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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
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
He looks fairly familiar.
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.
Upon the plane.
If I could plan how
To remember what had indeed once
Without reference to professions,
Being there indeed once
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
There is a shoulder there,
Some high haunch half-sketched, a tremor
And intent to the folds that shower from the sky.
At some earlier time
Seem the garter
The cow in the trees.
What was green before
The mica on the front
Of the prefecture spells out
Would alter even at a distance
But they shift anyway
To my idea
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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