Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

As We Know

As We Know

by John Ashbery

See All Formats & Editions

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Penguin Poets Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

As We Know


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1979 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5905-2



Author's Note: "Litany" consists of two independent monologues meant to be experienced simultaneously. In traditional print format, the two monologues are presented side by side on facing pages, allowing the reader to experience their simultaneity, but this arrangement is not possible with the current generation of ebook devices. To download a PDF of "Litany" as it was originally meant to be laid out on the page, please visit www.openroadmedia.com/john-ashbery/litany. To listen to a 1980 recording of John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach reading the poem's two monologues simultaneously, visit the PennSound website at writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ashbery.php.


    For someone like me
    The simple things
    Like having toast or
    Going to church are
    Kept in one place.

    Like having wine and cheese.
    The parents of the town
    Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
    Once and for all. The
    Snapdragons consumed in a wind
    Of fire and rage far over
    The streets as they end.

    The casual purring of a donkey
    Rouses me from my accounts:
    What given, what gifts. The air
    Stands straight up like a tail.

    He spat on the flowers.

    Also for someone
    Like me the time flows round again
    With things I did in it.
    I wish to keep my differences
    And to retain my kinship
    To the rest. That is why
    I raise these flowers all around.
    They do not stand for flowers or
    Anything pretty they are
    Code names for the silence.

    And just as it
    Always keeps getting sorted out
    And there is still the same amount to do
    I wish to remain happily among these islands
    Of rabbit-eared leaved plants
    And sand and lava rock

    That is so little tedious.
    My way shall run from there
    And not mind the pain
    Of getting there. This is an outburst.

    The last rains fed
    Into the newly opened canal.

    The dust blows in.
    The disturbance is
    Nonverbal communication:
    Meaningless syllables that
    Have a music of their own,
    The music of sex, or any
    Nameless event, something
    That can only be taken as
    Itself. This rules ideas
    Of what else may be there,
    Which regroup farther on,
    Standing around looking at
    The hole left by the great implosion.
    It is they who carry news of it
    To other places. Therefore
    Are they not the event itself?

    Especially since it persists
    In dumbness which isn't even
    A negative articulation—persists
    And collapses into itself.

    I had greatly admired
    The shirt.
    He looks fairly familiar.

    The pancake
    Is around in idea.
    Today the wisteria is in league
    With the Spanish minstrels.

    Who come to your house
    To serenade it
    All or in part.

    The windows are open again
    The dust blows through
    A diagram of a room.
    This is where it all
    Had to take place,

    Around a drum of living,
    The motion by which a life
    May be known and recognized,
    A shipwreck seen from the shore,
    A puzzling column of figures.
    The dark shirt dragged frequently
    Through the bayou.

    Your luggage
    Is found
    Upon the plane.

    If I could plan how
    To remember what had indeed once
    Been there
    Without reference to professions,
    Medical school,
    Being there indeed once
    (Everyday occurrence),
    We stopped at the Pacific Airport
    To hear the rush of disguises
    For the elegant truth, notwithstanding
    Some in underwear stood around
    Puddles in the darkened
    Cement and sodium lights
    Beyond the earthworks
    Beyond the chain-link fence
    Until dawn touched with her cool
    Stab of grace nobody deserved (but
    It's always that way isn't it)

    Le charme du matin
    You and Sven-Bertil must
    At some point have overridden
    The barriers real or fancied
    Blowing like bedcurtains later
    In the oyster light—
    Something I saw once
    Reminded me of it:
    That old, evil, not-so-secret
    Now laundered, made to look
    Transparent. Surely
    There is a shoulder there,
    Some high haunch half-sketched, a tremor
    And intent to the folds that shower from the sky.

    And must
    At some earlier time
    Seem the garter
    The cow in the trees.

    What was green before
    Is homeless.
    The mica on the front
    Of the prefecture spells out
    "Coastline"—a speedboat
    Would alter even at a distance
    But they shift anyway
    Come round
    To my idea
    My hat
    As it would be
    If I were you
    In dreams and in business
    Only, in supper meetings
    On the general line of progress
    If I had a talking picture of you.

    You are
    So perversely evasive:

    The ticking of a clock in the
    Background could be
    Only the plait.

    We must learn to read
    In the dark, to enjoy the long hills
    Of studious celebrity.
    The long Chinese shadow that
    Hooks over a little
    At the top
    The stone that sinks
    To the bottom of the aquarium:
    All this mummified writing
    As the dusting of new light
    In the hollow collar of a hill
    That never completes its curve
    Or the thought of what
    It was going to say: our going in.

    The hedges are nice and it's too bad
    That one bad axe stroke could fell
    Whatever needed to advertise its
    Very existence.
    And then cars strut forth on the highway
    Singly and in groups
    Of three and four: orange,
    Flamingo, blue-pencil blue,
    The gray of satisfaction, the red
    Of discussion, and now, moved, the sky
    Calls itself up.

    As leaves are seen in mirrors
    In libraries
    Half-noticed, the sound
    Half-remembered and the
    Continuing chapter half-sketched—
    O were we wrong to notice
    To remember so much
    When so little else has survived?

