“Attabled With The Spinning Years,” The New Yorker Aug. 11/18, 2008
It seems foolish to explicate an Ashbery poem; they are famously, purposefully amorphous, concerned much less with meaning-making than with, as he once put it, the experience of experience, quixotic in its own right. Nevertheless, we should be able to look at any poem to see what the heck it’s doing, even if little can be made of it.
“Attabled With The Spinning Years” begins with nonsense: Attabled. The closest real word I can find is astable, which means to confirm, which remains unconfirmable as a proper definition for attable here. As for The Spinning Years, they are questionably old age, as in the years a spinster has entered, but who can say for certain? To further complicate things, the poem’s opening questions have various as of yet unrelated grammatical subjects, the first of which—“it”—lacks an antecedent: “Does it mean one thing with work, / one with age, and so on? / Or are the two opposing doors / irrevocably closed?” Readers must perform shifty footwork to keep up; the lines have us guessing and wondering, which is a good thing, albeit unsatisfactory if we look, or assume we should look, for proper answers to these questions. If we expect to land sure-footedly onto them, we can be disappointed.
The questions themselves—the first four sentences of the poem and five total in the first stanza—are rhetorical in nature except…they’re not rhetorical questions. It’s as though they purport an argument that isn’t actually being made, that at the very least isn’t yet known, as though we’ve dropped in on the speaker mid-conversation. It is their tone, not their implicit and known answers, that creates the rhetorical stance, that creates the notion of something where there is actually nothing, causing this reader, at least, to stop and consider them. And that’s powerful poetry—anytime a poet can get a reader to stop and pay attention—hard enough to do when he isn’t being abstruse. What binds the first stanza together are images and notions of time. We have “Years” in the title, “age” in the second line, and numerous other such language that divulges the poem’s subject, including a bit of clearer imagery as the first stanza culminates with autumn: “Surely that isn’t snow? The leaves are still on the trees, but they look wild suddenly. / I get up. I guess I must be going.” This admission is interesting because it comes in response to what has become a rhetorical scene, that of the snow and the about-to-be-leafless trees. As a consequence, the rhetorical quality of the stanza is solidified, and it becomes clear the speaker has been speaking to himself. The questions, if he can answer them, can only be answered intuitively by the body. They have no verbal response; the response is get up and be going.
The second stanza begins with an abrupt turn of previous phrases. Rather than pose a question, Ashbery uses a sentence fragment: “Not by a long shot in America.” And what can we do with it? Two things: one, we can branch out from the speaker talking to himself about himself largely in the context of himself to the speaker becoming a piece of something larger than himself, a piece of something he now, like it or not, represents; two, we can infer that the body’s answer to autumn was wrong, that it should not be going anywhere but should learn to adapt more aptly to staying put. This is the comment of the second stanza. Like the first, dotted with references to time’s relentless forward mobility, the second contains images of permanence, particularly “modern buildings [that] look inviting / again” after a century has passed. The final lines make me think of plastic surgery, one of America’s—the world’s—many devices for stopping the clock if not, in theory, turning it back altogether: “God’s…scalpel redeems us / even as the blip in His narrative makes us whole again.” So, one little deviation in the master plan, and our subversive one becomes whole again. We’ve foiled the natural course of events for the better, human course.
As with many Ahsbery poems of disassociative associations, “Attabled” is difficult to hold together line by line, brick by brick. It wanders subjects, contradicts itself, repudiates comments and gestures. But, like good free jazz, it still maintains a central line, though perhaps not a focus, around which images and ideas spin. There is a concept in there someplace. One other way Ashbery helps us see the concept is with sound. Like much of his work, “Attabled” is acoustically playful, the play is more than just that. While some phrases fall flat, others are rather rhythmically graceful, which helps readers focus on those moments that may be key. After nine lines of more or less arrhythmic language, he writes “…and such. The almost invisible blight / of the present bursts in on us. We walk / a little farther into the closeness we owned.” The ghost of a pentameter is there, and it’s pleasing, given the previous passage’s atonality. And, those lines are contextually important. They are the first assertive gestures the poem makes, grounding the poem’s central problem, that of time and of the present’s ever-increasingly observable encroachment on our very finite eternity.