“The Gate of Horn,” The New Yorker September 15, 2008
So, there are two mythical gates: the Gate of Horn and the Gate of Ivory. Dreams pass through each—that is to say, we pass from dream through one or the other into consciousness—the latter being the exit from false dreams and the former being the exit from true ones. Since this Asekoff poem is “The Gate of Horn,” we should be taking its speaker’s ruminations as truth, assuming he’s an astute fellow capable of distinguishing reality from falsehood.
But, I don’t know that he is. The poem is rather self-indulgent and enamored of itself, so it’s safe to say the speaker, presumably an older man, also suffers from these ailments. In many ways the voice is similar to that in Browning’s dramatic monologues, particularly “Fra Lippo Lippi,” except the conclusion Asekoff’s speaker reaches appears to be true…at least from my vantage point: individual human existence is virtually worthless. In contrast, whatever their respective its may be, usually Browning’s characters never quite get it,; they never understand themselves as completely as their readers do.
So, the story for “The Gate of Horn” is this: an ambiguous “you” (very easily the reader) wakes up this man who then prattles on about the dream he was having, the life he’s been living, yadda-yadda-yadda. And finally, the poem comes to an end. Throughout, the speaker does nothing but talk: “you woke me from a dream of words” (italics mine) Asekoff writes in line two, and “Do raise the shade—& fill that glass” the speaker requests at the poem’s end. For all intent and purpose, he’s a lump (perhaps that’s why this poem becomes a lament for his glorious, weepy life) capable of doing little more than prattling on…at length…in a voice that suggests no one, not even you, are really listening: the speaker’s talking to himself.
As Asekoff’s music continually crystallizes, the speaker’s audience drifts farther and farther away, which seems to be just fine. This dude loves to hear himself wax poetic, quoting Shakespeare, using Italian phrases usually suited to music to suit himself: “what is life / but a recitativo oscuro, with its shadowy intimations, / musical aphorisms, librettos in a sigh.” It’s all very prettily put, but I fear, as is the case with his Browning precursors, this is merely meretricious pontificating. It sounds good, sure, but is it honest? The speaker seems to be more interested in hearing himself philosophize than he does in actually speaking of or listening to the truth. Compare his what is life but a recitativo oscuro to Baraka’s “In Walked Bud” speaker’s what is life but a whiskey dream….do-DEEEE, do-do-DEEEEE! Baraka’s speaker uses nonsense to tell the truth; Asekoff’s uses pirouettes to, at the very least, disguise it.
Asekoff’s acoustic play is a case in point for his speaker. The words cling and clang against each other with all the music of a verbal virtuoso. My favorite example is the line describing Beethoven, the speaker’s alleged ancestor: “that half-caste past master of the hyper-climactic.” There are about as many, rapid succession short As in that line as I’ve ever heard in a line. You’d have to be as deaf as Beethoven not to hear them. The K in caste and climactic echoes with kinsman in the previous line and crescendo and king in the two following. And, crescendo rhymes with grandioso, which precedes it as placed in the musical descriptor molto grandioso, which means hugely grand. How fitting for our humble speaker—and his late great uncle Ludwig.
Another example of the speaker’s loftiness is his comparison of himself to Mallarmé’s famous swan. In Mallarmé’s sonnet, a swan lies dead, frozen in lake ice, and the speaker contemplates the futility of the swan’s beauty and of his song, the fabled swan song sung in the bird’s final moments. Asekoff writes “we dread & long for / those moments of cruel lucidity that fix us as we are—Mallarmé’s swan / frozen in ice… / Last night I sat here alone in the dark / …” The speaker is the swan, apparently, and this idea runs its subtle course through the rest of the poem. In fact, it more or less becomes the central trope even though Asekoff doesn’t spend an abundance of actual language developing it. Like the beautiful bird, the speaker must be at or through death’s door, metaphorically at least. And no one is around to hear his musical ruminations except himself. In death, as in life, he’s alone. To sing or not to sing becomes the question. And the answer? Futile. It’s hard not to think, too, of a certain hammock on William Duffy’s farm, of the poet who wrote, “I have wasted my life.”
Despite his allusions to timeless writers, myths, and music, despite his desire to see the light—“the letters & the numbers, the figures / of the creatures of the Lord….Do raise the shade”—this golden-aged speaker of “The Gate of Horn” remains “staring at shadows / trembling in the shade.” And his claim, “I hate farewells,” is dubious. He can’t stop saying farewell—thus, Asekoff’s long line, which for the most part hovers around six beats, arguably a loose hexameter. All in all, I don’t really care for his tone or his verbosity; the writing may be clever at times, which suits the speaker but doesn’t necessarily make him likeable as Browning’s language makes the good Fra Lippo Lippi. And what is true about his dream? What Truth did it bestow upon the speaker. Only that it’s over, I think. It’s over.