    All were moments big with particulars
    An elaborate pastry concocted in the wings
    In darkness, and each
    Has vanished on the carrousel
    Of rage, along the coast
    Like a chameleon's hide.
    The suffering, the pleasure that broke
    Over it like a wave,
    Are these fixed limits, off-limits
    To the game as darkness confounds
    The two teams, makes it one with chance?
    Still, somewhere wings are
    Being slowly lifted,
    Over and over again.

    The point must have been made.

    But out of so much color
    It still does come again
    The colors of tiger lilies and around
    And down, remembered
    Now as dirty colors, the color
    Of forgetting-grass, of
    Old rags or sleep, buoyed
    On the small zephyrs
    That keep the hour and remind each boy
    To turn home from school past the sheep
    In the paper meadow and to wind the clock.
    An old round is being passed out,
    The players take their places.
    How nice that in the stalls
    Is still room for certain boys to stand,
    The main song is successfully
    Programmed and the others too in part:
    Enough gets through to make the occasion
    A glottal one full of success
    And coated with the film of success
    In which are reflected
    Many a bright occasion
    Lads who go out with girls

    In the numb prime of springtime
    For instance.
    Except for that, the camera sighs,
    Is no hollow behind the black backing.
    That was short-lived.
    A sheaf of selected odes
    Bundled on the waters.

    A superior time
    Of blueberries and passion flowers,
    Of a four-poster.
    The thirties light
    Has infested the blond
    Hairdo from the grooves up
    But we must not treasure
    It less in the magnesium
    Flare that is manna to all things
    In the here and now. You were saying
    How she is coming along, praying
    For it to be better
    Day by day.

    And some of these days the waning
    Silver lashes out
    Like a trussed alligator:
    Mother and the kids standing around
    The bowl that is portal,
    Hitching post, tufted
    Mattress and field of wild
    Scruffy flowers are removed
    One by one as a demonstration.
    See, there is only light.
    Nothing to live at,
    To worry.

    It is the old sewer of our resources
    Disguised again as a corridor.
    There is some anthropology here
    It seems, and then
    The dust on the jamb is warning

    And intrigue enough. The summer day is put by.
    The bells in the shower
    Are outnumbered by plain queries
    Whose answer is their falling echo.

    Birds in modish, corporeal
    Gear take off at the
    Scallops of the umbrella.
    This past is sampled and is again
    The right one, and in testing
    For the zillionth time we are
    As built into the fixed wall of water
    That indicates where the present leaves off
    And the past begins, whose transparencies
    Admit impressions of traceries of leaves
    And shallow birds among memories.

    The climate seceded then,
    The glad speculation about what clothes
    They wore stacked like leaves,
    Speckled behind the eye of what
    Consumer, what listener?
    And the praise is lascivious
    To the onyx ear at evening
    But not forwarded
    Into the ring with the other shouting,
    The desperate competitions willed
    Until darkness, dripping toward death
    By late morning.
    She circles plainly away
    From it in wider and wider loops,
    And what have you to say? What account
    To give? Of the season's vast
    Storehouse of agendas, bales
    Of items for discussion dwindling
    Down to a last seed on the stone doorstep?
    If this was the season only of death
    That licorice blast would not keep only
    In its retelling the unfurled
    Question-mark of the shaved future but redound

    To us waiting here against the spike fence
    In pleasant attitudes from which the waiting
    Is forgotten like thorns in the memory
    Of laced paths merging on
    Extinct, ultimate slopes,
    But trap us in the game of two flavors
    (A rising shout some distance away,
    The tabac alike in resisting
    Yet basing it on us, all the same
    A knowledge of its measure, its
    Proportion, until the end is sought
    Dryly, among stringent grasses).
    To have sought it any more, mining
    Its anfractuosities, is to bear witness,
    The living getting trampled
    Underfoot always the same way
    And as surely one desiccated spike of
    Sea-oats rises quizzically after the
    Hordes have passed over, the film
    Slips over the cogs
    That brought us to this unearthly spot.
    So death is really an appetite for time
    That can see through the haze of blue
    Smoke-rings to the turquoise ceiling.
    She said this once and turned away
    Knowing we wanted to hear it twice,
    But knowing also as we knew that speculation
    Raves and raves as on a mirror
    To the outlandish accompaniment of its own death
    That reads as life to the toilers
    And potboys who make up these blond
    Coils of citizenry which are life in the abstract.

