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Girls on the Run

Girls on the Run

by John Ashbery, John Asnbery

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Girls on the Run is a poem loosely based on the works of the "outsider" artist Henry Darger (1892-1972), a recluse who toiled for decades at an enormous illustrated novel about the adventures of a plucky band of little girls. The Vivians are threatened by human tormentors, supernatural demons, and cataclysmic storms; their calmer moments are passed in Edenic


Girls on the Run is a poem loosely based on the works of the "outsider" artist Henry Darger (1892-1972), a recluse who toiled for decades at an enormous illustrated novel about the adventures of a plucky band of little girls. The Vivians are threatened by human tormentors, supernatural demons, and cataclysmic storms; their calmer moments are passed in Edenic landscapes. Darger traced the figures from comic strips, coloring books, and other ephemeral sources, filling in the backgrounds with luscious watercolor. John Ashbery's Girls on the Run creates a similar childlike world of dreamy landscapes, lurking terror, and veiled eroticism. Its fractured narrative mode almost (but never quite) coalesces into a surrealist adventure story for juvenile adults.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
John Ashbery is one of the most celebrated of all living American poets. During his long and prolific career, he has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award; been named a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; and presented Norton lectures at Harvard, when not serving as tenured professor at Bard College.

If Ashbery's latest work reveals one thing, it is that the 71-year-old poet is not content to rest on his laurels: Girls on the Run is boldly inventive and innovative, a lush, surreal romp through language. The book comprises a single poem based loosely on quintessential outsider artist Henry Darger's (1892-1972) illustrated adventures of a band of plucky little girls called the Vivians. Ashbery populates his narrative with characters such as Persnickety Peggy, Tootles, Rags the mutt, Uncle Margaret, and General Metuchen — children's book figures with an Ashbery twist. This warping of the juvenile characters, coupled with the employment of their naïve perspective, brings an ominous and disturbing twist to the poem.

This provides the perfect backdrop for what Ashbery intends to convey. His genius in selecting Darger as a model lies in the ability of the material to reflect the metaphysical complexity of the postmodern condition. For example, whereas Darger traced his figures from comic strips, coloring books, and other equally eclectic and ephemeral sources, Ashbery draws deeply upon the clichés and imagery of modern life, from advertising jinglestocontemporary academic jargon:

We so enjoyed having salt to sprinkle on the meat, until it seemed align=center none of us
could be a worker or
welfare recipient.
Cashing in on the laughs in the alley,
Melinda strums a thighbone guitar, the rest are off
in the distance.
Daytime drowsiness, dizziness, headache, nausea, stomach upset,
vomiting, diarrhea, lightheadedness, muscle
aches and dry mouth may occur
so long as we are in unreasoning variation to one another,
which might be repaired by dawn's unsealing the tips
of tall buildings, so they sway to and fro,
in time with the maker's rhythm. He had a plan
but it was too late to use it.

Within his edgy, macabre system, Ashbery probes the faultlines of existence. Which childhood presumptions of safety, fairness, and progress have been contradicted or abandoned? Which truths of traditional or modern ways of life have been shattered in the disjunctive postmodern world? Ashbery's answer arises out of the deft overlapping of endless non-sequiturs, seemingly mismatched in tone and object.

Girls on the Run has been compared to the work of T. S. Eliot, and it is easy to see why. In The Waste Land, Eliot brought unlike voices and eclectic sources into collision to reflect the state of affairs in the post-World War I Western world. Yet while Eliot's method could be likened to mosaic, forming a unified picture out of disparate bits, Ashbery's Girls on the Run is more collage, a composition of superimposed fragments from a vertiginous literary junkpile.

