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Shadow Train

Shadow Train

by John Ashbery

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Product Details

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

Read an Excerpt

Shadow Train


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1981 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5911-3


    The Pursuit of Happiness

    It came about that there was no way of passing
    Between the twin partitions that presented
    A unified façade, that of a suburban shopping mall
    In April. One turned, as one does, to other interests

    Such as the tides in the Bay of Fundy. Meanwhile there was one
    Who all unseen came creeping at this scale of visions
    Like the gigantic specter of a cat towering over tiny mice
    About to adjourn the town meeting due to the shadow,

    An incisive shadow, too perfect in its outrageous
    Regularity to be called to stand trial again,
    That every blistered tongue welcomed as the first
    Drops scattered by the west wind, and yet, knowing

    That it would always ever afterwards be this way
    Caused the eyes to faint, the ears to ignore warnings.
    We knew how to get by on what comes along, but the idea
    Warning, waiting there like a forest, not emptied, beckons.

    Punishing the Myth

    At first it came easily, with the knowledge of the shadow line
    Picking its way through various landscapes before coming
    To stand far from you, to bless you incidentally
    In sorting out what was best for it, and most suitable,

    Like snow having second thoughts and coming back
    To be wary about this, to embellish that, as though life were a party
    At which work got done. So we wiggled in our separate positions
    And stayed in them for a time. After something has passed

    You begin to see yourself as you would look to yourself on a stage,
    Appearing to someone. But to whom? Ah, that's just it,
    To have the manners, and the look that comes from having a secret
    Isn't enough. But that "not enough" isn't to be worn like a livery,

    To be briefly noticed, yet among whom should it be seen? I haven't
    Thought about these things in years; that's my luck.
    In time even the rocks will grow. And if you have curled and dandled
    Your innocence once too often, what attitude isn't then really yours?

    Paradoxes and Oxymorons

    This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
    Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
    Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
    You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

    The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
    What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
    Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
    Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

    A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
    As in the division of grace these long August days
    Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know it
    It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

    It has been played once more. I think you exist only
    To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
    Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
    Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

    Another Chain Letter

    He had had it told to him on the sward
    Where the fat men bowl, and told so that no one—
    He least of all—might be sure in the days to come
    Of the exact terms. Then, each turned back

    To his business, as is customary on such occasions.
    Months and months went by. The green squirearchy
    Of the dandelions was falling through the hoop again
    And no one, it seemed, had had the presence of mind

    To initiate proceedings or stop the wheel
    From the number it was backing away from as it stopped:
    It was performing prettily; the puncture stayed unseen;
    The wilderness seemed to like the eclogue about it

    You wrote and performed, but really no one now
    Saw any good in the cause, or any guilt. It was a conspiracy
    Of right-handed notions. Which is how we all
    Became partners in the pastoral doffing, the night we now knew.

    The Ivory Tower

    Another season, proposing a name and a distant resolution.
    And, like the wind, all attention. Those thirsting ears,
    Climbers on what rickety heights, have swept you
    All alone into their confession, for it is as alone

    Each of us stands and surveys this empty cell of time. Well,
    What is there to do? And so a mysterious creeping motion
    Quickens its demonic profile, bringing tears, to these eyes at least,
    Tears of excitement. When was the last time you knew that?

    Yet in the textbooks thereof you keep getting mired
    In a backward innocence, although that too is something
    That must be owned, together with the rest.
    There is always some impurity. Help it along! Make room for it!

    So that in the annals of this year be nothing but what is sobering:
    A porch built on pilings, far out over the sand. Then it doesn't
    Matter that the deaths come in the wrong order. All has been so easily
    Written about. And you find the right order after all: play, the streets, shopping, time flying.

    Every Evening When the Sun Goes Down

    The helmeted head is tilted up at you again
    Through a question. Booze and pills?
    Probably it has no cachet or real status
    Beyond the spokes of the web of good intentions

    That radiate a certain distance out from the crater, that is the smile,
    That began it? Do you see yourself
    Covered by this uniform of half regrets and
    Inadmissible satisfactions, dazzling as the shower

    Sucked back up into the peacock's-feather eye in the sky
    As though through a straw, to connect up with your brain,
    The thing given you tonight to wrestle with like an angel
    Until dawn? The snuffer says it better. The cone

    Squelches the wick, the insulted smoke jerks ceilingward
    In the long time since we have been afraid, while the host
    Is looking for ice cubes and a glass, is gone
    Into the similarity of firmaments. "One last question."

