Can You Hear, Bird: Poemsby John Ashbery
In Can You Hear, Bird, John Ashbery’s seventeenth collection, language is both a plaything and a sandbox. The poems are arranged not in the order of their composition but alphabetically, by the first letter in their titles, like the neatly/i>/b>
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A 1995 collection of poems that finds John Ashbery at his most conversational, funny, and surprising
In Can You Hear, Bird, John Ashbery’s seventeenth collection, language is both a plaything and a sandbox. The poems are arranged not in the order of their composition but alphabetically, by the first letter in their titles, like the neatly arrayed keys of some fabulous Seussical instrument. In line after line, Ashbery demonstrates his alertness to language as it is spoken, heard, broadcast, and dreamed—and sets himself the task of rewriting, redefining, and revising the American idiom we think we know so well. Can You Hear, Bird is a decisive example of the uniquely Ashberyan sensibility his many fans love, revealing a generous and acute chronicler of the everyday bizarre, an observant and humane humorist, and an ear trained on decoding our modern world’s beguiling polyphony.
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Can You Hear, Bird
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
A Day at the Gate
A loose and dispiriting
wind took over from the grinding of traffic.
Clouds from the distillery
blotted out the sky. Ocarina sales plummeted.
Believe you me it was a situation
Aladdin's lamp might have ameliorated. And where was I?
Among architecture, magazines, recycled fish,
waiting for the wear and tear
to show up on my chart. Good luck,
bonne chance. Remember me to the zithers
and their friends, the ondes martenot.
Only I say: What comes this way withers
automatically. And the fog, drastically.
As one mercurial teardrop glozes
an empire's classified documents, so
other softnesses decline the angles
of the waiting. Tall, pissed-off,
dressed in this day's clothes,
holding its umbrella, he half turned away
with a shooshing sound. Said he needed us.
Said the sky shall be kelly green tonight.
A New Octagon
Over a cup of flaming tea, the ogre assessed
my chances. Nothing in this blue vault belongs
where you put it; therefore are you the dupe
of its nonchalance. Try to wriggle free, remembering
what the great collector said: Serenity is a mild bridle
lending dignity to any occasion. The best truss
is the severest, but your village
ends where mine begins. Angry little houses litigate;
the roof leaks. Present your wrist for stamping
as you go out into the northwestern territories, otherwise
we'll see whose absence becomes it.
Daughters Tiffany and Brittany concurred. There
isn't much in the way of agony impeding the astral
path you seek. On with the
the variance sequestered by others.
A Poem of Unrest
Men duly understand the river of life,
misconstruing it, as it widens and its cities grow
dark and denser, always farther away.
And of course that remote denseness suits
us, as lambs and clover might have
if things had been built to order differently.
But since I don't understand myself, only segments
of myself that misunderstand each other, there's no
reason for you to want to, no way you could
even if we both wanted it. Do those towers even exist?
We must look at it that way, along those lines
so the thought can erect itself, like plywood battlements.
A Waking Dream
And the failing panopticon? That happened before,
when my uncle was in his bathrobe, on vacation.
Leastways, folks said it was a vacation ...
Are you referring to your Uncle Obadiah,
the one that spent twenty years in the drunk-tank
and could whistle all the latest hits when sprung?
No one ever cared to talk much about it, it seemed a little too
peculiar, and he, he had forgotten the art
of knowing how far to go too far.
Just so. When driven, he would materialize in a Palm Beach suit
and Panama hat with tiny rainbow holes in it.
That was someone who knew how to keep up appearances
until he had exhausted them. Some of the railroad crew
got to know him at times, and could never figure out how he knew
exactly when a storm would hit. And when its anthracitic orgasm
erupted, we were out in the salley gardens mending coils
from the last big one. Such is my recollection. And vipers
would pause to notice. Meanwhile he was acting more and more
like a candidate. Then the wave of beach chairs crashed over us
and there was nothing more to be said for it. The case was closed,
it was "history," he liked to say, as though that were a topic
he could expand on if he chose, but it was more likely
to be night, and no one could extricate it properly.
Yet I had been told of an estimate.
That's what we don't know! If only I could get my senses
back in the right order, and had time to ponder this old message,
I could have the sluice-gates opened in a jiffy. As it is,
they're probably more than a little rusty, and do we know,
really know, as chasm-dwellers are said
to know, which way is upstream?
So much energy deployed
in circumnavigating the seer's collisions!
Don't do it yet,
it hasn't happened.
There is something in it.
And if we were a guidepost,
life would come along one day,
verify its balance, then leave
straight into the flustered ballooning of branches,
hands on the long ramp
leading to the restaurant with its coffee.
Sure, it's time we merged.
There are no others to do it
for us, we think we're nice.
That's why we've got to do it.
It takes balls to do it
and a heavy-duty sucker across the way.