—Monica Ferrell

David Kirby
If Andy Warhol and T.S. Eliot had played with Barbies together, the result might have been something like the adventures of...the Vivians... —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This beautiful long poem presents Ashbery at his most contradictory: it is both his most Homeric and "narrative" long poem, yet at the same time his most joissant, collage-based work in years. It borrows from the imagery of Henry Darger (1892-1972), an American "outsider" artist who devoted decades to a mammoth, illustrated novel about the plight of the fictional "Vivian" girls. Ashbery's adaptation follows the adventures of dozens of characters with names like Pliable, Bunny, Mr. McPlaster, Uncle Margaret, and Fred--recalling "Farm Implements and Rutabegas in Landscape," Ashbery's talismanic Popeye riff from the '70s. The sentences are often short, somewhat "off" ("Trevor his dog came, half jumping."), and they set up deeply bizarre narrative situations: "Hold it, I have an idea, Fred groaned. Now some of you, five at least, must go over in that little shack./ I'll follow with the tidal waves, and see what happens next." Classic Surrealism erupts frequently in well-timed bursts: "The tame suburban landscape excited him./ He had met his match./ Dimples replaced the mollusk with shoe-therapy." Elsewhere, Ashbery jibes obliquely at the epic tradition, laconically laying down the blandest of similes with pseudo-stentorian bluster, while at other moments the meditative, universal Ashberian persona breaks through, with apt sophistication and terrible humanist relevance: "The oblique flute sounded its note of resin./ In time, he said, we all go under the fluted covers/ of this great world, with its spiral dissonances,/ and then we can see, on the other side,/ what the rascals are up to." More memory than dream--the never-was memory of constant companionship, of "fun," of names that resonate with mystery (even "Fred")--the poem recalls a land that was never boring and whose physical environment, while somewhat foreboding, was as safe as the womb and as colorful as Oz.
Library Journal
Inspired by the work of Henry Dargeran obscure illustrator who spent decades writing a juvenile adventure novel in which young heroines, the Vivians, face a multitude of pulp dangersAshberys 20th work of poetry is a playful romp. A large cast of childrens book charactersTidbit, Rags the Dog, Mr. McPlastertalk around, meditate through, and abruptly disappear from what is essentially a sustained sequence of colorful non sequiturs artfully connected by Ashberys affable syntax, as in this busy passage: Under frozen mounds of yak butter the graffiti have their day, and are elaborate/ some say. Nobody wants to go there. Yes, she said, we will swim/ there if necessary. The arroz con pollo can take us/ and do with us what we will. And so on in the fractured spirit of Lewis Carroll, recalling just how surreal our childhood worldsthe ones we invented with the help of fictionreally were. But while Ashbery can make us forget how serious we are while planting unexpected land mines of metaphysical pizzazz within the daffiness, his hectic wordplay eventually invites tedium.Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.28(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Girls on the Run


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1999 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5913-7


    Girls on the Run

    after Henry Darger


    A great plane flew across the sun,
    and the girls ran along the ground.
    The sun shone on Mr. McPlaster's face, it was green like an elephant's.

    Let's get out of here, Judy said.
    They're getting closer, I can't stand it.
    But you know, our fashions are in fashion
    only briefly, then they go out
    and stay that way for a long time. Then they come back in
    for a while. Then, in maybe a million years, they go out of fashion
    and stay there.
    Laure and Tidbit agreed,
    with the proviso that after that everyone would become fashion
    again for a few hours. Write it now, Tidbit said,
    before they get back. And, quivering, I took the pen.

    Drink the beautiful tea
    before you slop sewage over the horizon, the Principal directed.
    OK, it's calm now, but it wasn't two minutes ago. What do you want me to do, said
    I am no longer your serf,
    and if I was I wouldn't do your bidding. That is enough, sir.
    You think you can lord it over every last dish of oatmeal
    on this planet, Henry said. But wait till my ambition
    comes a cropper, whatever that means, or bursts into feathered bloom
    and burns on the shore. Then the kiddies dancing sidewise
    declared it a treat, and the ice-cream gnomes slurped their last that day.

