Seeing a Place

John Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual” offers another of the juxtapositions mentioned in the interview with A. Poulin, Jr., this time between an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal and Guadalajara, Mexico. The two have nothing to do with one another, yet the instruction manual brings to mind Mexico’s second city. It’s as if the colors, sounds, and people of Guadalajara come to mind as a sort of rebellion against the speaker’s tedious task of writing the instruction manual.

I am particularly interested in how the speaker’s imaginary tour of Guadalajara is experienced and how he communicates that experience. In his initial address to Guadalajara, the speaker calls it the “City I wanted most to see, and most did not see” (5), which would seem to imply that he has never been to Guadalajara. For never having been there, however, he is able to construct a very detailed, multidimensional description of what it would be like to be in the city for a day. I think that the word “see” in this line is used in two different ways here. The speaker wanted to see Guadalajara, meaning that he wanted to visit it, but he “most did not see” it. I think that the second “see” means that he didn’t see the city as tourists “see” a city by visiting its historic landmarks or following what a guidebook instructs them to do.

According to the travel company Lonely Planet, Guadalajara has contributed tequila, mariachi music, the sombrero, rodeos (charreodas), and the Mexican Hat Dance, all fairly stereotypical elements of Mexican culture. The speaker does not even mention these elements, however. His experience is completely different. He says later in the poem, talking to his invisible companion(s), “How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!” (8). He decides that he has experienced the city because he has seen love, heard music, tasted the drinks, and seen the colored houses. He claims that the only thing left to do is to stay (8), but from a tourist standpoint he has not even begun to see the famous sites of the city. Instead, he has seen the city on a different level. Guadalajara itself is not important here, but rather the focus is on the experience of seeing the people and activities of a place.

The speaker’s experience and voice are in keeping with Ashbery’s other poems where the experience of the thing is emphasized, while the speaker’s voice is impossible to pin down. First of all, we are never sure where the speaker is located, either temporally or physically. Is he sat at his desk in his office dreaming? Is he in a memory? Is he in Guadalajara? Who is with him? Where is he in relation to the people he describes, or is he a removed observer? It is impossible to know sometimes. At the same time, the speaker’s voice seems to oscillate between that of a tour guide, saying things such as, “Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets. / Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim” (6), and an artist who sees the city in terms of its colors. Color is constantly mentioned in descriptions of people and of the city itself, and when the speaker is going to climb the church tower, he describes it as “the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of the sky” (7). Here the speaker defines the world through its colors, which seems to be a very artistic viewpoint. By switching between these voices, Ashbery creates yet another juxtaposition and perhaps suggests that there are multiple ways to “see” a place, just as there are multiple voices in his poem, but that no single method gives a complete view.