Girls on the Run
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
"OUTSIDER ART IS hot!" Or so an Isabella Rosselini-voiced curator told us on one of this season's episodes of The Simpsons. If she's right, perhaps even casual readers will find themselves drawn toward John Ashbery's newest book, Girls on the Run. Loosely based on the paintings of Henry Darger--a Chicago hospital worker who devoted his free time to composing and illustrating an epic saga called "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion"--Ashbery's book-length poem riffs on the flight and fancy (not to mention the anxiety and melancholy) of childhood. "It is a nursery ditty grave or gay," the poem offers in one of many moments that can be read as self-reflexive. "It seems to say/how much longer will my spruces be on tap?"
That the poem is somewhat narrative is only one of its many pleasures. As always, Ashbery's verse imparts the sense of a mind meandering with joyful abandon, but here a recurring cast of characters and a storybook syntax create the effect of an honest-to-goodness tale:
First the cellos rebelled. Then a broader breaking-out erupted
nearer to home. All the girls were paralyzed (for a minute)
but Jenny Wren came to release them from the spell
Tom Cat had caused. They ran away, glad for that day.
Yet despite such narrative gestures, a story never really emerges; the poem runs rampant over its linguistic landscape, shifting situations with a dizzying dexterity. But as kids know, it's fun to get dizzy. Ashbery knows it too, and he gives us a whirlwind of imagery, filling the mind with color and texture and bizarre dreamlike constructs ("their bowls of muesli crooning to the sidelong bats of evening") followed by an endorphin chaser.
Ultimately, such sugar highs lead to crashes in mood. Ashbery moves his poem toward a close by increasing the sense of melancholy to a quietly apocalyptic threshold. As he musically clues us in early in the poem, "Isn't there a place/to stop, that we'll all know about when we come to it?/Yes there is, she said, we'll just have to back down/into the gloom, and bait our hooks with peanut butter." Dusk will eat day no matter how relentless our whimsy, and in this, at least, the fantastical world of Girls on the Run resembles our own.
Such literary stratagems aren't for everyone, and despite its intricately mapped journey, the poem will probably leave meaning-seekers frustrated and perhaps lost. Those readers ready for a Willy Wonka ride, however, will find nothing but delight here.