The Double Dream of Spring

The Double Dream of Spring

by John Ashbery

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HarperCollins Publishers
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American Poetry Series

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The Double Dream of Spring


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1997 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5918-2


    The Task

    They are preparing to begin again:
    Problems, new pennant up the flagpole
    In a predicated romance.

    About the time the sun begins to cut laterally across
    The western hemisphere with its shadows, its carnival echoes,
    The fugitive lands crowd under separate names.
    It is the blankness that follows gaiety, and Everyman must depart
    Out there into stranded night, for his destiny
    Is to return unfruitful out of the lightness
    That passing time evokes. It was only
    Cloud-castles, adept to seize the past
    And possess it, through hurting. And the way is clear
    Now for linear acting into that time
    In whose corrosive mass he first discovered how to breathe.

    Just look at the filth you've made,
    See what you've done.
    Yet if these are regrets they stir only lightly
    The children playing after supper,
    Promise of the pillow and so much in the night to come.
    I plan to stay here a little while
    For these are moments only, moments of insight,
    And there are reaches to be attained,
    A last level of anxiety that melts
    In becoming, like miles under the pilgrim's feet.

    Spring Day

    The immense hope, and forbearance
    Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
    Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
    As night returns bringing doubts

    That swarm around the sleeper's head
    But are fended off with clubs and knives, so that morning
    Installs again in cold hope
    The air that was yesterday, is what you are,

    In so many phases the head slips from the hand.
    The tears ride freely, laughs or sobs:
    What do they matter? There is free giving and taking;
    The giant body relaxed as though beside a stream

    Wakens to the force of it and has to recognize
    The secret sweetness before it turns into life—
    Sucked out of many exchanges, torn from the womb,
    Disinterred before completely dead—and heaves

    Its mountain-broad chest. "They were long in coming,
    Those others, and mattered so little that it slowed them
    To almost nothing. They were presumed dead,
    Their names honorably grafted on the landscape

    To be a memory to men. Until today
    We have been living in their shell.
    Now we break forth like a river breaking through a dam,
    Pausing over the puzzled, frightened plain,

    And our further progress shall be terrible,
    Turning fresh knives in the wounds
    In that gulf of recreation, that bare canvas
    As matter-of-fact as the traffic and the day's noise."

    The mountain stopped shaking; its body
    Arched into its own contradiction, its enjoyment,
    As far from us lights were put out, memories of boys and girls
    Who walked here before the great change,

    Before the air mirrored us,
    Taking the opposite shape of our effort,
    Its inseparable comment and corollary
    But casting us farther and farther out.

    Wha—what happened? You are with
    The orange tree, so that its summer produce
    Can go back to where we got it wrong, then drip gently
    Into history, if it wants to. A page turned; we were

    Just now floundering in the wind of its colossal death.
    And whether it is Thursday, or the day is stormy,
    With thunder and rain, or the birds attack each other,
    We have rolled into another dream.

    No use charging the barriers of that other:
    It no longer exists. But you,
    Gracious and growing thing, with those leaves like stars,
    We shall soon give all our attention to you.

    Plainness in Diversity

    Silly girls your heads full of boys
    There is a last sample of talk on the outer side
    Your stand at last lifts to dumb evening
    It is reflected in the steep blue sides of the crater,
    So much water shall wash over these our breaths
    Yet shall remain unwashed at the end. The fine
    Branches of the fir tree catch at it, ebbing.
    Not on our planet is the destiny
    That can make you one.

    To be placed on the side of some mountain
    Is the truer story, with the breath only
    Coming in patches at first, and then the little spurt
    The way a steam engine starts up eventually.
    The sagas purposely ignore how better off it was next day,
    The feeling in between the chapters, like fins.
    There is so much they must say, and it is important
    About all the swimming motions, and the way the hands
    Came up out of the ocean with original fronds,
    The famous arrow, the girls who came at dawn
    To pay a visit to the young child, and how, when he grew up to be a man
    The same restive ceremony replaced the limited years between,
    Only now he was old, and forced to begin the journey to the sun.