    The Freedom of the House

    A few more might have survived the fall
    To read the afternoon away, navigating
    In sullen peace, a finger at the lips,
    From the beginning of one surf point to the end,

    And again, and may have wondered why being alone
    Is the condition of happiness, the substance
    Of the golden hints, articulation in the hall outside,
    And the condition as well of using that knowledge

    To pleasure, always in confinement? Otherwise it fades
    Like the rejoicing at the beginning of an opera, since we know
    The seriousness of what lies ahead: that we can split open
    The ripe exchanges, kisses, sighs, only in unholy

    Solitude, and sample them here. It means that a disguised fate
    Is weaving a net of heat lightning on the horizon, and that this
    Will be neither bad nor good when experienced. Meanwhile
    The night has been pushed back again, but cannot say where it has been.

    A Pact with Sullen Death

    Clearly the song will have to wait
    Until the time when everything is serious.
    Martyrs of fixed eye, with a special sigh,
    Set down their goads. The skies have endured

    Too long to be blasted into perdition this way,
    And they fall, awash with blood and flowers.
    In the dream next door they are still changing,
    And the wakening changes too, into life.

    "Is this life?" Yes, the last minute was too—
    And the joy of informing takes over
    Like the crackle of artillery fire in the outer suburbs
    And I was going to wish that you too were the "I"

    In the novel told in the first person that
    This breathy waiting is, that we could crash through
    The sobbing underbrush to the laughter that is under the ground,
    Since anyone can wait. We have only to begin on time.

    White-Collar Crime

    Now that you've done it, say OK, that's it for a while.
    His fault wasn't great; it was over-eagerness; it didn't deserve
    The death penalty, but it's different when it happens
    In your neighborhood, on your doorstep; the dropping light spoilt nicely his

    Name tags and leggings; all those things that belonged to him,
    As it were, were thrown out overnight, onto the street.
    So much for fashion. The moon decrees
    That it be with us awhile to enhance the atmosphere

    But in the long run serious concerns prevail, such as
    What time is it and what are you going to do about that?
    Gaily inventing brand names, place-names, you were surrounded
    By such abundance, yet it seems only fair to start taking in

    The washing now. There was a boy. Yet by the time the program
    Is over, it turns out there was enough time and more than enough things
    For everybody to latch on to, and that in essence it's there, the
    Young people and their sweet names falling, almost too many of these.

    At the Inn

    It was me here. Though. And whether this
    Be rebus or me now, the way the grass is planted—
    Red stretching far out to the horizon—
    Surely prevails now. I shall return in the dark and be seen,

    Be led to my own room by well-intentioned hands,
    Placed in a box with a lid whose underside is dark
    So as to grow, and shall grow
    Taller than plumes out on the ocean,

    Grazing historically. And shall see
    The end of much learning, and other things
    Out of control and it ends too soon, before hanging up.
    So, laying his cheek against the dresser's wooden one,

    He died making up stories, the ones
    Not every child wanted to listen to.
    And for a while it seemed that the road back
    Was a track bombarded by stubble like a snow.

    The Absence of a Noble Presence

    If it was treason it was so well handled that it
    Became unimaginable. No, it was ambrosia
    In the alley under the stars and not this undiagnosable
    Turning, a shadow in the plant of all things

    That makes us aware of certain moments,
    That the end is not far off since it will occur
    In the present and this is the present.
    No it was something not very subtle then and yet again

    You've got to remember we don't see that much.
    We see a portion of eaves dripping in the pastel book
    And are aware that everything doesn't count equally—
    There is dreaminess and infection in the sum

    And since this too is of our everydays
    It matters only to the one you are next to
    This time, giving you a ride to the station.
    It foretells itself, not the hiccup you both notice.

    The Prophet Bird

    Then take the quicklime to the little tree.
    And ask. So all will remain in place, percolating.
    You see the sandlots still foaming with the blood of light
    Though the source has been withdrawn.

