Origin and Impossibility
in John Ashbery’s ‘Myrtle’
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One possible source for John Ashbery’s poem ‘Myrtle’ in his book And the Stars Were Shining may be John Ruskin’s note on the word ‘charity’ in his Munera Pulveris, first published in 1872. (‘Charity,’ like ‘Myrtle,’ is both a person’s name and a name for something else.) Ruskin writes:
The derivation of words is like that of rivers: there is one real source, usually small, unlikely, and difficult to find, far up among the hills; then, as the word flows on and comes into service, it takes in the force of other words from other sources, and becomes itself quite another word — even more than one word, after a junction — a word as it were of many waters, sometimes both sweet and bitter. (216-17)
But if both Ruskin and the speaker of ‘Myrtle’ see fit to compare the origins of words to the origins of rivers, they differ somewhat with regard to the possibility of ever arriving at these origins.
For Ruskin, the ‘source’ is ‘real,’ whereas Ashbery’s speaker assigns the word ‘real’ to a river in line 10 and ‘a piece’ of technology in line 20. As you’ll see, a line break rives ‘real’ and ‘river,’ thus separating that natural object from reality, whereas ‘real’ and ‘technology’ occupy the same line, suggesting that the unnatural and reality are perhaps a better fit. Indeed, the poem begins in the realm of the unnatural, as we can assume that the speaker means ‘funny peculiar’ and not ‘funny ha-ha’ in the poem’s opening line:
if you could follow it back to where
the first person thought of saying it,
naming himself that, or maybe
some other persons thought of it
and named that person. It would
be like following a river to its source,
which would be impossible. Rivers have no source.
How funny this is. That is, the speaker’s claim that rivers have no source seems exceedingly odd given that one very familiar definition of the word ‘source’ is ‘the fountain-head or origin of a river.’
The poem’s first sentence contains two images, the first being an imagination of ‘the first person’ to think of saying something and then ‘naming himself that,’ and the second being an imagination of ‘some other persons’ thinking of the same word and then using it to name ‘that person.’ In each case, a ‘thought’ eventually becomes someone’s name, but the two scenarios differ in that the first involves a single person who names himself by having ‘thought of saying’ something, while the second involves ‘some other persons’ giving him a name without the speaker mentioning their having said it.
A similar movement from singular to plural occurs between the second and third sentences, as the second sentence compares the act of following a name back to its origins to the act of following ‘a river’ to its source, while the third sentence claims that ‘[r]ivers have no source’ (italics mine).
The poem’s fourth and final sentence is as follows:
where they get wider, and soon a real
river comes along, with fish and debris,
regal as you please, and someone
has already given it a name: St. Benno
(saints are popular for this purpose) or, or
some other name, the name of his
long-lost girlfriend, who comes
at long last to impersonate that river,
on a stage, her voice clanking
like its bed, her clothing of sand
and pasted paper, a piece of real technology,
while all along she is thinking, I can
do what I want to do. But I want to stay here.
In this last, long sentence, the plural becomes singular again, for just as ‘they’ get wider, the poem’s multiple rivers give way to one ‘real / river’ that contains both life (‘fish’) and remains (‘debris’), a flashed amalgam, perhaps, of the pre-human and the post-human.
To say that rivers ‘just automatically appear at a place / where they get wider’ is in some way to say what the word ‘source’ means, and this, coupled with the fact that the speaker associates the word ‘source’ with a river just prior to a claim about the sourcelessness of rivers, makes it seem as if the speaker believes himself to be both the creator and the rejecter of the usage of the word ‘source’ to mean ‘the origin of a river.’ What’s more, this near-simultaneous evocation and negation of ‘source’ echoes the swift disappearance of the ‘saying’ in the first sentence.
Just after this invention/rejection of ‘source,’ Ashbery’s speaker conjures a namer who has ‘already given’ the river a name, and this namer — whom we might consider plural, given that he’s the creation of Ashbery’s speaker — is akin to the ‘other persons’ in the poem’s first sentence, who work together to name something other than themselves. Two hypothetical river names follow, one ‘popular’ and explicit (‘St. Benno’), the other personal and unspecified, though it’s possible that the latter is designed to send us back to the poem’s title. It’s this figure — a woman after whom a river could have been named — that occupies the remainder of the poem and becomes both its circumference and its center.
As is the case with both the unnamed namer and the ‘other persons’ of the poem’s first sentence, we never quite get at this woman’s speech, for while her voice may well ‘clank’ like the bed of a river, it fails to articulate anything. In the end, we only gain access to her ‘thinking,’ and it too seems strange, for when she thinks that she can do anything she wants to do, we expect her to think ‘And I want to stay here,” not ‘But.’ And yet what she wants to do in some way contradicts what she is doing, for as Heraclitus famously suggests, rivers are always changing, which means her desire in some way runs counter to the thing she’s ‘impersonat[ing].’
But if she’s trapped in her role, it’s only because she fails to make the ontological shift necessary to see her own fixity, which is to say that a river remains what it is by constantly changing, for were it not always moving, it would be a lake. The poem, then, becomes a figure for the fulfillment of the long-lost girlfriend’s desire, as its fourth sentence is colored by three echoes, three moments where we see and hear similarity in difference and vice versa: the shift from ‘real’ in line 10 to ‘regal’ in line 12; the stammered ‘or’ in line 14; and the resonance between the adjective ‘long-lost’ in line 16 and the adverb ‘at long last’ in line 17.
If the first three sentences of the poem put into play the concepts of singularity and plurality, the last sentence shifts that play from narrative to word, thereby both fixing the poem and giving it flux, allowing it a kind of ‘riverness,’ a consistency in its change.
I began this reading of ‘Myrtle’ by pointing to peculiarity, technology, and reality, and I will end there as well. In his essay ‘How We Came to Be Human,’ anthropologist Ian Tattersall notes that our ability to distinguish the world’s elements allows us to ‘constantly to re-create the world, and individual aspects of it, in our minds’ (60). What makes this possible, he says, is ‘the ability to form and to manipulate mental symbols that correspond to elements we perceive in the world within and beyond ourselves’ (60).
Language, then, is what makes human, though I imagine this notion surprises not a single one of my readers. What may seem surprising, though, is that it was never meant to. Language has no ‘source,’ in that natural selection has no desire to bestow names on things. ‘What must have happened,’ Tattersall writes:
is that after a long — and poorly understood — period of erratic brain expansion and reorganization of the human lineage, something occurred that set the stage for language acquisition. This innovation would have depended on the phenomenon of emergence, whereby a chance combination of preexisting elements results in something totally unexpected. The classic example of an emergent quality is water, most of whose remarkable characteristics are entirely unpredicted by those of its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen.(62)
At Ashbery’s body of water we gain access to this sourcelessness, the speaker’s stammer (‘or, or’) suggesting that we thrill at the possibilities of our long-lasting practice of naming, even as we fumble toward its — and our — impossible origins.
Ashbery, John. ‘Myrtle.’ And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994. 65. Print.
Ruskin, John. Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy. New York: C.E. Merrill and Company, 1891. Print.
Tattersall, Ian. ‘How We Came to Be Human.’ Scientific American. 285.6 (December 2001): 56-63. Print.