Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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