Wakefulnessby John Ashbery
Early in the title work of Wakefulness, Ashbery writes: "Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me." Progressive awakenings occur in all of these poems. As we read, each of our senses is engaged, and we come to detect a search for spiritual revelations--in buildings, churches, homes, trains, and cars. Then suddenly we find ourselves back in the open, pursuing the course to Baltimore and Bucharest, to the zoo and the park, to the past and future. As ever, Ashbery's wakeful digressions are wily, comic, heartbreaking, and vertiginous.
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Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?
Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: "You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it's a dream."
In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves'
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.
Two were alive. One came round the corner
clipclopping. Three were the saddest snow ever seen in Prairie City.
Take this, metamorphosis. And this. And this. And this.
If I'd needed your company,
I'd have curled up long before in the clock of weeds,
with only a skywriter to read by.
I'd have laved the preface
to the World's Collected Anthologies,
licked the henbane-flavored lozenge
and more. I'm presuming,
I know. And there are wide floodplains spotted with children,
investing everything in everything.
And I'm too shy to throw away.
PALINDROME OF EVENING
In other places where it was found
necessary for there to be buttons, expectations were naturally higher, and higher,
a sow's purse translates into a silk ear, and communications
No one takes hold any more.
Look, the flower has escaped from its trellis,
the bear goes down into the lake.
In my second house rare footage
of metempsychosis plays endlessly, like a tune
I often feel I'm a buyer,
but the painted carnival head reasons otherwise,
badgers me. There is no release in sight,
in the works, down the pike.
Horrified spectators jam the football field;
it was like night and day.
We can't go back to the restaurant;
the roof is snatched away.
What were expectations back then?
Do we know how high the astronauts carried us,
let us fall, bouncing for what seemed an eternity,
until all was well again?
I've got my cool
in these pants, keeping it for you.
COUSIN SARAH'S KNITTING
You keep asking me that four times.
Why trust me I think.
There is, in fact, nobody here.
Nobody in the past.
Nobody to turn to for advice.
A yellow flagpole rears thoughtfully.
Now if you were that nice.
He was pulled from space,
as from a shark. After they examined him
they let him go. What does that prove?
And called him Old Hickory.
As in hickory. No there were
at that time none living
out of a sideshow at the edge of a forest
and were mistreated in proportion,
with understanding, so they all grew
into the shade and for once it seemed
about right. Oh, call down to me.
It seemed about right.
Then there was something of a letdown.
Patrol boats converged
but it was decided that the ...
and could continue its voyage
to the point where it tails off
and then there was a large misunderstanding.
It was misunderstanding, mudsliding
from the side where the thing was let in.
And it was all goose, let me tell you,
braised goose. From which a longing in the original
loins came forward to mark you.
So many brave skippers,
such a long time at sea. But I was going
to remind you of this new story
I can't remember, of the two chums meeting in the overfed waste land and it supported
them. And one got
off at the front. The other wandered for days and daze, and by the time nobody
remembered it it was summer again
and wandered around defensively. Sure the organ meat
was pumping and somebody's boy came up to the correct
thing at the well head. Sure as you can claim Dixie your tax accountant
wandered over the remaining riviera, all to be blue again. And the rascals ...
and I was going to say keep it. You can keep it.
Granted she has no reputation, an eye
here, another clovered savior here, they pretend to us, and it was time for the firemobile
LAST NIGHT I DREAMED I WAS IN BUCHAREST
seeking to convince the supreme Jester
that I am indeed the man in those commercials.
Simultaneously it peaked in Bolivia, the moon,
I mean. Then we were walking over what seemed to be
heather, or was called that. The downtown riot
of free speech occurred. Plastered to its muzzle,
Randy the dog's decoding apparatus went astray.
