Can You Hear, Bird: Poems

Can You Hear, Bird: Poems

by John Ashbery

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The talky voice that has been unflappably echoing American culture and crossing it with higher-tone concerns returns in a fullness of wry, observant wit. Ashbery (And the Stars Were Shining) is clearly uncomfortable with the academic industry that has grown up around him: many of these poems directly address readers, critics and would-be biographers: ``suppose this poem were about you-would you/ put in the things I've carefully left out'' he asks, coolly enumerating such possibilities as ``descriptions of pain, and sex.'' Ashbery is best known for wrapping philosophical musings in a candy-coated shell, pointing out the hairline cracks of irony. He's at it still, in poems like ``My Philosophy of Life,'' which concludes: ``Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas./ That's what they're made for! Now I want you to go out there/ and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too./ They don't come along every day. Look out! There's a big one...'' In these 100-plus short lyrics, prose poems and one long poem, Ashbery continues to charm us into thought. (Nov.)
Library Journal
The often-cited "difficulty" of Ashbery's poetry lies in its refusal to separate clearly the intrinsic from the extraneous. It comes to us unlabeled and uncompromised: "an aesthetic remoteness blossoming profusely/but vaguely around what does/stand out here and there." But like abstract paintings that leave us awestruck for no easily articulated reason, the poems generate waves of infinitely ponderable possibilities. Enabled by Ashbery's mastery of syntax, haywire similes (summer takes spring away "like a terrier a lady has asked me to hold for a moment"), and linguistic congeniality ("Gosh, what a limited bunch of things to do there is."), they offer rich cascades of surprise, colloquies of disparate voices that may or may not emanate from the same consciousness. And as funny as Ashbery allows himself to be ("You don't learn the cancan at obedience school"), his oblique forays into the traditional poetic genres of elegy ("Others Shied Away") and meditation ("My Philosophy of Life") are genuinely affecting. Recommended.-Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, N.Y.
Donna Seaman
Ashbery, recipient of the grandest of literary prizes, is as prolific as he is masterful. He is also insouciant, elegant, and blithely surreal. Here, in his seventeenth substantial poetry collection, he is also urbane and just a tad cynical. In "Atonal Music," he writes, "It's fine to reminisce,/ but no one really cares about your childhood,/not even you." In "Dangerous Moonlight," one character tells another that they have "a million things to do/and restoring your peace of mind isn't one of them." As usual, Ashbery mixes his styles from classic forms to near prose, and glides effortlessly from the world at large to the world within. He is as adept at intoning the babble of mind as at limning the dynamism of a street scene or the quiet of a garden. As Ashbery assumes a variety of personas with all manner of attitudes in all kinds of situations, he gives voice to the perplexity we perceive all around us and seethe with within. Ashbery is a virtuoso all right, indefatigable and dazzling.

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Can You Hear, Bird


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1995 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5904-5


    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
    ways and
    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?

    Abe's Collision

    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.

    Allotted Spree

    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.

    Andante Misterioso

    The perfume climbs into my tree.
    It is given to red-haired sprites:
    words that music expresses
    almost amply.
    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,
    I suppose.
    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.

    Angels (you

    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,
    will you?

    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.

    Everybody realized
    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.

    Atonal Music

    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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