Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise.
The day was warm and pleasant.
"We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains."
A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world's history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Terrific units are on an old man
In the blue shadow of some paint cans
As laughing cadets say, "In the evening
Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is."
He continued to consult her for her beauty
(The host gone to a longing grave).
The story then resumed in day coaches
Both bravely eyed the finer dust on the blue. That summer
("The worst ever") she stayed in the car with the cur.
That was something between her legs.
Alton had been getting letters from his mother
About the payments—half the flood
Over and what about the net rest of the year?
Who cares? Anyway (you know how thirsty they were)
The extra worry began it—on the
Blue blue mountain—she never set foot
And then and there. Meanwhile the host
Mourned her quiet tenure. They all stayed chatting.
No one did much about eating.
The tears came and stopped, came and stopped, until
Becoming the guano-lightened summer night landscape,
All one glow, one mild laugh lasting ages.
Some precision, he fumed into his soup.
You laugh. There is no peace in the fountain.
The footmen smile and shift. The mountain
Rises nightly to disappointed stands
Dining in "The Gardens of the Moon."
There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy. But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them. And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.
Cuddie: Slowly all your secret is had
In the empty day. People and sticks go down to the water.
How can we be so silent? Only shivers
Are bred in this land of whistling goats.
Colin: Father, I have long dreamed your whitened
Face and sides to accost me in dull play.
If you in your bush indeed know her
Where shall my heart's vagrant tides place her?
Cuddie: A wish is induced by a sudden change
In the wind's decay. Shall we to the water's edge,
O prince? The peons rant in a light fume.
Madness will gaze at its reflection.
Colin: What is this pain come near me?
Now I thought my heart would burst,
And there, spiked like some cadenza's head,
A tiny crippled heart was born.
Cuddie: I tell you good will imitate this.
Now we must dip in raw water
These few thoughts and fleshy members.
So evil may refresh our days.
Colin: She has descended part way!
Now father cut me down with tears.
Plant me far in my mother's image
To do cold work of books and stones.
Cuddie: I need not raise my hand
Colin: She burns the flying peoples
Cuddie: To hear its old advice
Colin: And spears my heart's two beasts
Cuddie: Or cover with its mauves.
Colin: And I depart unhurt.
The Instruction Manual
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them—they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out
of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose-and lemon-colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and
The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood.
First, leading the parade, is a dapper fellow
Clothed in deep blue. On his head sits a white hat
And he wears a mustache, which has been trimmed for the occasion.
His dear one, his wife, is young and pretty; her shawl is rose, pink, and white.
Her slippers are patent leather, in the American fashion,
And she carries a fan, for she is modest, and does not want the crowd to see her face
But everybody is so busy with his wife or loved one
I doubt they would notice the mustachioed man's wife.
Here come the boys! They are skipping and throwing little things on the sidewalk
Which is made of gray tile. One of them, a little older, has a toothpick in his teeth.
He is silenter than the rest, and affects not to notice the pretty young girls in white.
But his friends notice them, and shout their jeers at the laughing girls.
Yet soon all this will cease, with the deepening of their years,
And love bring each to the parade grounds for another reason.
But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick.
Wait—there he is—on the other side of the bandstand,
Secluded from his friends, in earnest talk with a young girl
Of fourteen or fifteen. I try to hear what they are saying
But it seems they are just mumbling something—shy words of love, probably.
She is slightly taller than he, and looks quietly down into his sincere eyes.
She is wearing white. The breeze ruffles her long fine black hair against her olive cheek.
Obviously she is in love. The boy, the young boy with the toothpick, he is in love too;
His eyes show it. Turning from this couple,
I see there is an intermission in the concert.
The paraders are resting and sipping drinks through straws
(The drinks are dispensed from a large glass crock by a lady in dark blue),
And the musicians mingle among them, in their creamy white uniforms, and talk
About the weather, perhaps, or how their kids are doing at school.
Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets.
Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim
That are so popular here. Look—I told you!
It is cool and dim inside, but the patio is sunny.
An old woman in gray sits there, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan.
She welcomes us to her patio, and offers us a cooling drink.
