This time I move from Leonora Carrington (see previous post) to Henry Darger (1892-1973), the reclusive artist/writer whose magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, was only discovered after his death. Darger is a major figure in the world of “outsider art,” a term I have mixed feelings about. To put it simply, outsider artists have little or no professional training, are reclusive or unconnected to the art world, and often have mental illnesses. This is a pretty wide-ranging attempt at a definition, but it will do. Darger’s immense, convoluted story (15,145 pages, single-spaced, along with several hundred illustrations) served as inspiration for the poet (and former art critic) John Ashbery. The result was Ashbery’s book-length poem, Girls on the Run (1999), which is the topic of this essay.
Ashbery poetry has its surreal elements, and Darger’s bizarre story of little girls (often naked in his illustrations, and incongruously shown with penises) at war in fantastic situations seems a great combination. The end result, while moving and baffling by turns, cannot be said to cohere. Dream-logic, which is an essential element of surrealism, does not carry through Asbery’s book, and what we are left with is a series of scenes, perhaps connected to one another, but without a thread to carry the reader to the end. It’s rather like watching part of a movie, perhaps in another language, wherein only fragments of the total film survive. Gaps and ellipses hint at something more, but you have no ability to learn just what that was.
Ashbery recognizes the disturbing mix of innocence and maturity in Darger’s world, and takes it for his own. The book begins with the bounce of a children’s book: 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. (I) But the reflections and incidents have a depth beyond that of kids at play; the omniscient narrator (or perhaps not omniscient) is far older and more thoughtful: How strange it all seems lost! How white it then was! Page torn from a notebook… for the end that doesn’t come anymore. (XIII) The authorial voice switches from first to third person, and perhaps to second here and there, without warning. The end is not an end, but a reflection at the closing of something, elegaic: Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture out – / yet I’d offer this much, this leaf, to thee. / Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting, / taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning. / The wide avenue smiles. (XXI)
Though I feel a sense of frustration at not being able to suss out those gaps, I wonder if the poem would have been better as I’d imagined it. Completeness could work against surreality. Certainly there are moments in this book that made me stop, and read again, to see if the feeling that caught me by surprise was real. It always was. Asbery is not the most intelligible of poets, but his creativity and intelligence are obvious. As a tip of the pen to Henry Darger, this book can stand proud.