    Soonest Mended

    Barely tolerated, living on the margin
    In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
    On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
    Before it was time to start all over again.
    There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
    And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
    The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering whether forgetting
    The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
    And then there always came a time when
    Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
    Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.,
    Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
    About how to receive this latest piece of information.
    Was it information? Weren't we rather acting this out
    For someone else's benefit, thoughts in a mind
    With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they began to seem),
    Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid?
    To reduce all this to a small variant,
    To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—
    This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
    Alas, the summer's energy wanes quickly,
    A moment and it is gone. And no longer
    May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
    Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
    Now there is no question even of that, but only
    Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off,
    With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
    The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
    And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
    Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
    This is what you wanted to hear, so why
    Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
    It is true, but underneath the talk lies
    The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
    Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

    These then were some hazards of the course,
    Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
    It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
    The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
    They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
    Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
    And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
    Night after night this message returns, repeated
    In the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us,
    Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
    The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
    Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes
    To be without, alone and desperate.
    But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind offence-sitting
    Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal. These were moments, years,
    Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,
    But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression
    Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day
    When it had been outgrown. Better, you said, to stay cowering
    Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning
    Is a delusion, and I agreed, adding that
    Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
    That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
    None of us ever graduates from college,
    For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
    Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
    And you see, both of us were right, though nothing
    Has somehow come to nothing; the avatars
    Of our conforming to the rules and living
    Around the home have made—well, in a sense, "good citizens" of us,
    Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
    The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
    For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
    Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
    Making ready to forget, and always coming back
    To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.


    There is that sound like the wind
    Forgetting in the branches that means something
    Nobody can translate. And there is the sobering "later on,"
    When you consider what a thing meant, and put it down.

    For the time being the shadow is ample
    And hardly seen, divided among the twigs of a tree,
    The trees of a forest, just as life is divided up
    Between you and me, and among all the others out there.

    And the thinning-out phase follows
    The period of reflection. And suddenly, to be dying
    Is not a little or mean or cheap thing,
    Only wearying, the heat unbearable,

    And also the little mindless constructions put upon
    Our fantasies of what we did: summer, the ball of pine needles,
    The loose fates serving our acts, with token smiles,
    Carrying out their instructions too accurately—

    Too late to cancel them now—and winter, the twitter
    Of cold stars at the pane, that describes with broad gestures
    This state of being that is not so big after all.
    Summer involves going down as a steep flight of steps

    To a narrow ledge over the water. Is this it, then,
    This iron comfort, these reasonable taboos,
    Or did you mean it when you stopped? And the face
    Resembles yours, the one reflected in the water.

    It Was Raining in the Capital

    It was raining in the capital
    And for many days and nights
    The one they called the Aquarian
    Had stayed alone with her delight.

    What with the winter and its business
    It had fallen to one side
    And she had only recently picked it up
    Where the other had died.

    Between the pages of the newspaper
    It smiled like a face.
    Next to the drugstore on the corner
    It looked to another place.

    Or it would just hang around
    Like sullen clouds over the sun.
    But—this was the point—it was real
    To her and to everyone.

    For spring had entered the capital
    Walking on gigantic feet.
    The smell of witch hazel indoors
    Changed to narcissus in the street.

    She thought she had seen all this before:
    Bundles of new, fresh flowers,
    All changing, pressing upward
    To the distant office towers.

    Until now nothing had been easy,
    Hemmed in by all that shit—
    Horseshit, dogshit, birdshit, manshit—
    Yes, she remembered having said it,

    Having spoken in that way, thinking
    There could be no road ahead,
    Sobbing into the intractable presence of it
    As one weeps alone in bed.

    Its chamber was narrower than a seed
    Yet when the doorbell rang
    It reduced all that living to air
    As "kyrie eleison" it sang.

    Hearing that music he had once known
    But now forgotten, the man,
    The one who had waited casually in the dark
    Turned to smile at the door's span.

    He smiled and shrugged—a lesson
    In the newspaper no longer
    But fed by the ink and paper
    Into a sign of something stronger

    Who reads the news and takes the bus
    Going to work each day
    But who was never born of woman
    Nor formed of the earth's clay.

    Then what unholy bridegroom
    Did the Aquarian foretell?
    Or was such lively intelligence
    Only the breath of hell?

    It scarcely mattered at the moment
    And it shall never matter at all
    Since the moment will not be replaced
    But stand, poised for its fall,

    Forever. "This is what my learning
    Teaches," the Aquarian said,
    "To absorb life through the pores
    For the life around you is dead."

    The sun came out in the capital
    Just before it set.
    The lovely death's head shone in the sky
    As though these two had never met.

