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Chicago Review

An Ongoingness too Reliable to Conclude


Crass. Delicate. Geometric. Spare. Ammons’ work ties up our ways of knowing the world in a textile, one that reaches beyond the view of the eye when held up at arm’s reach. It is crass because it understands the world is profane in its abundance. It is delicate because it intimately knows the bluejays, pebbly sluices, orange juice, broken bones, and the after-effects of spring rains on earth worms’ chances of survival.

The Chicago Review keeps this substance in its rawest form, displaying copies of unpublished, typewritten, hand-edited drafts. (It even has the scroll of Ammons’ long poem Tape copied on its spine.) And the volume also provides sufficient analytical footwork, via four well-crafted essays, to catch the reader up to speed on the major readings of Ammons’ premier poems.

Early on we’re introduced to Ammons’s philosophical drive – “the plenitude of nothingness,” – and given two competing perspectives on how his work fulfills, or does not, Kantian notions of self-contained works of art. These are integral discussions, which Ammons’ invites in his notes, lectures, and the discursive moments of his verse, and they pay-off when the reader arrives at the heart of this volume, the unpublished drafts.

Of course, these unpublished poems lack the completeness one might desire in a thoroughly revised, mature group of poems, but even in his published volumes, Ammons mode was to resist or exclude revision, as he does in Tape for the Turn of the Year, which catalogs a year’s worth of quotidian on a two-inch-wide adding machine tape. That whole 300-plus-day effort is drafted under the pretenses of a whim:

today I

decided to write

a long




…it was natural for


… to contemplate

this roll of

adding-machine tape.

Ammons’ is clearly comfortable in the bathos-laced, short-line free verse that has many different manifestations in contemporary poetics, but what I enjoy in this volume (Tape is only quoted) is the quatrain-constructed “Scarcities,” whose narrative and artistic reach has shades of Bishop, suggesting the preeminence of “a long, / long poem… // an ongoingness too reliable to /conclude;” the serial evasiveness from “How to Find Wisdom in Writing and Painting” – whose most direct advice is, “don’t force ice / it can burst shingles / crack rocks:…;” and the oddity of Canto 57 – whose most parse-able lines are surrounded by phalanxes of capital X’s and constellations of question marks offsetting the tautology,

the meaning of life consists in

not being dead

In sum, this is a compilation of impressive scope: the essays illuminate a body of poems, photos, and correspondences that bring this major poet to life, and at 272 pages, this volume contains only a few moments of over-reaching and just enough room for some well-framed verse that make the life and art of Ammons’ seem aptly described as “an ongoingness too reliable to conclude.” This is a fitting review for Ammons – in that it is expansive, intelligent, and empathetic, but also aware of its finite existence, its “untidy edges,” that happen to be where the person of the poet can be most fully seen.

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