A Wave: Poems by John Ashbery | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
A Wave

A Wave

by John Ashbery

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First published in 1984 and now appearing in a new edition, A Wave is widely considered one of Ashbery's finest books of poetry. The 44 pieces collected here--particularly the long title-poem--find the poet applying his uniquely lyric, meditative, and often hilarious sensibility to the mysterious and incessant curves and crests of love, art, thought, experience


First published in 1984 and now appearing in a new edition, A Wave is widely considered one of Ashbery's finest books of poetry. The 44 pieces collected here--particularly the long title-poem--find the poet applying his uniquely lyric, meditative, and often hilarious sensibility to the mysterious and incessant curves and crests of love, art, thought, experience, and selfhood.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.29(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Wave


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1984 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5908-3


    At North Farm

    Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
    At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
    Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
    But will he know where to find you,
    Recognize you when he sees you,
    Give you the thing he has for you?

    Hardly anything grows here,
    Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
    The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
    The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
    Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
    That the dish of milk is set out at night,
    That we think of him sometimes,
    Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

    Rain Moving In

    The blackboard is erased in the attic
    And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
    Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
    And if somewhere on this great planet
    The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
    It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
    Will be better for it, but things can't get any worse.
    Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
    Into disorder this one meant. Don't you see
    It's all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
    Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
    And that's ominous, but all your graciousness in living
    Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
    A place to be from, and have people ask about.

    The Songs We Know Best

    Just like a shadow in an empty room
    Like a breeze that's pointed from beyond the tomb
    Just like a project of which no one tells—
    Or didja really think that I was somebody else?

    Your clothes and pantlegs lookin' out of shape
    Shape of the body over which they drape
    Body which has acted in so many scenes
    But didja ever think of what that body means?

    It is an organ and a vice to some
    A necessary evil which we all must shun
    To others an abstraction and a piece of meat
    But when you're looking out you're in the driver's seat!

    No man cares little about fleshly things
    They fill him with a silence that spreads in rings
    We wish to know more but we are never sated
    No wonder some folks think the flesh is overrated!

    The things we know now all got learned in school
    Try to learn a new thing and you break the rule
    Our knowledge isn't much it's just a small amount
    But you feel it quick inside you when you're down for the count

    You look at me and frown like I was out of place
    I guess I never did much for the human race
    Just hatched some schemes on paper that looked good at first
    Sat around and watched until the bubble burst

    And now you're lookin' good all up and down the line
    Except for one thing you still have in mind
    It's always there though often with a different face
    It's the worm inside the jumping bean that makes it race

    Too often when you thought you'd be showered with confetti
    What they flung at you was a plate of hot spaghetti
    You've put your fancy clothes and flashy gems in hock
    Yet you pause before your father's door afraid to knock

    Once you knew the truth it tried to set you free
    And still you stood transfixed just like an apple tree
    The truth it came and went and left you in the lurch
    And now you think you see it from your lofty perch

    The others come and go they're just a dime a dozen
    You react to them no more than to a distant cousin
    Only a few people can touch your heart
    And they too it seems have all gotten a false start

    In twilight the city with its hills shines serene
    And lets you make of it more than anything could mean
    It's the same city by day that seems so crude and calm
    You'll have to get to know it not just pump its arm

    Even when that bugle sounded loud and clear
    You knew it put an end to all your fear
    To all that lying and the senseless mistakes
    And now you've got it right and you know what it takes

    Someday I'll look you up when we're both old and gray
    And talk about those times we had so far away
    How much it mattered then and how it matters still
    Only things look so different when you've got a will

    It's true that out of this misunderstanding could end
    And men would greet each other like they'd found a friend
    With lots of friends around there's no one to entice
    And don't you think seduction isn't very nice?

    It carries in this room against the painted wall
    And hangs in folds of curtains when it's not there at all
    It's woven in the flowers of the patterned spread
    And lies and knows not what it thinks upon the bed

    I wish to come to know you get to know you all
    Let your belief in me and me in you stand tall
    Just like a project of which no one tells—
    Or do ya still think that I'm somebody else?

    When the Sun Went Down

    To have been loved once by someone—surely
    There is a permanent good in that,
    Even if we don't know all the circumstances
    Or it happened too long ago to make any difference.
    Like almost too much sunlight or an abundance of sweet-sticky,
    Caramelized things—who can tell you it's wrong?
    Which of the others on your team could darken the passive
    Melody that runs on, that has been running since the world began?

    Yet, to be strapped to one's mindset, which seems
    As enormous as a plain, to have to be told
    That its horizons are comically confining,
    And all the sorrow wells from there, like the slanting
    Plume of a waterspout: doesn't it supplant knowledge
    Of the different forms of love, reducing them
    To a white indifferent prism, a roofless love standing open
    To the elements? And some see in this a paradigm of how it rises
    Slowly to the indifferent heavens, all that pale glamour?

    The refrain is desultory as birdsong; it seeps unrecognizably
    Into the familiar structures that lead out from here
    To the still familiar peripheries and less sure notions:
    It already had its way. In time for evening relaxation.
    There are times when music steals a march on us,
    Is suddenly perplexingly nearer, flowing in my wrist;
    Is the true and dirty words you whisper nightly
    As the book closes like a collapsing sheet, a blur
    Of all kinds of connotations ripped from the hour and tossed
    Like jewels down a well; the answer, also,
    To the question that was on my mind but that I've forgotten,
    Except in the way certain things, certain nights, come together.


    (After Baudelaire)

    I want a bedroom near the sky, an astrologer's cave
    Where I can fashion eclogues that are chaste and grave.
    Dreaming, I'll hear the wind in the steeples close by
    Sweep the solemn hymns away. I'll spy
    On factories from my attic window, resting my chin
    In both hands, drinking in the songs, the din.
    I'll see chimneys and steeples, those masts of the city,
    And the huge sky that makes us dream of eternity.

    How sweet to watch the birth of the star in the still-blue
    Sky, through mist; the lamp burning anew
    At the window; rivers of coal climbing the firmament
    And the moon pouring out its pale enchantment.
    I'll see the spring, the summer and the fall
    And when winter casts its monotonous pall
    Of snow, I'll draw the blinds and curtains tight
    And build my magic palaces in the night;
    Then dream of gardens, of bluish horizons,
    Of jets of water weeping in alabaster basins,
    Of kisses, of birds singing at dawn and at nightfall,
    Of all that's most childish in our pastoral.
    When the storm rattles my windowpane
    I'll stay hunched at my desk, it will roar in vain
    For I'll have plunged deep inside the thrill
    Of conjuring spring with the force of my will,
    Coaxing the sun from my heart, and building here
    Out of my fiery thoughts, a tepid atmosphere.

    Just Walking Around

    What name do I have for you?
    Certainly there is no 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.

    A Fly

    And still I automatically look to that place on the wall—
    The timing is right, but off—
    The approval soured—
    That's what comes of age but not aging,
    The marbles all snapped into the side pockets,
    The stance for today we know full well is
    Yesterday's delivery and ripe prediction—
    The way not to hold in when circling,
    As a delighted draughtsman sits down to his board.

    Reasons, reasons for this:
    The enthusiast mopping through his hair again
    As he squats on the toilet and catches one eye in the mirror
    (Guys it has come through all right
    For once as delivered it's all here and me with time on my hands
    For once, with writing to spare, and how many
    Times have there been words to waste,
    That you had to spend or else take big losses
    In the car after an early dinner the endless
    Light streaking out of the windshield
    A breakthrough
    I guess but don't just now take into account,
    Don't look at the time) and time
    Comes looking for you, out of Pennsylvania and New Jersey
    It doesn't travel well
    Colors his hair beige
    Paints the straw walls gilds the mirror

    The thing is that this is places in the world,
    Freedom from rent,
    Sundries, food, a dictionary to keep you company
    But is also the day we all got together
    That the treaty was signed
    And it all eased off into the big afternoon off the coast
    Slid shoulders into the groundswell removed its boots
    That we may live now with some
    Curiosity and hope
    Like pools that soon become part of the tide

    The Ongoing Story

    I could say it's the happiest period of my life.
    It hasn't got much competition! Yesterday
    It seemed a flatness, hotness. As though it barely stood out
    From the rocks of all the years before. Today it sheds
    That old name, without assuming any new one. I think it's still there.

    It was as though I'd been left with the empty street
    A few seconds after the bus pulled out. A dollop of afternoon wind.
    Others tell you to take your attention off it
    For awhile, refocus the picture. Plan to entertain,
    To get out. (Do people really talk that way?)

    We could pretend that all that isn't there never existed anyway.
    The great ideas? What good are they if they're misplaced,
    In the wrong order, if you can't remember one
    At the moment you're so to speak mounting the guillotine
    Like Sydney Carton, and can't think of anything to say?
    Or is this precisely material covered in a course
    Called Background of the Great Ideas, and therefore it isn't necessary
    To say anything or even know anything? The breath of the moment
    Is breathed, we fall and still feel better. The phone rings,

    It's a wrong number, and your heart is lighter,
    Not having to be faced with the same boring choices again
    Which doesn't undermine a feeling for people in general and
    Especially in particular: you,
    In your deliberate distinctness, whom I love and gladly
    Agree to walk blindly into the night with,
    Your realness is real to me though I would never take any of it
    Just to see how it grows. A knowledge that people live close by is,
    I think, enough. And even if only first names are ever exchanged
    The people who own them seem rock-true and marvelously self-sufficient.

    Thank You for Not Cooperating

    Down in the street there are ice-cream parlors to go to
    And the pavement is a nice, bluish slate-gray. People laugh a lot.
    Here you can see the stars. Two lovers are singing
    Separately, from the same rooftop: "Leave your change behind,
    Leave your clothes, and go. It is time now.
    It was time before too, but now it is really time.
    You will never have enjoyed storms so much
    As on these hot sticky evenings that are more like August
    Than September. Stay. A fake wind wills you to go
    And out there on the stormy river witness buses bound for Connecticut,
    And tree-business, and all that we think about when we stop thinking.
    The weather is perfect, the season unclear. Weep for your going
    But also expect to meet me in the near future, when I shall disclose
    New further adventures, and that you shall continue to think of me."

    The wind dropped, and the lovers
    Sang no more, communicating each to each in the tedium
    Of self-expression, and the shore curled up and became liquid
    And so the celebrated lament began. And how shall we, people
    All unused to each other and to our own business, explain
    It to the shore if it is given to us
    To circulate there "in the near future" the why of our coming
    And why we were never here before? The counterproposals
    Of the guest-stranger impede our construing of ourselves as
    Person-objects, the ones we knew would get here
    Somehow, but we can remember as easily as the day we were born
    The maggots we passed on the way and how the day bled
    And the night too on hearing us, though we spoke only our childish
    Ideas and never tried to impress anybody even when somewhat older.

    But What Is the Reader to Make of This?

    A lake of pain, an absence
    Leading to a flowering sea? Give it a quarter-turn
    And watch the centuries begin to collapse
    Through each other, like floors in a burning building,
    Until we get to this afternoon:

    Those delicious few words spread around like jam
    Don't matter, nor does the shadow.
    We have lived blasphemously in history
    And nothing has hurt us or can.
    But beware of the monstrous tenderness, for out of it
    The same blunt archives loom. Facts seize hold of the web
    And leave it ash. Still, it is the personal,
    Interior life that gives us something to think about.
    The rest is only drama.

    Meanwhile the combinations of every extendable circumstance
    In our lives continue to blow against it like new leaves
    At the edge of a forest a battle rages in and out of
    For a whole day. It's not the background, we're the background,
    On the outside looking out. The surprises history has
    For us are nothing compared to the shock we get
    From each other, though time still wears
    The colors of meanness and melancholy, and the general life
    Is still many sizes too big, yet
    Has style, woven of things that never happened
    With those that did, so that a mood survives
    Where life and death never could. Make it sweet again!

    Down by the Station, Early in the Morning

    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.


Excerpted from A Wave by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1984 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and educated at Harvard and Columbia. He is Charles P. Stevenson Jr., Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College and lives in New York City and Hudson, New York.

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