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by John Ashbery

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Greg Harris
Wakefulness is further proof [Ashberry] is one of the most vital, revelatory, and original poets we have. His vigilance is a blessing upon poetry, a wake-up call to all slumbering aesthetics. -- American Book Review
Library Journal
Even after 40 years, Ashbery's work can still be relied upon to provoke argument, from the strenuously theoretical to the bluntly dismissive. In tone and strategy, the lyric poems in this new work are indistinguishable from those in his last, Can You Hear, Bird? (LJ 11/15/95), which is to say that they are no less surprising, labyrinthine, funny, and self-justifying ("Then the book opened by itself/ and read to us"). But through the glittering ironwork of Ashbery's eccentric imagery ("the cabbage-hemmed horizons") and eurhythmic sound ("And the hooligan/ ogles a calla lily"), one can now more readily spot the empty spaces, the poems where Ashbery seems less engaged in inspired pursuit (e.g., "Wakefulness," "The Friend at Midnight") than in routinely assembling what readers have now gotten used to recognizing as an Ashbery poem. Still, for all the blush that has worn off with familiarity, Ashbery's workmore dramatically than that of most other poetsallows us to see the purely figurative without reliance on the literal and to accept it as literalwhich is of course the experience poetry itself was designed to embody.Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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6.06(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.34(d)

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By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1998 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5912-0



    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.


    In other places where it was found
    necessary for there to be buttons, expectations were naturally higher, and higher,
    and higher.
    a sow's purse translates into a silk ear, and communications
    are jammed.
    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
    variously tooted.
    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.


    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


    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.


    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 ...)"
    —Stepan Wolpe

    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
    this worldliness?
    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
    is tremendous,
    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.


    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.
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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