    Inside, in the twilit nest of evening,
    something was coming undone. Dimples could feel it,
    surging over her shoulder like a wave of energy. And then—
    it was gone. No one had witnessed it but herself.
    And so Dimples took off for the city, which was near and wholesome.
    There, with her sister Larissa, she planned the big blue boat
    that future generations will live in, and thank us for. It twitched
    at its steely moorings, and seemed to say: Live, like life, with me.

    Let the birds wash over them, Laure said, for what use are earmuffs
    in a snowstorm, except to call attention to distant tots
    who have strayed. And now the big Mother warms them,
    accepts them, for the nervous predicates they are. Far from the beach-fiend's
    howling, their adventure nurses itself back
    to something like health. On the fifth day it takes a little blancmange
    and stands up, only to fall back into a hammock.
    I told you it was coming, cried Dimples, but look out,
    Another big one is on the way!
    And they all ran, and got out, and that was that for that day.


    Hungeringly, Tidbit approached the crone who held the bowl,
    ... drank the honey. It had good things about it.
    Now, pretty as a moment,
    Tidbit's housecoat sniffed the undecipherable,
    the knowable past. They were anxious
    to get back to work. Diane was looking relaxed.
    Then, some say, Pete said
    it was the afternoon backing up again, inexorable
    with dreams, looking for garbage to pick a fight with.
    "My goodness! Do you suppose his blowhole's ...?"

    Sometime later they returned with Pete and the others,
    he all excited, certain he had spotted a fuse this time.
    Rags the mutt licked and yelped. "Oh, get down!"
    But Rags seemed to be on to something. "And if they come
    through the alfalfa this time, we'll have a nice idea
    of where they are, of who these men are. If they abrade
    the abandoned silo, no one will be wiser. Look, their pastel
    tent, and flags made from the same substance, waving dehors
    I've got to get an angle on this, a firm tack of some kind."
    Willingly, the flood washed over the day
    and so much that was complicated, from the past:
    the tiny doggy door Rags had made with a T-square,
    surplus sequins.

    And if they don't want to play
    according to our rules, what then? "Why, then
    we'll come up with something, like the sink-drain.
    Anyway, this is all just an excuse for you to leave your posts,
    toying with anagrams, while the real message
    is being written in the stars. To go ahead,
    it says, but be watchful for scouts
    in the corn shocks. This close to Halloween there are lots of little bumps
    around, and tea cosies to shroud them. Beware one last time;
    but as the spirit of going is to go, I can't
    control you, advise you much longer. Just keep on
    persevering, and then we'll know what we have done matters most to us."
    With that, the sticks uprooted the tent.
    A thousand passions came unleashed,
    but fortunately for the girls, none of them were around to witness it—
    they were off in a cage with the canaries.
    Now, though,
    when it came time to vote for who the deed was done
    by, the others mattered too. It was just their pot luck.

    Oh well, Laure offered, we were going to close down that shaftway
    anyway, and the subway came close: It was Mother and her veering
    playthings again, torn between the impossible alternatives of existing
    and saying no to menace. To everyone's surprise the bus stopped.
    Our stalwart little band of angels got on it, and were taken for a ride
    into the next chapter, a dim place of curlicues and bas-reliefs.
    If I had a handle, Laure thought.


    Out in Michigan, or was it Minnesota, though, time had stopped
    to see what it could see, which wasn't much. A recent hooligan scare had blighted the
    lowering the temperature by several degrees. "Having
    to pee ruins my crinoline relentlessly,
    because it comes only ecstatically."
    But the wounded cow knew otherwise.

    She was at least sixty,
    had many skins covering her own, regal one. So then they all cry,
    at sea. The lawnmower is emitting sparks again,
    one doesn't know how many, or how much faster it will have to go
    to meet us at the Denizens' by six o'clock. We'd have been better
    off letting the prisoners stage their own war. Now I don't know
    so much, and with Aunt Jennie at my side we could release
    a few more bombs and not know it.