    What it was like to be mouthing those
    Solemn abstractions that were crimson
    And solid as beefsteak. One
    Shouldn't be surprised by
    The smell of mignonette and the loss
    As each stands still, and the softness

    Of the land behind each one,
    Where each one comes from.
    Because it is the way of the personality of each
    To blush and act confused, groping
    For the wrong words so that the
    Coup de théâtre
    Will unfold all at once like shaken-out
    Lightning and no one
    Will have heard anything. The gray,
    Fake Palladian club buildings will
    Still stand the next moment, at their grim
    Business: empty entablatures, oeils-de-boeuf,
    Gun-metal laurels, the eye
    Revolving slowly in the empty socket
    That the bronze visor shades: there was
    Never anything but this,
    No footfalls on the mat-polished marble floor,
    No bird-dropping, no fates, no sanctuary.
    The sheet slowly rises to greet you.
    The asters are reflected
    Simultaneously in ruby drops of the wine
    The morning after the great storm
    That swept our sky away, leaving
    A new muscle in its place: a relaxed, far-away
    Tissue of scandal and dreams like noon smoke
    Lingering above horizon roofs.
    But what difference did any of it make
    Woven on death's loom as indeed
    All of it was though divided into
    Chapters each with its ornamental
    Capital at the beginning, and its polished
    Sequel? You knew
    You were coming to the end by the way the other
    Would be beginning again, so that nobody
    Was ever lonesome, and the story never
    Came to its dramatic conclusion, but
    Merely leveled out like linen close up
    In the mirror. So that the roundness
    Was all around to be appreciated, yet somehow flat
    As well, and could never be trusted

    Even though the rushes slanted all one way
    In the autumn wind, and the leaves
    And branches tried to slant with them
    In a poem of harmonious dejection, but it was
    Only picture-making. Under
    The intimate light of the lantern
    One really felt rather than saw

    The thin, terrifying edges between things
    And their terrible cold breath.
    And no one longed for the great generalities
    These seemed to preclude. Each thought only
    Of his private silence, and hungered
    For the promised moment of rest.


    I photographed all things,
    All things as happening
    As prelude, as prelude to the impatience
    Of enormous summer nights opening
    Out farther and farther, like the billowing
    Of a parachute, with only that slit
    Of starlight. The old, old
    Wonderful story, and it's all right
    As far as it goes, but impatience
    Is the true ether that surrounds us.
    Without it everything would be asphalt.

    Now that the things of autumn
    Have been sequestered too in their chain
    The other part of the year become
    And the summer night is like a goldfish bowl
    With everything in full view, yet only parts
    Are what is actually seen, and these supply
    The rest. It's not like cheating
    Since it is all there, but more like
    Helping the truth along a little:
    The artifice lets it become itself,
    Nestling in truth. These are long days
    And we need all the help we can get.

    We are to become ashamed only much later,
    Much later on, under the long bench.
    And it is not like the old days
    When we used to sing off-key
    For hours in the rain-drenched schoolroom
    On purpose. Here, whatever is forgotten
    Or stored away is imbued with vitality.
    Whatever is to come is too.

    How can I explain?

    No matter how raffish
    The new clients moving slowly along,
    Taking in the sights, placing bets,
    There comes a time when the moment
    Is full of, knows only itself.
    Like a moment when a tree
    Is seen to tower above everything else,
    To know itself, and to know everything else
    As well, but only in terms of itself
    Without knowing or having a clear concept
    Of itself. This is a moment
    Of fast growing, of compounding myths
    As fast as they can be thrown off,
    Trampled under, forgotten. The moment
    Not made of itself or any other
    Substance we know of, reflecting
    Only itself. Then there are two moments,
    How can I explain?
    It was as though this thing—
    More creature than person—
    Lumbered at me out of the storm,
    Brandishing a half-demolished beach umbrella,
    So that there might be merely this thing
    And me to tell about it.
    It was awful. And I too have no rest
    From the storm that is always something
    To worry about. Really. My unworthiness
    Like a loose garment or cape of some sort
    Constantly sliding off the shoulders,
    Around the elbows ... I cannot keep it on,
    Even as I am invisible in the eye
    Of the storm, we two are blind,
    And blind to the inaudible repercussions,
    The strange woody aftertaste.

    After that the wave came
    And left no mark on the shore.
    The waves advanced as the tide withdrew.
    There was nothing for it but to
    Retreat from the edge of the earth,

    In that time, that climate expecting rain,
    Behind some brackish business
    On the margin intuiting cataclysms of light.
    All that fall I wanted to be with you,
    Tried to catch up to you in the streets
    Of that time. Needless to say,
    Although we were together a good part of the time
    I never quite made it to the thunder.

    The boy who cried "wolf" used to live there.
    This place of islands and slow reefs,
    Like petals of mercury, that fold up
    Whenever that allusion is made.
    It falls off the others like
    Water off piled-up stones at the base
    Of a waterfall, and the petals
    Curl up, injured, into themselves.
    Only the frozen emphasis
    On a single thing that was out of sight
    When the allusion was made, remains.

    We all bought tickets to the allusion
    And are disappointed, of course.
    But what can you do? Events have
    A way of snapping off like that, like
    The glassblower's striped candy canes
    Of glass at a moment he knows is coming,
    Is there, even. The old,
    Wonderful story. Not yet ended.

    You who approach me,
    All grace and linearity,
    With my new crayons I think I'll
    Do a series of box-sprays—stippled
    Cobalt on the gold
    Of a sun-pure afternoon
    In October when things change over.
    There is no longer time for a line
    Or rather there are no lines in the time
    Of ripeness that is past,

    Yet still pausing on the ridge
    Stealing into permanence.


Excerpted from As We Know by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1979 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.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews