I believe Ashbery never assigns the character of “The Instruction Manuel” poem any specific gender; however I have imagined him to be a working male. In my blog, I will often refer to the character as “he” or “the businessman” in an attempt to give Ashbery’s character a more concrete personality.
The subject of John Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manuel” (pages 5-8) appears to be a dormant artist trapped in the business world. The character is doomed to create a manual “on the uses of a new metal,” a task entirely void of creativity and imagination. The poem opens with the character “looking out of a window of [a] building” at the people far below – “Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule,” he speculates. Ashbery’s description of the man leaning out the building, looking at the carefree world far below conjures up the image of a businessman confined to a high tower, an unorthodox spin on the fairytale icon of a princess trapped in a tower. The man finds transitory liberation through his imagination, delving immediately into the setting “Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!”
The artistry of the businessman is evident in the colors present in his Guadalajara daydream. He illuminates the dream landscape with vibrant images – the “rose-and lemon-colored flowers,” the attractive girls in their “rose-and-blue striped [dresses] (Oh! Such shades of rose and blue),” the “little white booth where women in green serve you green and yellow fruit,” the girl with “long fine black hair against her olive cheek,” and the “faded pink [church tower] against the fierce blue of the sky.” It’s almost as though the businessman is holding a paint palette of every color that has ever existed, painting them into his dreamscape. However, unlike with a painting, the imagined world is able to, as Ashbery says, “[expand] out of the frame” – the dreamer travels the city, encountering new people and unseen settings (Poulin, 247). The colors give the dream world personality and feeling that the man does not find in his reality. The people observed outside the window of the building at the start of the poem lack stories – they are colorless and cold like the metal in his manual. He simply says they are “walking with an inner peace” while the businessman finds “young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother” in the characters in his imagined world.
The poem ends sadly as the businessman recognizes, “What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.” The burden of reality returns and the colors of the dream world fade away as he returns to the instruction manual. Ashbery’s poem is infinitely complex for it is art within art. Ashbery the artist has created an artist. He has imagined a world in which his main character has created a world inside this world. And just as the businessman is trapped inside his building, he is also trapped inside Ashbery’s poem, unable to expand out of the poem, and doomed to forever work on the instruction manual.