    Everywhere in the tangled schist
    someone was living, it seemed to say, this is my doing;
    whoever shall come afterward is a delusion. And I went round
    the corner to say, Well it sure looks like an improvement—hey,
    why don't you tie your shoes, and then your bonnet will be picture-perfect?

    No, only getting away
    has any value to her: A stone's throw is better than a mile
    since one will have to be up again much later, and this way
    saves time. How often did you let your mother say,
    How did you get your Sundays packed away? And yet it's always treasonable
    to be in the middle. H'm, there are objections to that,
    just as I thought. This might help. Yes. But the color
    of this paint is too fabulous, I'd asked for something fragmented
    like sea-spray. In that case we cannot be of service to you. Farewell.

    Now I had walked the terrible byways for what seemed like too long.
    Now another was following, insensately.
    Would there be foodstuffs on the steps? How did that ladder point into nowhere?
    "Shuffle, you miser!" Just so, Shuffle said,
    I don't want to be around when the gang erupts
    into centuries of inviolate privilege, and cisterns tumble down
    the side of the slope, and all is gone more or less naturally to hell.
    To which Dimples replied, Why not? Why not just give yourself, one time,
    to the floods of human resources that are our day?
    Because I don't want to live at an angle to the blokes who micromanage
    our territory, that's all. Oh, who do you mean? Why, the red-trimmed zebras,
    Shuffle said, that people thinks is the cutest damn things in town
    until the victory bonfire on the square, and then there's more racing
    and chasing than you can shake a banjo-string at,
    and it'll have muddled you over by the time the war has crested.

    He sat, eating a cheese sandwich, wondering if it would be his last,
    fiddled and sank away.
    And as far as the wires
    could stretch, into the inevitable jerk-kingdom, the little girl
    crawled on her hands and feet. That was no jack-in-the-box
    back there, that was the real thing.

    Yes, Stuart Hofnagel, they came to you, they'd expected big things
    of you back in Arkadelphia, and now you were a soured loner like anybody.
    Old town, you seem to remember otherwise.
    That was you backing into love, wasn't it? So we all came and were glad that day.
    That was all a fine day for us. Happiness, that we loved you so much;
    phony energy, because we were happy.
    Yet the town held back, rinsing her skirts
    in the dour brook that fled the sawmill, just before four o'clock.
    None of us slaves knew any different, having been nursed into solitude the night before
    Certainly, if someone knocks on the open door
    we will be pleasant, and look after the stranger just as if he were one of our own.
    That's the way we were made. We can't help it. Conversely,
    if a friend obtrudes his thinking into this plan of ours,
    we shall deny all knowledge of him. It happens this way in the wilderness.
    Plus the pot is full of old oddments. The rhubarb stains on Peggy's frock
    almost—but not quite—match its rickrack trim.
    That's where the human aspect comes in.
    Some were born to play with, to think constantly about it, with a nod,
    not much more, to the future and what its executives might have in store.
    We aren't easily intimidated.
    And yet we are always frightened,
    frightened that this will come to pass
    and we all unable to do anything about it, in case it ever does.
    So we appeal to you, sun, on this broad day.
    You were ever a helpmate in times of great churning, and fatigue.
    You make us forget how serious we are
    and we dance in the lightning of your rhythm like demented souls
    on a hospital spree. If only,
    when the horse crawls up your back, you had known to make more of it.
    But the climate is military, and yet one can't see too far ahead.
    Better a storehouse of pearls than this battered shoehorn
    of wood, yet it can cause everything to take place and change for you.


    Dearest, we had waited for this star,
    the marriage couldn't take place without it. A louse
    drags its lonely way up to the end of a porcupine quill, expires,
    and can we have heard anything? I mean the paced breathing just outdoors,
    and then inside, it's just squalid and quiet,
    nothing more. I have a bowl of cherry syrup.