By then it was afternoon in much of the world;
iced tea was served on vast terraces
overlooking a crumbling sea. You can't juggle
four toddlers. Three is enough. Out of the beckoning
sea they arrived, in white ruffles with black coin-dots
attached; the lawn was closer to a farm
this time; it mouthed "Farm." Will vacuumed the whole of space
as far as the mind-your-own-business wire stretched, that is,
from Cadiz to Enterprise, Alaska. We thought we had seen a few new
adjectives, but nobody was too sure. They might have been
gerunds, or bunches of breakfast ...
What could I tell you? I couldn't tell you any other way.
We, meanwhile, have witnessed changes, and now change
floods in from every angle. Stop me if you've heard this one,
but if you haven't, just go about your business. I'll catch up with you
at the exit. Who are the Blands? The second change was perhaps nothing more than
the possibility of changes, one by one, side by side, until the whole
canyon was carpeted with them. Nice. Summer, it said,
ever rested my mind. Something occurs everywhere then,
an immediate engagement with the atmosphere
we'd like to have around, but it was big, then, and obvious,
and oh, this is for your pains. No, really. Take it. I insist.
He thought if he lived amid leaves
everything would surface again, by which he meant, balance out,
only look what this random memory's done to him!
He eats no more, neither does he sleep. A permanent bell tone
seems to create his hearing at each moment of his elevator. Obey. We're
in for it. There are no two ways about it. Wait—
did I say two ways? That's it! We'll fix his wagon with too many ways—
so it'll be lopsided, with no judges to pay, and we can all go home.
Sweetheart? I fancy you now—
Hence it ends up with a scenario of them all getting paid,
the bums, and walking out into the eternal twilight
with gurus and girlfriends on their arms, one for each fist.
I like that way about it. I'm making believe
it never happened, that we got this way
merely by having been here forever. Millions of languages
became extinct, and not because there was nothing left to say in them,
but because it was all said too well, with
nary a dewdrop on the moment of glottal expulsion.
But now I've got to go put out the signs on the chairs
so folks'll know when to stop, and where, really, only a poodle
separates us from this life and the next.
It will take us longer to get from here to there.
And the cigar band is ecstatic,
stunning in its mauve and gold obsolescence,
an erratic bloom on sheer night, faintly deleterious ...
I was lying, lying down,
reading the last plays of Shakespeare.
A brat came to me, eyes squealing,
excitement its thing. Until I put two and two together
I never crossed the inlet
or realized what tributary meant.
O we all have fine times
in the spring she said.
No one needs to know pretty much
about that attitude I suppose,
yet there are riders, and puzzles, and soon,
baking at the long end of day
a poor cloud measures its shadow,
the intent of all those gone away.
The crisis has just passed.
Uh oh, here it comes again,
looking for someone to blame itself on, you, I ...
All these people coming in ...
The last time we necked
I noticed this lobe on your ear.
Please, tell me we may begin.
All the wolves in the wolf factory paused
at noon, for a moment of silence.
FROM SUCH COMMOTION
The dress code is casual, the atmosphere relaxed
in the licensed quarters of our city;
young couples graciously stopping beneath umbrellas
in the street ...
And this is not a thing that matters:
walks on grass, through flaring Adirondack chairs.
You caught me napping said the belle-lettriste.
No, perhaps it's not that, that's the point. You've
been in to see these?
And we should have decided to go there, gone for a second time.
Yes, well, they're working on it, et cetera, etc.
The summer capital exits past us, we have to
sell product. It "fell through" the European system,
now it's time for avatars. At four in the morning
the art demonstrations begin, psalteries jingle, the whole damn ocean
is there, up for review, for us. It's just
that we don't understand. It's my negative capability acting up
again. Well, I'm within my rights.
It's like apples and pears, or oranges and lemons,
what I always say.
From nests as admirable as these, wallpaper islands,
the vivid flow reverses. That's in-house.
And we go as far
with them as possible, suffer stupid reverses, get plastered,
the goateed scorpion insists.
And it was while waiting for the drying to happen that we all got lost.
