-on-one meeting with John. We’d go over the pieces I was writing for “Bagatelles,” but he also gave a writing assignment each time. They were often based on the techniques of the surrealists or the fixed forms of the OULIPO group, two areas of mutual interest. My writing, with its spare simplicity, was perhaps 180 degrees away from Ashbery’s style, yet we shared a lot of literary interests. And I have to say that as a young writer it meant a lot to me to have the approval of a writer of his stature and intelligence. I still cherish as one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received a comment he made about “Bagatelles”: “This work is frighteningly simple.” The piece below was based on a rebus that John gave me as a prompt. The thing about John Ashbery is that, despite the “seriousness” of his work, he, like me, is quite fond of silliness. In this piece he was especially fond of the phrase “private erection collection.” He was always impeccably dressed, and I was kind of surprised, based on his image and his writing, by how down to earth he is. I said to someone recently that he’s a mensch in gentleman’s clothing. “No Crime” was originally published in my early chapbook Snacks. I vehemently disavow about 80% of the work in that book now, but I still like this.

No Crime

The patterns in the key sent in by the sea made the sun seem an unusual one. He’d been watching for clues, and he tried to moo for them too. The scene was eerie, it was weary of a murder. He had tried to grease the police, but they put him off. They didn’t want an outside dick to stick his nose in. So, fearing a kick from the cops, and throwing a bone to his woes, he decided to go it alone. Only there was a problem: his private erection collection was occupying his attention.

He walked through the sense of the fence, past the dead beside the shed. Inside the victim was found, knife wound in his chest. On a nearby desk lay a floor plan, covered with sand and cream from an abandoned evergreen. On the map, in one corner, was a mourner, surrounded by a broken circle. The mourner held an arrow that pointed to a narrow window. He looked out, thought he heard a shout, and ran to take a closer look. The tree shook and he thought he glimpsed a familiar shape. An apparent rape in the leaves kept him probing. But no, it was an illusion, the conclusion to a futile search. There was nothing in the tree, there was no crime. The cops, ungreased, ungrimed, had set him up for their own good time. I’ll get even with the cops he swore, and he swallowed the key, and the sun followed, and the earth froze, and the cops died, and the mourner in the corner cried.

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One Response to “Ashbery’s Rebus”

  1. Janice Ellsworth July 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I love this, Pete!

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