Having transferred the one to the other
And living on the plain of insistent self-knowledge
Just outside the great city, I see many
Who come and go, and being myself involved in distant places
Ask how they adjust to
The light that rains on the traveler’s back
And pushes out before him. It is always “the journey,”
And we are never sure if these are preparations
Or a welcome back to the old circle of stone posts.
That was there before the first invention
And now seems a place of vines and muted shimmers
And sighing at noon
As opposed to
The terrain of stars, the robe
Of only that journey. You adjusted to all that
Over a long period of years. When we next set out
I had spent years in your company
And was now turning back, half amused, half afraid,
Having in any case left something important back home
Which I could not continue without,
An invention so simple I could never figure out
How they spent so many ages without discovering it.
I would have found it, altered it
To be my shape, probably in my own lifetime,
In a decade, in just a few years.
(John Ashbery, from As We Know.)
The child is feather to the man;
mice don’t brood. The swiftest race
to the pie. In the sky an encomium
rewards all who notice it.
This isn’t the way I meant to live
but I must or will have to move.
In broader streets the video preference
startles a dozing anomaly—“Come again?”
I just did. I want it to be all clean
and tasting of only distance and water.
There is a stairway in my pocket
and pheasants on the railway
and all I ever had was to be yours,
your instructor. Again I fell for it,
his pencil sharpener. Over time that
made him quite difficult and complicated.
Now is only sun, sunstrife and sea.
O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find!
My attic, my children
ignore me for the violet-banded sky.
There are no clean platters in the cupboard
and the milkman’s horse tiptoes by, as though
afraid to wake us.
What! Our culture in its dotage!
Yet this very poem refutes it,
springing up out of the collective unconscious
like a weasel through a grating.
I could point to other extremities, both on land
and at sea, where the waves will gnash your stark theories
like a person eating a peanut. Say, though,
that we are not exceptional,
that, like the curve of a breast above a bodice,
our parabolas seek and find the light, returning
from not too far away. Ditto the hours
we’ve squandered: daisies, coins of light.
In the end he hammered out
what it was not wanted we should know.
For that we should be grateful,
and for that patch of a red ridinghood
caught in brambles against the snow.
His book, I saw it somewhere and I bought it.
I never read it for it seemed too long.
His theory though, I fought it
though it spritzes my song,
and now the skateboard stops
impeccably. We are where we exchanged
positions. O who could taste the crust of this love?
(John Ashbery, from And the Stars Were Shining.)
As one turns to one in a dream
smiling like a bell taht has just
stopped tolling, holds out a book,
and speaks: “All the vulgarity
of time, from the Stone Age
to our present, with its noodle parlors
and token resistance, is as a life
to the life that is given you. Wear it,”
so must one descend from checkered heights
that are our friends, needlessly
rehearsing what we will say
as a common light bathes us,
a common fiction reverberates as we pass
to the celebration. Originally
we weren’t going to leave home. But made bold
somehow by the rain we put our best foot forward.
Now it’s years after that. It
isn’t possible to be young anymore.
Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend;
my own shoes have scarred the walk I’ve taken.
(John Ashbery, from And the Stars Were Shining.)
Let’s get on with it
But what about the past
Because it only builds up out of fragments
Each evening we walk out to see
How they are coming along with the temple
There is an interest in watching how
One piece is added to another.
At least it isn’t horrible like
Being inside a hospital and really finding out
What it’s like in there.
So one is tempted not to include this page
In the fragment of our lives
Just as its meaning is about to coagulate
In the air around us:
“Father!” “Son!” “Father I thought we’d lost you
In the blue and buff planes of the Aegean:
Now it seems you’re really back.”
Only for a while, son, only for a while.”
We can go inside now.
(John Ashbery, from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Wikipedia on Stuart Merrill.)
America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large “chain” stores with their big friendly ads and so-called “discount” prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of people here who are sincerely in love with life and think they are on to something, and they may well be right. Even the dogs seem to know about it – you can tell by the way they stick their noses out of the car windows sometimes to whiff the air as it goes by. Old ladies know about and like it too. In fact, the older an American citizen gets the more he or she seems to get a kick out of life. Look at all the retirement communities and people who mow their own lawns and play gold. They surely have more pep than their counterparts in Asia or Europe, and one mustn’t be in too much of a hurry to make fun of such pursuits. They stand for something broader and darker than at first seems to be the case. The silver-painted flagpole in its concrete base surrounded by portulacas, the flag itself straining in the incredibly strong breeze, are signposts toward an infinity of wavering susceptible variables, if one but knew how to read them aright. The horny grocery boy may be the god Pan in disguise. Even a television antenna may be something else. Example: bearded young driver of pickup truck notes vinyl swimming pool cover is coming undone and stops to ask owner if he can be of assistance. Second example: groups of business people stranded in stalled elevator sing Cole Porter songs to keep their spirits up, helping each other recall the lyrics. Third example: a nursing home director convicted of a major swindle goes to the federal penitentiary for a period of not less than five years. Fourth example: you are looking down into a bottomless well or some kind of deep pool that is very dark with the reflected light so far in the distance it seems like a distant planet, and you see only your own face.
(John Ashbery, from The Vermont Notebook, pp. 381–3 in Collected Poems 1956–1987.)
It all wears out. I keep telling myself this, but
I can never believe me, though others do. Even things do.
And the things they do. Like the rasp of silk, or a certain
Glottal stop in your voice as you are telling me how you
Didn’t have time to brush your teeth but gargled with Listerine
Instead. Each is a base one might wish to touch once more
Before dying. There’s the moment years ago in the station in Venice,
The dark rainy afternoon in fourth grade, and the shoes then,
Made of a dull crinkled brown leather that no longer exists.
And nothing does, until you name it, remembering, and even then
It may not have existed, or existed only as a result
Of the perceptual dysfunction you’ve been carrying around for years.
The result is magic, then terror, then pity at the emptiness,
Then air gradually bathing and filling the emptiness as it leaks,
Emoting all over something that is probably mere reportage
But nevertheless likes being emoted on. And so each day
Culminates in merriment as well as a deep shock like an electric one,
As the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves
Scattering the works of famous authors as well as those
Of more obscure ones, and books with no author, letting in
Space, and an extraneous babble from the street
Confirming the new value the hollow core has again, the light
From the lighthouse that protects as it pushes us away.
(John Ashbery, from A Wave.)
I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn’t count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,
And afterwards, when the bus trip
Had depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can’t own
This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame
And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects are real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.
(John Ashbery, from Shadow Train.)