Jody Norton

Jody Norton: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

The appointed hero of the quest for personality, the educated modern European male, stands ready to enter and confront the unconscious—dedicated, however, not to its integration, but to its mastery. . . .

Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" provides a cri-tique of this obsessive heroism:



Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October ,

And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.


The intractability of time is imaged by the "gray faces of Negroes," and the "Polacks nursing long beers." Life history, in "Autumn Be-gins," is a play of social and generational repetitions; but the fact that life begins in autumn indicates the elegaic character of regeneration in this poem: lives and beers and football careers have ends.

The pathos of historicity, and our sympathetic engagement with night watchmen who rewrite their ruptures, are problematized in strophe two, however. For the separation anxiety that motivates the heroic dreams of these "proud fathers"—dreams that simultaneously commemorate their sons' oedipal differentiation as the origin of the hero and efface this doubled separation through identifica-tion with sons-as-heroes—could be dispersed through love given to, and received from, the "starved" women. But the very hyper-(un)-consciousness of difference that so often provokes distancing in male narratives, whether popular or theoretical, blocks these men from such a substitutive satisfaction, so that they prefer "nursing long [phallic] beers" to nursing breasts.

At the same time, since a denial of the reality of separation, in its various effects, would simply substitute the pathos/pathology of repression for that of identification, the poem chooses to recognize the beauty of a violent ritual that, like the (female) tarantella or the rites of Dionysis, is both appalling in its delusionality and excess, and magnificent in the aesthetic energy of its response to fundamental psychic needs. The "sons" who "gallop terribly against each other's bodies" "At the beginning of October" evoke a hectic, human-animal-vegetable continuum whose violence reflects the fundamentally entropic character of being.

This beauty, however, is expensive—too expensive for both women and men in this already impoverished Ohio River community. The efficacy of the heroic image as a kind of prosthetic identity for the emotionally handicapped males involves a massive expenditure of libidinal energy on a narcissistic objectification of the self as Other. The consequence of giving everything to oneself is that one has nothing left to give: the men of Martins Ferry and "Their" women spend their lives "Dying for love."

Jody Norton on "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

"Paradoxes and Oxymorons," while it doesn't express a Barthian or Pynchonian degree of interest in the construction of identity as a function of culture and history , is very much concerned with the poststructural question of the relation between language and identity. The paradox at the heart of "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" is that what is revealed, in a text that represents a subject, is the very representationality of that subject. Phrased as an oxymoron, the subject is true fiction.

This fiction of the subject, furthermore, is highly unstable. While the poem plays at being "plain"-spoken, it is too indeterminate for the speaker (objectified as "you") to comprehend. The speaker's response to his own question is evasive ("It is that") and vague ("other things"). And while he indirectly claims systematicity for poetic language in stanza two, that systematicity immediately turns out to involve "play." The transparency of the subject in language is "dreamed," a "role-pattern" which, like that of the Puritan saints, cannot be copied with assurance, since one's participation in "the division of grace" is "Without proof." "The poem, and ultimately the "you" that "The poem is," are "Open-ended," as readily lost as found "in the steam and chatter of typewriters."

The poem's deceptive appearance of formal regularity mimes the readily deconstructable coherence of its content (even as "The poem is you" deconstructs the illusion of the separability of form and content). The poem hints at hexameter, hints at accentual verse, and hints at end rhyme, without systematically practicing any of these. Its formal indeterminacy suggests the Postmodern "incredulity toward metanarratives" that the poem as narrative expresses. It is thus meta-ideologically transgressive-most importantly epistemologically: that the vaunted systematicity of language is only a mask for a deeper play implies that knowledge, conceived as truth in language, is not axiomatic but relative and contingent.

"Paradoxes and Oxymorons" suggests that identity is not only contingent, but also intertextual. Not only are "It," "you," and "I" interactive linguistic self-formations, "this poem," with its sense of language as play, represents subjectivity as comprised of multiple articulations, an "Open-ended" game that "before you know / It" "has been played once more."

Ashbery's speaker is deeply Romantic in visualizing an ideal correspondence between self and world-yet stringently Postmodern in depicting this world as ineradicably already representational, hence secondary, hence inconclusive. The Romantic pathos of the failure of connection between poetry and the subject, in stanza 1, is ironized by the punning sense of miss (to feel the lack of a person or thing) as misunderstanding (to lack meaning), and the oxymoronic, parodically sentimental allusion, in stanza 2, to the sad poem (no less nonsensical, on one level, than the idea of a sad math problem). The Romantic drive that continues to be shared by Ashbery's speaker, by Ashbery as a poet, and by other Contemporary poets, is the drive to comprehend one's subjectivity--the being/form, the being form, reflected to us from the shifting surfaces of our sociocultural waters. 

From Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Literature. Copyright © 1999 by Associated University Presses, Inc.