John Ashbery |
What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is not name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them.
Just walking around,
An object of curiosity to some,
But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul
To say much and wander around,
Smiling to yourself and others.
It gets to be kind of lonely
But at the same time off-putting.
Counterproductive, as you realize once again
That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
And now that the end is near
The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.
Come see it.
Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.
John Ashbery |
Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of "I Thought about You" or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything--a mint-condition can
Of Rumford's Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller's fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock--to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland
He promised he'd get me out of this one,
That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he's
Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug's attenuated
Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit
Are its lineaments--fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist's
Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you'd call
But everything is getting choked to the point of
Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky
Over the Fudds' garage, reducing it--drastically--
To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on
A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover.
Suddenly all is
I don't want to go back inside any more.
Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island--no,
Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings,
The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of
Vegetal jacqueries, plumed, pointed at the little
White cardboard castle over the mill run.
The lazy river, how happy we could be?"
How will it end? That geranium glow
Over Anaheim's had the riot act read to it by the
Etna-size firecracker that exploded last minute into
A carte du Tendre in whose lower right-hand corner
(Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts
The asparagus patch of algolagnic nuits blanches) Amadis
Is cozening the Princesse de Cleves into a midnight
On the Tamigi with the Wallets (Walt, Blossom, and little
Sleezix) on a lamé barge "borrowed" from Ollie
Of the Movies' dread mistress of the robes.
I have an announcement! This wide, tepidly meandering,
Civilized Lethe (one can barely make out the maypoles
And châlets de nécessitê on its sedgy shore)
leads to Tophet, that
Landfill-haunted, not-so-residential resort from which
Some travellers return! This whole moment is the groin
Of a borborygmic giant who even now
Is rolling over on us in his sleep.
The allegory comes unsnarled
Too soon; a shower of pecky acajou harpoons is
About all there is to be noted between tornadoes.
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language.
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is a fabulation, and that those "other times"
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours.
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
At each new parting of the ways.
Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
"It's all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
What happened to creative evolution?"
Then to her Sélysette: "If his
Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
What's keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
I have to stay here while they sit in there,
Laugh, drink, have fine time.
In my day
One lay under the tough green leaves,
Pretending not to notice how they bled into
The sky's aqua, the wafted-away no-color of regions supposed
Not to concern us.
And so we too
Came where the others came: nights of physical endurance,
Or if, by day, our behavior was anarchically
Correct, at least by New Brutalism standards, all then
Grew taciturn by previous agreement.
We were spirited
Away en bateau, under cover of fudge dark.
It's not the incomplete importunes, but the spookiness
Of the finished product.
True, to ask less were folly, yet
If he is the result of himself, how much the better
For him we ought to be! And how little, finally,
We take this into account! Is the puckered garance satin
Of a case that once held a brace of dueling pistols our
Only acknowledging of that color? I like not this,
Methinks, yet this disappointing sequel to ourselves
Has been applauded in London and St.
Ravens pray for us.
" The storm finished brewing.
She questioned all who came in at the great gate, but none
She found who ever heard of Amadis,
Nor of stern Aureng-Zebe, his first love.
They were to whom this mattered not a jot: since all
By definition is completeness (so
In utter darkness they reasoned), why not
Accept it as it pleases to reveal itself? As when
Low skyscrapers from lower-hanging clouds reveal
A turret there, an art-deco escarpment here, and last perhaps
The pattern that may carry the sense, but
Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.
Not what we see but how we see it matters; all's
Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces
The change as we would greet the change itself.
All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage
Shrouds our sense of it.
Therefore bivouac we
On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by
Veiled scruples, worn conundrums.
Grab sex things, swing up
Over the horizon like a boy
On a fishing expedition.
No one really knows
Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
Were vouchsafed--once--but to be ambling on's
The tradition more than the safekeeping of it.
This mulch for
Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants--what maps, what
Model cities, how much waste space.
Life anyway, is between.
We don't mind
Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot
One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,
Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,
Always invoking the echo, a summer's day.
John Ashbery |
Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles.
OK, but which ones?
That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.
I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.
He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over.
And then the great rush
Not a single idea emerges from it.
to disgust you with thought.
But then you remember something
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
for evidence of fingerprints.
Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.
Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.
not big enough to see over.
Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.
In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together.
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know.
You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.
That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day.
Look out!There's a big one.
John Ashbery |
Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky.
Of course, Eurydice was a part
Then one day, everything changed.
Rocks into fissures with lament.
Can't withstand it.
The sky shudders from one horizon
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.
Then Apollo quietly told him: "Leave it all on earth.
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.
" But why not?
All other things must change too.
The seasons are no longer what they once were,
But it is the nature of things to be seen only once,
As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along
That's where Orpheus made his mistake.
Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade;
She would have even if he hadn't turned around.
