The pacing in John Ashbery’s most recent collection Quick Question ebbs and flows, much like the line from its poem “Words to That Effect,” “The days/ scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast,/ then slow again.” Ashbery’s style is often prosaic—mundane but steeped in mystery and wonder. As he continues in the poem, speaking of the sky, “You remember how still it was then,/ a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped/ for a long, a little time.” His style can be described as muted and uneasy, yet he dwells in a world of majesty, coated in trappings of the everyday.
Ashbery is certainly wary of the world around him. In “Like Any Leaves,” he writes, “They said the birds didn’t do any damage./ The life we row to the uneasy center,/ mosquito by mosquito, loses the forest.” Quick Question is a relatively long collection, housing over sixty poems, and it is certainly easy to get lost in, for better or worse. The work is at times engrossing, yet at other times, it falls into a monotone.
But perhaps this is intentional. Quick Question is certainly not quick at all, and these poems ask a lot of their readers, despite their appearances. Consider “Homeless Heart,” where he states, “When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work,/ a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy.” And so Quick Question endeavors on, not unlike Ashbery’s prolific body of work—although its pages are finite, the readers will find themselves returning to these poems over and over, just as in the aforementioned lines from “Words to That Effect”, where Ashbery speaks of “a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped/ for a long, a little time.”
–Eric Stiefel, Assistant Poetry Editor