from “fantasia on ‘the nut-brown maid’”

Well had she represented the patient’s history to his apathetic scrutiny. Always there was something to see, something going on, for the historical past owed it to itself, our historical present. There were visiting firemen, rumors of chattels on a spree, old men made up to look like young women in the polygon of night from which light sometimes breaks, to be sucked back, armies of foreigners who could not understand each other, the sickening hush just before the bleachers collapse, the inevitable uninvited and only guest who writes on the wall: I choose not to believe. It became a part of oral history. Things overheard in cafés assumed an importance previously reserved for letters from the front. The past was a dream of doctors and drugs. This wasn’t misspent time. Oh, sometimes it’d seem like doing the same thing over and over, until I had passed beyond whatever the sense of it had been. Besides, hadn’t it all ended a long time back, on some clear, washed-out afternoon, with a stiff breeze that seemed to shout: go back! For the moated past lives by these dreams of decorum that take into account any wisecracks made at their expense. It is not called living in a past. If history were only minding one’s business, but, once under the gray shade of mist drawn across us . . . And who am I to speak this way, into a shoe? I know that evening is busy with lights, cars . . . That the curve will include me if I must stand here. My warm regards are cold, falling back to the vase again like a fountain. Responsible to whom? I have chosen this environment and it is handsome: a festive ruching of bare twigs against the sky, masks under the balconies

                                        that

                                                  I sing away

(John Ashbery, in Houseboat Days; see also PennSound.)

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