A snake will unplug the drain.
The slate will light up and read itself.
How the past filled its designated space
with every kind of drollery, so there
were not just the things one knew about.
It's the secret of my gospel, it can never
be gone for too long or get too fancy.
Everybody wants to own a share in it!
This, too, is impossible.
I saw a woman in red move, come out from behind the brush.
I saw ten milky-white puppy dogs who chanted at me:
"You're a handful." I saw the spire of St. Diana's
prick and light up the sky. Those were gnashed doldrums.
Down where the last coitus happened,
another, a new madman in a cloak and hat,
was rising with the moon. They don't let you off
for these little things. Try imagining it.
Yes but against the sofa of your captivating lens
your appetites are wizard, dear. Let's give them all
a chance. On to the starboard
list of the apartment, to the gemstone-crusted tankard.
The perfume climbs into my tree.
It is given to red-haired sprites:
words that music expresses
The symphony at the station
then, and all over people trying to hear it
and others trying to get away. A "trying"
situation, perhaps, yet no one is worse off than before.
Horses slog through dirt—hell,
it's normal for 'em.
And that summer cottage we rented once—remember
how the bugs came in through the screens, and
all was not as it was supposed to be?
Nowadays people have cars for things like that,
to carry them away, I mean,
And wherever man sets his giant foot
petals spring up, and artificial torsos,
dressmakers' dummies. And an ancient photograph
and an ancient phonograph, that carols
in mist. Pardon. The landlord locked us out.
know who you are), come back
when you've aged a little, when the outdoors
is an attractive curiosity no longer.
Don't get me wrong, I like your waving
turquoise mittens extantly. I must polish
my speech, having spent a life
watching old Steffi Duna movies, and being warned
about the consequences. It seems I should pass;
there's only one essay question, and it can be about anything
you like. Yet I hesitate, like a spermatozoid
that's lost its way and doesn't dare ask directions—
they'd club it if it did. Once you're en route
it doesn't matter if you know, besides, anyway.
Conversely the winter circuit closes down
until some time in spring, but more likely forever.
Signs of rot and corruption are everywhere
and are even copied by the fashion-conscious.
I must sugar my hair. And my factotum?
You said there was one more in your party.
No one is in a hurry.
Suddenly the day is crocus-sweet.
Anxiety and Hardwood Floors
Only a breath of this region
spindles me off and growing, yes, again.
How fine to be late in the season
where the hopeless hide their fetters
in chains of golden hair. Its air
wants nothing to do with any of us. Yet if I am
the strong man at the post office, as the clock's nine
o'clock tells me I am, why it will go better for the all
of us in here. This living
room he taunts me with. But everybody can see the
sun, abashed and unashamed, pummeling through the rusted
curtains. Pass me that box of gin,
At First I Thought I Wouldn't
Say Anything About It
but then I thought keeping quiet about it might appear even ruder.
At first I thought I had died and gone to heaven
but that scapegrace the unruly sun informed me otherwise.
I am in my heavyset pants and find this occupation of beekeeper charming
though I have yet to meet my first bee.
We don't know if I get to keep the hat and veil.
"Too hot," he said. "Too hot for everything!"
He so caring, so mundane. " ... to have you on board."
Bulgarian choirs everywhere stood up and sang the song of the rent.
It was lovely. Now I shall take a short vacation,
proof that I am needed here. Nobody wants my two cents
anymore, I believe. To some it was like skating in summer.
A small turret perched over the lake. It exploded.
That's the way I feel about people taking me out
to some nice repast, and afterwards you go home and
go over everything that was stated. I prefer flowers and breathing.
At Liberty and Cranberry
The car bounds forward eagerly, and for a moment
it's like Madrid: a taste of cinnamon and something
almost too unimportant to mention. A sense of morning
without any of the particulars that morning is,
that it inhabits, all of them, individually.
And yes we invited the fish
over again to tell about high school and yes
he came apologetically and mentioned sodomy parenthetically
until we all played cards and it was time to go.
there had been such a beautiful evening.
Yet if I want to take you on my lap
and be romantic—well, or use the word "romantic"
several times and bring up the faded question
of sentiment and sentimentality, like faded lips
on a post, I'm allowed to be only monastic and neat,
while the cute are always with us,
are all around us, out on the bay, the river,
like a miniature armada
with an ad on every sail.
Go back through here, it says,
you didn't come up this way, but through here
you'll find it's very nice.
And, unruffled, we do.
The hamlet stroked its reflection in a
plum—it wasn't crooning now, not for generic
supplies, anyway. They are lowering hoops
from houses, the whole thing's very much up in the air.
I twiddle my thumbs in a doorway, look
out from time to time. It's fine to reminisce,
but no one really cares about your childhood,
not even you. It's not even that, or a past,
but an aesthetic remoteness blossoming profusely
but vaguely around what does
stand out here and there: a window square, a bone
left by an intrepid dog. You own
them but may not appreciate them—they're
too mortal for that, for you.