    These halls, when the rush of spring is echoing, far ahead,
    collapse into tendrils, their décor foreseen
    since the dawn of history. One can walk across them, and time suddenly
    seems funny, stops, is dead, or mute. And prisoners come begging
    for a primrose, or a shaft of sunlight, and the all-seeing sees them
    and averts his gaze until tomorrow. Thus, our doom, ringing with half-realized
    fantasies, is a promise of a new beginning on another continent.
    Only, we must get out of here. A man stands by a cactus, counting
    the flecks of rage as they pass by, and you are in another suit,
    abashed, a dapper salesman today. And the volley of the shooting gallery
    vies with the welter of jarred complacencies, multiple over time,
    if time wishes: "Lacrimoso, our sport is behind us!
    Lacrimoso, we can't get anything done!
    Lacrimoso, the bear has gone after the honey!
    Lacrimoso, the honey drips incessantly
    from the bough of a tree."

    Worse, it was traditional to feel this way.


    Just as a good pianist will adjust the piano stool
    before his recital, by turning the knobs on either side of it
    until he feels he is at a proper distance from the keyboard,
    so did our friends plan their day. Sometimes, after a leisurely breakfast,
    they would get to work immediately, cutting, gluing, stitching
    as the model came entrancingly into view. Other days it was more of a pain,
    or more elaborate. Persnickety Peggy was frequently at the heart of things,
    her strength often an inspiration to the others, though offset by her tendency to brawl
    and generally make a nuisance of herself. The other girls took this in stride,
    though. Little by little the house was rising
    where only sky had hung before, and it seemed like good news,
    a good berth. That was before Tommy took over
    and ruined everything. But I am getting ahead of my story.

    Sometimes to wake up in the morning was enough. They began feeling better.
    Lecture plans were discussed, and a gleaming white envelope, shocking in its purity
    as the dawn, would be sealed by two or three of them. There,
    that's better, no one would say, and that's how they got down to business.
    On rainy days they would stay indoors
    watching the chase of drops on the pane, realizing, a little half-frugally,
    how it would be impossible to ever go outside. Moss drips on moss;
    the more interesting-smelling exhibits have been packed away.
    Or was there a terminus, sadly, deep underground? This, only children can know,
    and some adults who have turned the steep corner into childhood.
    Plums are ripening,
    the pitcher of sangria darkens and deepens. So it was ever this way,
    until it was past time to become "normal" again. Tell it to the neutered pets
    that day! Already the verandas are awash with trouble, and color, the darts seldom miss
    their mark.
    Heidi and Peter dissolve in the crystal furnace;
    something says it's too late to change, now better to let it come toward
    us, then we will see what it is made of.
    To have had a son back there ...
    But the unthinkable is common knowledge now. We must let down a ladder
    so the others may attach their boats to it, and in that way we shall be saved.
    Only I think we're ... It's all coming nearer.


    Nov. 7. returned again to the exhibition. How strange it is that when we
    least imagine we are enjoying themselves, a shaft of reason will bedazzle
    us. Then it's up to us, or at any rate them, to think ourselves out of the
    muddle and in so doing turn up whole again on the shore, impeached by a
    sigh, so that the whole balcony of spectators goes whizzing past, out of
    control, on a collision course with destiny and the bridesmaids' sobbing.
    Of course, we listened, then whistled, and nobody answered, at least it
    seemed nobody did. The silence was so intense there might have been a
    sound moving around in it, but we knew nothing of that. Then we came
    to. The pictures are so nice on the walls, it seems one might destroy
    something by even looking at them; the tendency is to ignore by walking
    around the partition into a small, cramped space that is flooded with
    daylight. And what if we asked for another spoonful? Look, it's down
    there, down at the bottom of the well, and we are no wiser for it, if
    anybody asked. Which they don't. By common consent,
    including ours, we are ignored and given the cold shoulder to. OK, so it's
    all until another day, and we can see quite clearly into the needle whose thread is
    waving slowly back and forth like a caterpillar, accomplishing its end.
    So may it be until the end that is eternity.


Excerpted from Girls on the Run by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1999 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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