"My son is in Mexico City," she says. "He would welcome you too
If he were here. But his job is with a bank there.
Look, here is a photograph of him."
And a dark-skinned lad with pearly teeth grins out at us from the worn leather frame.
We thank her for her hospitality, for it is getting late
And we must catch a view of the city, before we leave, from a good high place.
That church tower will do—the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of the sky.
Slowly we enter.
The caretaker, an old man dressed in brown and gray, asks us how long we have been in
the city, and how we like it here.
His daughter is scrubbing the steps—she nods to us as we pass into the tower.
Soon we have reached the top, and the whole network of the city extends before us.
There is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and its crumbling, leafy
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and beige.
Look! There is the square we just came from, with the promenaders.
There are fewer of them, now that the heat of the day has increased,
But the young boy and girl still lurk in the shadows of the bandstand.
And there is the home of the little old lady—
She is still sitting in the patio, fanning herself.
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.
Of who we and all they are
You all now know. But you know
After they began to find us out we grew
Before they died thinking us the causes
Of their acts. Now we'll not know
The truth of some still at the piano, though
They often date from us, causing
These changes we think we are. We don't care
Though, so tall up there
In young air. But things get darker as we move
To ask them: Whom must we get to know
To die, so you live and we know?
I'll do what the raids suggest,
Dad, and that other livid window,
But the tide pushes an awful lot of monsters
And I think it's my true fate.
It had been raining but
It had not been raining.
No one could begin to mop up this particular mess.
Thunder lay down in the heart.
"My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance."
Disturbance! Could the old man, face in the rainweed,
Ask more smuttily? By night it charged over plains,
Driven from Dallas and Oregon, always whither,
Why not now? The boy seemed to have fallen
From shelf to shelf of someone's rage.
That night it rained on the boxcars, explaining
The thought of the pensive cabbage roses near the boxcars.
My boy. Isn't there something I asked you once?
What happened? It's also farther to the corner
Aboard the maple furniture. He
Couldn't lie. He'd tell 'em by their syntax.
But listen now in the flood.
They're throwing up behind the lines.
Dry fields of lightning rise to receive
The observer, the mincing flag. An unendurable age.
The man with the red hat
And the polar bear, is he here too?
The window giving on shade,
Is that here too?
And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night?
Drops dead in sight of the window.
Lovely tribes have just moved to the north.
In the flickering evening the martins grow denser.
Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.
Whose face is this
stiff against the blue trees,
Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?
But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days
Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him—
There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.
While we were walking under the top
The road so strangely lit by lamps
And I wanting only peace
From the tradesmen who tried cutting my hair
Under their lips a white word is waiting
Hanging from a cliff like the sky
It is because of the sky
We ever reached the top
On that day of waiting
For the hand and the lamps
I moisten my crystal hair
Never so calmly as when at peace
With the broken sky of peace
Peace means it to the sky
Let down your hair
Through peaceful air the top
Of ruins because what are lamps
When night is waiting
A room of people waiting
To die in peace
Then strike the procession of lamps
They brought more than sky
Lungs back to the top
Means to doom your hair
Those bright pads of hair
Before the sea held back waiting
And you cannot speak to the top
It moves toward peace
And know the day of sky
Only by falling lamps
Beyond the desert lamps
Mount enslaved crystal mountains of hair
Into the day of sky
Silence is waiting
For anything peace
And you find the top
The top is lamps
Peace to the fragrant hair
Waiting for a tropical sky
The other marigolds and the cloths
Are crimes invented for history.
What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?
What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And on the bingo tables?
Even though it is clearing,
The statue turned to a sweeter light,
The nearest patrons are black.
Then there is a storm of receipts: night,
Sand the bowl did not let fall.
The other marigolds are scattered like dust.
Sweet peas in dark gardens
Squirt false melancholy over history.
If a bug fell from so high, would it land?
The Picture of Little J. A.
in a Prospect of Flowers
He was spoilt from childhood by the future,
which he mastered rather early and
apparently without great difficulty.
Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas. "Aroint thee, witch."
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.
"He clap'd me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered. But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence."
In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.