I woke in the night to hear a runnel
coursing down my mansard—damn!
I'd left the trapdoor ratcheted. It all
smears me, like scenery. I can
only be ambient.
They observed me once, you know.
Awful Effects of Two Comets
There will not always be a step
to the undoing of the rightness you now so justly feel
in the edge of Hong Kong where it's all right to buy spirits. The
canal crowd threw fetters at him.
Then there will not always be a stair
to punish the unborn and the boy who said he'd rather
do it on another day. There is a chair,
its arms rubbed almost bare from excess living.
There is a fan I think over there.
Otherwise we make no money off them.
They're not worth importing, only to smoke
the tips of and then the whole magazine
goes up, to some surprise and cheers
on the part of petite nudist pedestrians
who can make nothing rise,
not even your eyes, which, seriously, I love
staring at and making love to:
I, a merchant from over the hill
with hunger and a big cow to fill.
... by an Earthquake
A hears by chance a familiar name, and the name involves a riddle of the past.
B, in love with A, receives an unsigned letter in which the writer states that she is the mistress of A and begs B not to take him away from her.
B, compelled by circumstances to be a companion of A in an isolated place, alters her rosy views of love and marriage when she discovers, through A, the selfishness of men.
A, an intruder in a strange house, is discovered; he flees through the nearest door into a windowless closet and is trapped by a spring lock.
A is so content with what he has that any impulse toward enterprise is throttled.
A solves an important mystery when falling plaster reveals the place where some old love letters are concealed.
A-4, missing food from his larder, half believes it was taken by a "ghost."
A, a crook, seeks unlawful gain by selling A-8 an object, X, which A-8 already owns.
A sees a stranger, A-5, stealthily remove papers, X, from the pocket of another stranger, A-8, who is asleep. A follows A-5.
A sends an infernal machine, X, to his enemy, A-3, and it falls into the hands of A's friend, A-2.
Angela tells Philip of her husband's enlarged prostate, and asks for money.
Philip, ignorant of her request, has the money placed in an escrow account.
A discovers that his pal, W, is a girl masquerading as a boy.
A, discovering that W is a girl masquerading as a boy, keeps the knowledge to himself and does his utmost to save the masquerader from annoying experiences.
A, giving ten years of his life to a miserly uncle, U, in exchange for a college education, loses his ambition and enterprise.
A, undergoing a strange experience among a people weirdly deluded, discovers the secret of the delusion from Herschel, one of the victims who has died. By means of information obtained from the notebook, A succeeds in rescuing the other victims of the delusion.
A dies of psychic shock.
Albert has a dream, or an unusual experience, psychic or otherwise, which enables him to conquer a serious character weakness and become successful in his new narrative, "Boris Karloff."
Silver coins from the Mojave Desert turn up in the possession of a sinister jeweler.
Three musicians wager that one will win the affections of the local kapellmeister's wife; the losers must drown themselves in a nearby stream.
Ardis, caught in a trap and held powerless under a huge burning glass, is saved by an eclipse of the sun.
Kent has a dream so vivid that it seems a part of his waking experience.
A and A-2 meet with a tragic adventure, and A-2 is killed.
Elvira, seeking to unravel the mystery of a strange house in the hills, is caught in an electrical storm. During the storm the house vanishes and the site on which it stood becomes a lake.
Alphonse has a wound, a terrible psychic wound, an invisible psychic wound, which causes pain in flesh and tissue which, otherwise, are perfectly healthy and normal.
A has a dream which he conceives to be an actual experience.
Jenny, homeward bound, drives and drives, and is still driving, no nearer to her home than she was when she first started.
Petronius B. Furlong's friend, Morgan Windhover, receives a wound from which he dies.
Thirteen guests, unknown to one another, gather in a spooky house to hear Toe reading Buster's will.
Buster has left everything to Lydia, a beautiful Siamese girl poet of whom no one has heard.
Lassie and Rex tussle together politely; Lassie, wounded, is forced to limp home.
In the Mexican gold rush a city planner is found imprisoned by outlaws in a crude cage of sticks.
More people flow over the dam and more is learned about the missing electric cactus.
Too many passengers have piled onto a cable car in San Francisco; the conductor is obliged to push some of them off.
Maddalena, because of certain revelations she has received, firmly resolves that she will not carry out an enterprise that had formerly been dear to her heart.
Excerpted from Can You Hear, Bird by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1995 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 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. He has authored more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and he has won numerous American literary awards for his poetry, including a MacArthur Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a National Humanities Medal. His book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. For many years, Ashbery taught graduate and undergraduate poetry courses at Brooklyn College and Bard College, and his most recent book of poems is Quick Question, published in 2012. He lives in New York.
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