Please, he insisted, there's more to the point than two doors, O I know
it I said, I can't be damned to travel
any time. You should have pointed the way to me while I can,
while it's still light, otherwise what will all your gnashing accomplish,
the oatmeal? Please. Now just go away. It's
raining, the sun is shining, braver outdoors. Can we come listen to that.
"... and as the last will come a sort of moderate part, (which some is of multiple motions,
quick, slow, hampered, expressive, popular, and peopled speech ...)"
The fox brooding and the old people smelling
and the tiebreaker—why did I not think of that?
Why have doubts upon me come? Why
And I remember no longer at the age of sixteen,
and at the age of seventeen great rollers
eating into night, I uncared for,
stopping among the weeds along the way. Phantom
harvesters hovered. And the great, dry creekbed was a sea
of gravel and stones, the willows were capsized ships,
and none of it was for now.
There is a draught
in the room
and all along the room a sight that is like living
and looking out over a situation. The periods danced in a sentence,
and it was my way, the one I chose, even if I didn't choose it,
or like it; was all a coming on,
marooned on slopes.
And then the burst of it.
He knew what the world's going to be like I think,
so why the explosions? And caught in the draught,
one fell from darkness, two fell from darkness,
yet another. Maybe that's dust a very fine kind of dust and I eat it,
it goes on thrumming, seated in the back row of the orchestra,
men masturbating here and there and like I said the clock
wider than any minute hand or hour hand.
And sheepish it fell out of books:
the land of painful blisses,
the man who stubbed his toe.
All around us pain came sledding in,
and am I like this today, tomorrow, and two
tickets please, the boy and the ruffian come undone,
he was in the park, it was the salutary last person
to hoodwink you and all is well.
There were times a kind of cream was on the jagged borders
or suchlike events and carnivals, and you sat, smiling,
the tongue unleashed from its surroundings. Why was I never here?
Why such playacting? Didn't I ever realize the kernels are deep-seated,
that everyman will overrun his banks just like an errant stream,
and cardboard principles be jostled? O who
mentioned this session? What is the matter with truth and paying
and all over the paisley fields dominoes are braying,
a matter of luck, or chance, it seems? Who broke the next dish?
Why is that man crying,
what does he mean to do? Impertinent, in person,
what does he mean to do,
if these capers are not unusual
and bricks merge with sand, the unusual
at its best as usual, and can't we give up? What
would be the point of continuing? I can't smoke this weed,
I give it back, we are all blessed, commensurates within
a star where many things fit, too many, or not too many, whatever
it says about you, whatever saves.
ALIVE AT EVERY PASSAGE
Roll up your sleeves,
another day has ended. I am not a part of the vine
that was going to put me through school
but instead got sidetracked and wandered over the brink of an abyss
while we were having a good time
in full view of the nearest mountains. Mon trésor, she said, this is where I
disappear for a few moments, I want you to be brave.
Sure, nothing like a date in bed,
waking after midnight to the blank TV screen
that wants us all to listen to its cute life and someday understand
what rhomboids the earth took
on its way down to get us,
that we must be happy and sad forever after. No I don't think
it was in your best interests nor do I shave with an old-fashioned straight-edge,
you dolt. But I was coming to that,
doing the mystifying. So if he says not to be aloha, not again,
well gee in this old-fashioned bar, however will the runts learn from their again imploded
hair balls how straight everything is.
The rest, as they say, as they say, is history:
I captured a barracuda, it was midnight in the old steeple, the clans casually
moved on us, leggings barely jerked out of the ditch. It was folly
to be noticed, then, astir on the perhaps more urgent
surface of what becomes one, indeed comes to become one
through impossible rain and the sly glee of mirrored xylophones.
Say only it was one for the books,
and we, we did belong, though not to anything anybody'd recognize
as civil, or even territory. I need to subscribe,
now, history will carry me along and as gently leave me
here, in the cave, the enormous well-being
of which we may not speak.
Excerpted from Wakefulness by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1998 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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