No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel
Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to
utter an intelligent
Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train.
Only love stays on the brain, and something these people,
These other ones, call life.
So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of
Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers
Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulizes
The different weights of the things.
But it isn't enough
To just go on singing.
Orpheus realized this
And didn't mind so much about his reward being in heaven
After the Bacchantes had torn him apart, driven
Half out of their minds by his music, what it was doing to them.
Some say it was for his treatment of Eurydice.
But probably the music had more to do with it, and
The way music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad.
Wait till it's over.
"The end crowns all,"
Meaning also that the "tableau"
For although memories, of a season, for example,
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure
That stalled moment.
It too is flowing, fleeting;
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action
No more than this.
Then in the lowering gentian sky
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares.
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,
"I'm a maverick.
Nothing of this is happening to me,
Though I can understand the language of birds, and
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is
fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now,
day after day.
But how late to be regretting all this, even
Bearing in mind that regrets are always late, too late!
To which Orpheus, a bluish cloud with white contours,
Replies that these are of course not regrets at all,
Merely a careful, scholarly setting down of
Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way.
And no matter how all this disappeared,
Or got where it was going, it is no longer
Material for a poem.
Matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly
While the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad
Comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward
That the meaning, good or other, can never
The singer thinks
Constructively, builds up his chant in progressive stages
Like a skyscraper, but at the last minute turns away.
The song is engulfed in an instant in blackness
Which must in turn flood the whole continent
With blackness, for it cannot see.
Must then pass out of sight, not even relieved
Of the evil burthen of the words.
Is for the few, and comes about much later
When all record of these people and their lives
Has disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm.
A few are still interested in them.
"But what about
So-and-so?" is still asked on occasion.
But they lie
Frozen and out of touch until an arbitrary chorus
Speaks of a totally different incident with a similar name
In whose tale are hidden syllables
Of what happened so long before that
In some small town, one different summer.
John Ashbery |
Far from the Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along toward the sea.
The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
Like the Niagara's welling descent.
Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
Near where it joined the Cher.
Lawrence prods among black stones
But the Arno is all stones.
Wind ruffles the Hudson's
The Irawaddy is overflowing.
But the yellowish, gray Tiber
Is contained within steep banks.
Flows too fast to swim in, the Jordan's water
Courses over the flat land.
The Allegheny and its boats
Were dark blue.
The Moskowa is
The Amstel flows slowly.
Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
The Liffey is full of sewage,
Like the Seine, but unlike
The brownish-yellow Dordogne.
Mountains hem in the Colorado
And the Oder is very deep, almost
As deep as the Congo is wide.
The plain banks of the Neva are
The dark Saône flows silently.
And the Volga is long and wide
As it flows across the brownish land.
Is blue, and slow.
The Shannon flows
Swiftly between its banks.
Is one of the world's longest rivers, like the Amazon.
It has the Missouri for a tributary.
The Harlem flows amid factories
The Nelson is in Canada,
Through hard banks the Dubawnt
Forces its way.
People walk near the Trent.
The landscape around the Mohawk stretches away;
The Rubicon is merely a brook.
In winter the Main
Surges; the Rhine sings its eternal song.
The Rhône slogs along through whitish banks
And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past.
The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
But the Moldau's wet mud ensnares it.
The East catches the light.
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
The Po too flows, and the many-colored
Into the Atlantic Ocean
Pours the Garonne.
Few ships navigate
On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
On the Elbe.
The Afton has flowed.
If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely, and the Ohio
Abrade its slate banks.
The tan Euphrates would
Sidle silently across the world.
Was choked with ice, but the Susquehanna still pushed
The Dee caught the day's last flares
Like the Pilcomayo's carrion rose.
The Peace offered eternal fragrance
Perhaps, but the Mackenzie churned livid mud
Like tan chalk-marks.
The Brahmaputra slapped swollen dikes
And the Pechora? The São Francisco
Skulks amid gray, rubbery nettles.
Reflexes are slow, and the Arkansas erodes
The Paraná stinks.
The Ottawa is light emerald green
Better that the Indus fade
In steaming sands! Let the Brazos
Freeze solid! And the Wabash turn to a leaden
Cinder of ice! The Marañón is too tepid, we must
Find a way to freeze it hard.
Is freezing slowly in the blasts.
The black Yonne
And the Petit-Morin
Curls up on the solid earth.
Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack's
The Ganges is liquid snow by now;
The Vyatka's ice-gray.
The once-molten Tennessee s
The Japurá is a pack of ice.
The Columbia's gray loam banks.
The Don's merely
A giant icicle.
The Niger freezes, slowly.
The interminable Lena plods on
But the Purus' mercurial waters are icy, grim
The Loing is choked with fragments of ice.
The Weser is frozen, like liquid air.