    What stunted fig or quince pierced those
    Now empty pairs of parentheses. You shout
    With the holy feeling of an oppressor, a scourge,
    In order for the details to stick,

    Like little blades of grass, stubborn and sick.
    It is still too many ideas for a landscape.
    In another time the tide would have turned, automobiles and the factory
    Gushing in to frame the shining, clever, puzzled faces.

    There would be even less to pick over, to glean.
    But take this idea with you, please. It's all there,
    Wrapped up. In the time it takes for nothing to happen
    The places, the chairs and tables, the branches, were yours then.


    Warren G. Harding invented the word "normalcy,"
    And the lesser-known "bloviate," meaning, one imagines,
    To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
    The "Ohio Gang" made him. He died in the Palace

    Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
    As his wife was reading to him, about him,
    From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn't a bad egg,
    Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.

    This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
    Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
    Of summer, almost to the end of August. The crowd is hysterical:
    Fickle as always, they follow him to the edge

    Of the inferno. But the fall is, deliciously, only his.
    They shall communicate this and that and compute
    Fixed names like "doorstep in the wind." The agony is permanent
    Rather than eternal. He'd have noticed it. Poor Warren.

    Breezy Stories

    "Not spoiling it for later, yet few are
    So febrile, so flourishing, and I extract
    Digits from the Carolinas to fill out those days in Maine,
    Only now trusting myself, as in the latter period I had not yet learned to do."

    And on top of all this one must still learn to judge the quality
    Of those moments when it becomes necessary to break the rule,
    To relax standards, bring light and chaos
    Into the order of the house. A slatternly welcome

    Suits some as well, no doubt, but the point is
    There are still others whom we know nothing about
    And who are growing, it seems, at a rate far in excess
    Of the legislated norm, for whom the "psychological consequences"

    Of the forest primeval of our inconsistency, nay, our lives
    If you prefer, and you can quote me, could be "numbing."
    Thus, one always reins in, after too much thoughtfulness, the joke
    Prescription. Games were made to seem like that: the raw fruit, bleeding.

    Oh, Nothing

    The tent stitch is repeated in the blue and red
    Letters on the blocks. Love is spelled L-O-V-E
    And is echoed farther down by fear. These two are sisters
    But the youngest and most beautiful sister

    Is called Forward Animation. It all makes sense
    If you look at her through the clock. Now,
    Such towns and benign legends as were distilled
    To produce this moment of silence are dissolved

    In the stream of history. Of her it may be said
    That what she says, she knows, and it will always come undone
    Around her, as you are thinking, and so the choice
    Is still and always yours, and yet

    You may move on, untouched. The glassy,
    Chill surface of the cascade reflected her,
    Her opinions and future, de-defining you. To be amused this way
    Is to be immortal, as water gushes down the sides of the globe.

    Of the Islands

    Then the thirty-three-year-old man
    Then the young but no longer powerfully young man
    Gnashed at the towel's edge chewed the rag
    Brought it home to him right out sighed with the force of

    Palm winds: to do it unto others
    Is to leave many undone and the carvings that are "quite cute"
    May end up as yours dry in your storehouse
    And this should be good for you yet

    "Not as a gift but as a sign of transition"
    The way all things spread and seem to remain under the lolling
    Fronds and it is not your way as yet.
    Only to be an absentee frees from the want of speculation
    Drawing out conversations in the lobby more than you care
    And each gift returns home to the bearer idly, at suppertime
    Odd that he noticed you diminished in this case, but with any
    The true respect conserves the hoofprint in the dust.

    Farm Film

    Takeitapart, no one understands how you can just do
    This to yourself. Balancing a long pole on your chin
    And seeing only the ooze of foliage and blue sunlight
    Above. At the same time you have not forgotten

    The attendant itch, but, being occupied solely with making
    Ends meet, or the end, believe that it will live, raised
    In secrecy, into an important yet invisible destiny, unfulfilled.
    If the dappled cows and noon plums ever thought of

    Answering you, your answer would be like the sun, convinced
    It knows best, maybe having forgotten someday. But for this
    She looked long for one clothespin in the grass, the rime
    And fire of midnight etched each other out, into importance

    That is like a screen sometimes. So many
    Patterns to choose from, they the colliding of all dispirited
    Illustration on our lives, that will rise in its time like
    Temperature, and mean us, and then faint away.


Excerpted from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1981 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.

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