    Variations, Calypso and Fugue
    on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox

    "For the pleasures of the many
    May be ofttimes traced to one
    As the hand that plants an acorn
    Shelters armies from the sun."
    And in places where the annual rainfall is .0071 inches
    What a pleasure to lie under the tree, to sit, stand, and get up under the tree!
    Im wunderschonen Monat Mai
    The feeling is of never wanting to leave the tree,
    Of predominantly peace and relaxation.
    Do you step out from under the shade a moment,
    It is only to return with renewed expectation, of expectation fulfilled.
    Insecurity be damned! There is something to all this, that will not elude us:
    Growing up under the shade of friendly trees, with our brothers all around.
    And truly, young adulthood was never like this:
    Such delight, such consideration, such affirmation in the way the day goes 'round
    Yes, the world goes 'round a good deal faster
    When there are highlights on the lips, unspoken and true words in the heart,
    And the hand keeps brushing away a strand of chestnut hair, only to have it fall back into
    place again.
    But all good things must come to an end, and so one must move forward
    Into the space left by one's conclusions. Is this growing old?
    Well, it is a good experience, to divest oneself of some tested ideals, some old standbys,
    And even finding nothing to put in their place is a good experience,
    Preparing one, as it does, for the consternation that is to come.
    But—and this is the gist of it—what if I dreamed it all,
    The branches, the late afternoon sun,
    The trusting camaraderie, the love that watered all,
    Disappearing promptly down into the roots as it should?
    For later in the vast gloom of cities, only there you learn
    How the ideas were good only because they had to die,
    Leaving you alone and skinless, a drawing by Vesalius.
    This is what was meant, and toward which everything directs:
    That the tree should shrivel in 120-degree heat, the acorns
    Lie around on the worn earth like eyeballs, and the lead soldiers shrug and slink off.

    So my youth was spent, underneath the trees
    I always moved around with perfect ease

    I voyaged to Paris at the age of ten
    And met many prominent literary men

    Gazing at the Alps was quite a sight
    I felt the tears flow forth with all their might

    A climb to the Acropolis meant a lot to me
    I had read the Greek philosophers you see

    In the Colosseum I thought my heart would burst
    Thinking of all the victims who had been there first

    On Mount Ararat's side I began to grow
    Remembering the Flood there, so long ago

    On the banks of the Ganges I stood in mud
    And watched the water light up like blood

    The Great Wall of China is really a thrill
    It cleaves through the air like a silver pill

    It was built by the hand of man for good or ill
    Showing what he can do when he decides not to kill

    But of all the sights that were seen by me
    In the East or West, on land or sea,
    The best was the place that is spelled H-O-M-E.

    Now that once again I have achieved home
    I shall forbear all further urge to roam

    There is a hole of truth in the green earth's rug
    Once you find it you are as snug as a bug

    Maybe some do not like it quite as much as you
    That isn't all you're going to do.

    You must remember that it is yours
    Which is why nobody is sending you flowers

    This age-old truth I to thee impart
    Act according to the dictates of your art

    Because if you don't no one else is going to
    And that person isn't likely to be you.

    It is the wind that comes from afar
    It is the truth of the farthest star

    In all likelihood you will not need these
    So take it easy and learn your ABC's

    And trust in the dream that will never come true
    'Cause that is the scheme that is best for you
    And the gleam that is the most suitable too.

"MAKE MY DREAM COME TRUE." This message, set in 84-point Hobo type, startled in the morning editions of the paper: the old, half-won security troubles the new pause. And with the approach of the holidays, the present is clearly here to stay: the big brass band of its particular moment's consciousness invades the plazas and the narrow alleys. Three- fourths of the houses in this city are on narrow stilts, finer than a girl's wrists: it is largely a question of keeping one's feet dry, and of privacy. In the morning you forget what the punishment was. Probably it was something like eating a pretzel or going into the back yard. Still, you can't tell. These things could be a lot clearer without hurting anybody. But it does not follow that such issues will produce the most dynamic capital gains for you.

Friday. We are really missing you.

"The most suitable," however, was not the one specially asked for nor the one hanging around the lobby. It was just the one asked after, day after day—what spilled over, claimed by the spillway. The distinction of a dog, of how a dog walks. The thought of a dog walking. No one ever referred to the incident again. The case was officially closed. Maybe there were choruses of silent gratitude, welling up in the spring night like a column of cloud, reaching to the very rafters of the sky—but this was their own business. The point is no ear ever heard them. Thus, the incident, to call it by one of its names—choice, conduct, absent-minded frown might be others—came to be not only as though it had never happened, but as though it never could have happened. Sealed into the wall of all that season's coming on. And thus, for a mere handful of people—roustabouts and degenerates, most of them—it became the only true version. Nothing else mattered. It was bread by morning and night, the dates falling listlessly from the trees—man, woman, child, festering glistering in a single orb. The reply to "hello."


Excerpted from The Double Dream of Spring by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1997 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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