Skip to content Skip to navigation

Browsing at Merritt Books

by Stephen Kaye
Mon Jan 11th, 2016

John Ashberry

Merritt Books has become one of my favorite places to practice browsing.  A few minutes looking can be rewarding.  I found myself staring at an expanded poetry collection.  At the top of the shelves I found my hand reaching for a new collection by John Ashberry.  Like many readers, I have been confounded by Ashberry’s poetry.  He seems to revel in the art of dissonance, or the disjointedness of non sequiturs.  Words and phases are thrown together randomly, or so it seems.  Or, maybe they are planted, with care, to surprise, to throw you off.  Ashberry strives to break up familiar word patterns.  Take the first verse of his opening poem in his latest collection (Breezeway):

The fifty-foot old mantelpiece, that awful necklace, is that good for you?  I mean do you like it any better? Treestumps?   

A fifty-foot mantelpiece? Necklace and “Good for you?” Then tree stumps.  Do we have disconnected meanings or are these simply random thoughts jotted down?

Perhaps phrases heard and collected during a weekend? Or, are they words recalled in a jumbled-up dream sequence?  Are these words culled carefully from a journal that we are supposed to recognize, like the Ladies Home Journal?   Are these taken-out-of-context phrases meant to acquire a new meaning?   Reading on does little to reveal either meaning or a system.  It is a riddle.  There is a certain rhythm, a pattern of sounds, cadence. Better, treestumps has a ring.  Is that enough?

Ashberry’s collection ends with a poem entitled “A Sweet Disorder.” The final lines are:

            It can’t have escaped your escaped your attention

            That I would argue.

How was it supposed to look?

            Do I wake or sleep?

There are intimations of an interior dialogue. A stream of unconsciousness. Our memories can be random, unstructured, confused, like a DeKooning painting.

We move on to a slim volume (Fullblood Arabian) of paragraph poems by Osama Alomar translated from the Arabic by C.J. Collins.  Collins is a local name; he is the son of Toby Collins.  The poems are sentiments and satires written in Syria before it fell apart completely.  Alomar expresses the seething discontent of living in a police state, but the poems are more wistful than angry.  They are expressions of loyalty to a greater good, a collective we that strives for a freedom that is denied.  They express the smallness of the individual, yet the warmth of shared experience.   They are positive, hopeful and yearning.  Alomar left Syria and now dives a taxi in Chicago.  His poems testify to a moment that was.

Merritt books is about to move, temporarily, to a storefront on Merritt Avenue, so the main store can be redesigned and renovated.   We look forward to an expanded offering of new and old books and of hours of browsing.