And so is the Kama.
And the beige, thickly flowing
The rivers bask in the cold.
The stern Uruguay chafes its banks,
A mass of ice.
The Hooghly is solid
The Adour is silent, motionless.
The lovely Tigris is nothing but scratchy ice
Like the Yellowstone, with its osier-clustered banks.
The Mekong is beginning to thaw out a little
And the Donets gurgles beneath the
Huge blocks of ice.
The Manzanares gushes free.
The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
But the Dnieper is still ice-bound.
The Salado propels irs floes, but the Roosevelt's
The Oka is frozen solider
Than the Somme.
The Minho slumbers
In winter, nor does the Snake
Hilarious, the Canadian
Is solid ice.
The Madeira slavers
Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.
The Dvina soaks up the snow.
Temperature is above freezing.
The Drôme presses
Grass banks; the Adige's frozen
Surface is like gray pebbles.
Birds circle the Ticino.
The Var was dark blue, unfrozen.
Thwaite, cold, is choked with sandy ice;
The Ardèche glistens feebly through the freezing rain.
John Ashbery |
The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits
From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country.
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she
Her cleft chin's solitary hair.
She remembered spinach
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
"M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out
Today, and it shall be as you wish.
" He scratched
The part of his head under his hat.
Seemed to grow smaller.
"But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my
Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in.
But Swee'pea looked morose.
A note was pinned to his bib.
And tears are unavailing," it read.
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or
Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh.
"I have news!" she gasped.
"Popeye, forced as
you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened,
duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
Arpeggio of our years.
No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and
She grabbed Swee'pea.
"I'm taking the brat to the country.
"But you can't do that--he hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.
But Olive was already out of earshot.
Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush.
"Actually it's quite pleasant
Here," thought the Sea Hag.
"If this is all we need fear from
Then I don't mind so much.
Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon
One dug pensively--"but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.
" Minute at first, the thunder
Soon filled the apartment.
It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach.
Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
David Lehman |
Light rain is falling in Central Park
but not on Upper Fifth Avenue or Central Park West
where sun and sky are yellow and blue
Winds are gusting on Washington Square
through the arches and on to LaGuardia Place
but calm is the corner of 8th Street and Second Avenue
which reminds me of something John Ashbery said
about his poem "Crazy Weather" he said
he was in favor of all kinds of weather
just so long as it's genuine weather
which is always unusually bad, unusually
good, or unusually indifferent,
since there isn't really any norm for weather
When he was a boy his mother met a friend
who said, "Isn't this funny weather?"
It was one of his earliest memories
David Lehman |
Did you know that Evian spelled backwards is naive?
I myself was unaware of this fact until last Tuesday night
when John Ashbery, Marc Cohen, and Eugene Richie
gave a poetry reading and I introduced them
to an audience that already knew them,
and there were bottles of Evian at the table.
As air to the lungs of a drowning man was
a glass of this water to my dry lips.
I recommend it
to you, a lover of palindromes, who will also
be glad to learn that JA read us three "chapters"
of his new poem, "Girls on the Run," a twelve-
part saga inspired by girls' adventure stories, with
characters named Dimples and Tidbit plus Talkative and
Hopeful on loan from "Pilgrim's Progress.
As Frank O'Hara would have said, "it's the nuts.
The poets' books were on sale and afterwards
two of the poets signed theirs happily and the third
did so willingly and Joe took photos and I smiled
for the camera, shaking hands with people
I knew or didn't know and thinking how
blessed was the state of naivete
my naive belief in the glory of the word
John Ashbery |
The man with the red hat
And the polar bear, is he here too?
The window giving on shade,
Is that here too?
And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night?
Drops dead in sight of the window.
Lovely tribes have just moved to the north.
In the flickering evening the martins grow denser.
Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.
David Lehman |
Wisteria, hysteria is as obvious a rhyme
as Viagra and Niagara there must be a reason
honeymooners traditionally went to the Falls
which were, said the divine Oscar,
an American bride's second biggest disappointment
tell me which do you like better,
the American Falls or the Horseshoe Falls,
I say the Horseshoe Falls, Joe says,
because its magnificence surpasses the American Falls
thank you, Joe, and did you know
when Casey Stengel managed the Yankees
he sat next to Bob Cerv on the bench one day,
put his arm around the big outfielder, and said,
"One of us has just been traded to Kansas City"
I don't know what put that in my mind
except that it backs up Michael Malinowitz's line
about John Ashbery being the Casey Stengel of poetry
meanwhile the Yankees are playing like the Bronx Bombers of old
and though I used to hate the Yankees I'm just enough
of a New York chauvinist to feel gleeful about it
wait a minute I'll be right back I am back that's
another line I've always wanted to put in a poem
what it will say on Johnny Carson's gravestone
"I'll be right back"