Interesting People of Newfoundland

John Ashbery

copyright ©2007 by John Ashbery

Newfoundland is, or was, full of interesting people.
Like Larry, who would make a fool of himself on street corners
for a nickel. There was the Russian who called himself
the Grand Duke, and who was said to be a real duke from somewhere,
and the woman who frequently accompanied him on his rounds.
Doc Hanks, the sawbones, was a real good surgeon
when he wasn’t completely drunk, which was most of the time.
When only half drunk he could perform decent cranial surgery.
There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw.

There was Walsh’s, with its fancy grocery department.
What a treat when Mother or Father
would take us down there, skidding over slippery snow
and ice, to be rewarded with a rare fig from somewhere.
They had teas from every country you could imagine
and hard little cakes from Scotland, rare sherries
and Madeiras to reward the aunts and uncles who came dancing.
On summer evenings in the eternal light it was a joy
just to be there and think. We took long rides
into the countryside, but were always stopped by some bog or other.
Then it was time to return home, which was OK with everybody,
each of them having discovered he or she could use a little shuteye.

In short there was a higher per capita percentage of interesting people
there than almost anywhere on earth, but the population was small,
which meant not too many interesting people. But for all that
we loved each other and had interesting times
picking each other’s brain and drying nets on the wooden docks.
Always some more of us would come along. It is in the place
in the world in complete beauty, as none can gainsay,
I declare, and strong frontiers to collide with.

Worship of the chthonic powers may well happen there
but is seldom in evidence. We loved that too,
as we were a part of all that happened there, the evil and the good
and all the shades in between, happy to pipe up at roll call
or compete in the spelling bees. It was too much of a good thing
but at least it’s over now. They are making a pageant out of it,
one of them told me. It’s coming to a theater near you.

Notes on the Poem

In 2008, the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed in their citation for John Ashbery's winning Notes from the Air collection that: "The YOU the author makes reference to is ME, the transcription being rendered, paradoxically, by a poet who eschews autobiography; thus the I as well as the YOU names the reader." Let's not cheat and see if we can google if John Ashbery ever visited or lived in Newfoundland. Let's also not assume one way or the other that John Ashbery visiting or not visiting Newfoundland specifically is the point of the poem. Let's not even assume that John Ashbery considers himself personally part of the first person plural voice of the poem. So ... does that mean that "we" refers to us? Does it matter if we lived or didn't live in Newfoundland? If we did and John Ashbery's account of life in and the people of Newfoundland is false in fact or spirit, what then? If we didn't live there, is John Ashbery suggesting that we would admire or find bewildering our maybe real, maybe not neighbours and friends? Either way, can we still admire and yearn for this whimsical utopia where: "But for all that we loved each other and had interesting times picking each other’s brain and drying nets on the wooden docks." Does that same sweet-tinged reminiscence actually mock those interesting people, such as the half-inebriated cranial surgeon who probably shouldn't be picking anyone's brain, so to speak? Well ... "We loved that too, as we were a part of all that happened there, the evil and the good and all the shades in between, happy to pipe up at roll call or compete in the spelling bees." At how many levels is John Ashbery having us on (where the "us" might or might not include Ashbery himself) and gently tweaking all of us? While he's teasing us, it seems he's simultaneously celebrating what is unique in each interesting person, but still coheres them as a community and as part of life's rich pageant ... "coming to a theater near you."

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