So far is goodness a mere memory
Or naming of recent scenes of badness
That even these lives, children,
You may pass through to be blessed,
So fair does each invent his virtue.
And coming from a white world, music
Will sparkle at the lips of many who are
Beloved. Then these, as dirty handmaidens
To some transparent witch, will dream
Of a white hero's subtle wooing,
And time shall force a gift on each.
That beggar to whom you gave no cent
Striped the night with his strange descant.
Yet I cannot escape the picture
Of my small self in that bank of flowers:
My head among the blazing phlox
Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.
I had a hard stare, accepting
Everything, taking nothing,
As though the rolled-up future might stink
As loud as stood the sick moment
The shutter clicked. Though I was wrong,
Still, as the loveliest feelings
Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. For as change is horror,
Virtue is really stubbornness
And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.
Eyes shining without mystery,
Footprints eager for the past
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes,
And what is in store?
Footprints eager for the past,
The usual obtuse blanket.
And what is in store
For those dearest to the king?
The usual obtuse blanket
Of legless regrets and amplifications
For those dearest to the king.
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion,
Of legless regrets and amplifications,
That is why a watchdog is shy.
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion,
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night.
That is why a watchdog is shy,
Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying.
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night
And that soon gotten over.
Why, the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying!
Some blunt pretense to safety we have
And that soon gotten over
For they must have motion.
Some blunt pretense to safety we have:
Eyes shining without mystery
For they must have motion
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes.
Perhaps this valley too leads into the head of long-ago days.
What, if not its commercial and etiolated visage, could break through the meadow
It placed a chair in the meadow and then went far away.
People come to visit in summer, they do not think about the head.
Soldiers come down to see the head. The stick hides from them.
The heavens say, "Here I am, boys and girls!"
The stick tries to hide in the noise. The leaves, happy, drift over the dusty meadow.
"I'd like to see it," someone said about the head, which has stopped pretending to be
Look! A ghastly change has come over it. The ears fall off—they are laughing
The skin is perhaps children, they say, "We children," and are vague near the sea.
Wait! What large raindrops! The eyes—
Wait, can't you see them pattering, in the meadow, like a dog?
The eyes are all glorious! And now the river comes to sweep away the last of us.
Who knew it, at the beginning of the day?
It is best to travel like a comet, with the others, though one does not see them.
How far that bridle flashed! "Hurry up, children!" The birds fly back, they say, "We were
We do not want to fly away." But it is already too late. The children have vanished.
The Mythological Poet
The music brought us what it seemed
We had long desired, but in a form
So rarefied there was no emptiness
Of sensation, as if pleasure
Might persist, like a dear friend
Walking toward one in a dream.
It was the toothless murmuring
Of ancient willows, who kept their trouble
In a stage of music. Without tumult
Snow-capped mountains and heart-shaped
Cathedral windows were contained
There, until only infinity
Remained of beauty. Then lighter than the air
We rose and packed the picnic basket.
But there is beside us, they said,
Whom we do not sustain, the world
Of things, that rages like a virgin
Next to our silken thoughts. It can
Be touched, they said. It cannot harm.
But suddenly their green sides
Foundered, as if the virgin beat
Their airy trellis from within.
Over her furious sighs, a new
Music, innocent and monstrous
As the ocean's bright display of teeth
Fell on the jousting willows. We
Are sick, they said. It is a warning
We were not meant to understand.
The mythological poet, his face
Fabulous and fastidious, accepts
Beauty before it arrives. The heavenly
Moment in the heaviness of arrival
Deplores him. He is merely
An ornament, a kind of lewd
Cloud placed on the horizon.
Close to the zoo, acquiescing
To dust, candy, perverts; inserted in
The panting forest, or openly
Walking in the great and sullen square
He has eloped with all music
And does not care. For isn't there,
He says, a final diversion, greater
Because it can be given, a gift
Too simple even to be despised?
And oh beside the roaring
Centurion of the lion's hunger
Might not child and pervert
Join hands, in the instant
Of their interest, in the shadow
Of a million boats; their hunger
From loss grown merely a gesture?
Excerpted from Some Trees by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1997 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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