qualm

Warren G. Harding invented the word “normalcy,”
And the lesser-known “bloviate,” meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The “Ohio Gang” made him. He died in the Palace

Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg,
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.

This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
Of summer, almost to the end of August. The crowd is hysterical:
Fickle as always, they follow him to the edge

Of the inferno. But the fall is, deliciously, only his.
They shall communicate this and that and compute
Fixed names like “doorstep in the wind.” The agony is permanent
Rather than eternal. He’d have noticed it. Poor Warren.

(John Ashbery, from Shadow Train; read at the end of the NYRB podcast, archived at PennSound.)

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.)

from “pyrography”

If this is the way it is let’s leave,
They agree, and soon the slow boxcar journey begins,
Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs
Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered
Only as a recurring tic. And midway
We meet the disappointed, returning ones, without its
Being able to stop us in the headlong night
Toward the nothing of the coast. At Bolinas
The houses doze and seem to wonder why through the
Pacific haze, and the dreams alternately glow and grow dull.
Why be hanging on here? Like kits, circling,
Slipping on a ramp of air, but always circling?


(John Ashbery, from Houseboat Days; two readings of the complete poem at PennSound.)

train rising out of the sea

It is written in the Book of Usable Minutes
That all things have their center in their dying,
That each is discrete and diaphanous and
Has pointed its prow away from the sand for the next trillion years.

After that we may be friends,
Recognizing in each other the precedents that make us truly social.
Do you hear the wind? It’s not dying,
It’s singing, weaving a song about the president saluting the trust,

The past in each of us, until so much memory becomes an institution,
Through sheer weight, the persistence of it, no,
Not the persistence: that makes it seem a deliberate act
Of duration, much too deliberate for this ingenious being

Like an era that refuses to come to an end or be born again.
We need more night for the sky, more blue for the daylight
That inundates our remarks before we can make them
Taking away a little bit of us each time

To be deposited elsewhere
In the place of our involvement
With the core that brought excessive flowering this year
Of enormous sunsets and big breezes

That left you feeling too simple
Like an island just off the shore, one of many, that no one
Notices, though it has a certain function, though an abstract one
Built to prevent you from being towed to shore.

(John Ashbery, from As We Know.)

from “the bungalows”

You who were directionless, and thought it would solve everything if you found one,
What do you make of this? Just because a thing is immortal
Is that any reason to worship it? Death, after all, is immortal.
But you have gone into your houses and shut the doors, meaning
There can be no further discussion.
And the river pursues its lovely course
With the sky and the trees cast up from the landscape
For green brings unhappiness—le vert porte malheur.
“The chartreuse mountain on the absinthe plain
Makes the strong man’s tears tumble down like rain.”
All this came to pass eons ago.
Your program worked out perfectly. You even avoided
The monotony of perfection by leaving in certain flaws:
A backward way of becoming, a forced handshake,
An absent-minded smile, though in fact nothing was left to chance.
Each detail was startlingly clear, as though seen through a magnifying glass,
Or would have been to an ideal observer, namely yourself—
For only you could watch yourself so patiently from agar
The way God watches a sinner on the path to redemption.
Sometimes disappearing into valleys, but always on the way,
For it all builds up into something, meaningless or meaningful
As architecture, because planned and then abandoned when completed,
To live afterwards, in sunlight and shadow, a certain amount of years.
Who cares about what was there before? There is no going back,
For standing still means death, and life is moving on,
Moving on towards death. But sometimes standing still is also life.

(John Ashbery, from The Double Dream of Spring.)

sonnet

The barber at his chair
Clips me. He does as he goes.
He clips the hairs outside the nose.
Too many preparations, nose!
I see the raincoat this Saturday.
A building is against the sky—
The result is more sky.
Something gathers in painfully.

To be the razor—how would you like to be
The razor, blue with ire,
That presses me? This is the wrong way.
The canoe speeds toward a waterfall.
Something, prince, in our backward manners—
You guessed the reason for the storm.

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)

meditations of a parrot

Oh the rocks and the thimble
The oasis and the bed
Oh the jacket and the roses.

All sweetly stood up the sea to me
Like blue cornflakes in a white bowl.
The girl said, “Watch this.”

I come from Spain, I said.
I was purchased at a fair.
She said, “None of us know.

“There was a house once
Of dazzling canopies
And halls like a keyboard.

“These the waves tore in pieces.”
(His old wound—
And all day: Robin Hood! Robin Hood!)

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)

the hero

Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,

Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?

But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days

Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him—

There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)

boundary issues

Here in life, they would understand.
How could it be otherwise? We had groped too,
unwise, till the margin began to give way,
at which point all was sullen, or lost, or both.

Now it was time, and there was nothing for it.

We had a good meal, I and my friend,
slurping from the milk pail, grabbing at newer vegetables.
Yet life was a desert. Come home, in good faith.
You can still decide to. But it wanted warmth.
Otherwise ruse and subtlety would become impossible
in the few years or hours left to us. “Yes, but . . .”
The iconic beggars shuffled off     too. I told you,
once a breach emerges it will become a chasm
before anyone’s had a chance to waver. A dispute
on the far side of town erupts into a war
in no time at all, and ends as abruptly. The tendency to heal
sweeps all before it, into the arroyo, the mine shaft,
into whatever pocket you were contemplating. And the truly lost
make up for it. It’s always us that has to pay.

I have a suggestion to make: draw the sting out
as probingly as you please. Plaster the windows over
with wood pulp against the noon gloom proposing its enigmas,
its elixirs. Banish truth-telling.
That’s the whole point, as I understand it.
Each new investigation rebuilds the urgency,
like a sand rampart. And further reflection undermines it,
causing its eventual collapse. We could see all that
from a distance, as on a curving abacus, in urgency mode
from day one, but by then dispatches hardly mattered.
It was camaraderie, or something like it, that did,
poring over us like we were papyri, hoping to find one
correct attitude sketched on the gaslit air, night’s friendly takeover.

(John Ashbery, in Poetry, March 2009.)

alcove

Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, ‘mugwump
of the final hour’, lest an agenda – horrors! – be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

(John Ashbery, p. 33 in the 20 November 2008 London Review of Books.)