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BoeningóWorld Literature Today
Boening, John. "Review of The Vermont Notebook." World Literature Today 77.1, (April- June, 2003): 111.

Originally published by Black Sparrow Press in 1975, The Vermont Notebook is a whimsical collaboration between Ashbery and the artist Joe Brainard. It consists of forty-seven pages with text (though some with only a line or two) and the same number of black-and-white drawings en face. The texts are fictional (are they all?) "journal entries," including essays on diverse subjects, disconnected ramblings, and numerous pages of lists (lists of Ashbery's friends and acquaintances, lists of kinds of cloth and items of clothing, lists of architectural features and main-street shop names, lists of cities, lists of newspapers, brand names, lists of free-associated words, some having in common their connection to small-town life), and notes of things to do: "Suede, tweed, cotton, silk jersey, whipcord, cavalry twill, melton, moire, nylon, net, chamois, challis, cordovan, maxi, midi, scarf, shoes, zipper, cuff, button." Some of the entries make little sense at all. There are also six straightforward-looking pages devoted to a visit with a marine biologist and to his plans to develop a marine ecology research station on the Gulf coast of Florida, pages that sound as if they had been lifted from a brochure extolling the virtues of a planned community at Marco Island (but having who knows what to do with Vermont).

Some of the "entries" are maddeningly banal, some obviously parodic: "This is where we are spending our vacation. A nice restful spot. Real camp life. Hope you are feeling fine." Some are even made to rise toward a kind of innocent grace, as if among discarded vacation journals one might discover a new genre of folk art, like the raunchy postcards from working-class seaside resorts now treasured by collectors of things British: "Some of these tunes hold up remarkably well. So, in the words of the song, I shall "stay on the bus, forget about us, and put the blame on me." Unless you decide to "tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.' (Corky sees me at the landfill and starts complaining.)" It is the kind of thing lots of people were doing in the 1920s and 30s in Berlin and Paris once the ground had been broken, a kind of domesticated surrealism.

Instead of laminating newspapers and theater tickets (or simulacra thereof), Ashbery and Brainard seem to have dreamt up and assembled pages from who-knows-whose journals. Brainard's "illustrations" sometimes play off the texts and sometimes do not, or do not seem to. They include sketches (or drawings wanting to pass as sketches), pen-and-ink line work (sometimes cartoonish), and a few pictures that look to be woodcuts (or some other kind of presswork). They are every bit as various as Ashbery's texts. With or without the facing texts, they have a Rorschach quality about them, or that of a party game. One gets the feeling that there are likely a number of inside jokes here for the cognoscenti who used to gather in the Village or the Hamptons, but one can grow daffy trying to tease them out. To be fair, there are even a few spots of poetry, but most of the Notebook consists of entries like "What lovely antiques... (fap, grunt). Isn't it funny the way something can get crowded clean out of your memory, it seems new when you see it again, although some part of your mind does remember, though not in any clear-cut way?" What this wacky (a term used in one of the cover blurbs) experiment adds to Ashbery's reputation is anyone's to guess.

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