The child’s game Chinese Whispers, known in America as Telephone, is an exercise in transforming the recognizable into something beautifully strange. John Ashbery’s twenty-fourth collection of poems, Chinese Whispers, re-creates in every line the accidentally transformative logic of the language game for which the book is named. In sixty-three charged and often very funny poems, Ashbery confronts the relentlessness of age and time while demonstrating, in his unmistakable, self-reflexive style, the process by which a single thought unravels, multiplies, distends, travels, and finally arrives, changed and unfamiliar.
First published in 2002, shortly after Ashbery’s seventy-fifth birthday, Chinese Whispers is a collection in which fairy tales, mysteries, and magic dollhouses interleave effortlessly with the everyday of pancakes and popular culture. Ashbery’s language is absolutely recognizable from modern life as it is experienced, but at the same time is as dreamlike and disquieting as intercepted transmissions from another world.
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About the Author
John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. He has authored more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and he has won numerous American literary awards for his poetry, including a MacArthur Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a National Humanities Medal. His book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. For many years, Ashbery taught graduate and undergraduate poetry courses at Brooklyn College and Bard College, and his most recent book of poems is Quick Question, published in 2012. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
A NICE PRESENTATION
I have a friendly disposition but am forgetful, though I tend to forget only important things. Several mornings ago I was lying in my bed listening to a sound of leisurely hammering coming from a nearby building. For some reason it made me think of spring which it is. Listening I heard also a man and woman talking together. I couldn't hear very well but it seemed they were discussing the work that was being done. This made me smile, they sounded like good and dear people and I was slipping back into dreams when the phone rang. No one was there.
Some of these are perhaps people having to do with anything in the world. I wish to go away, on a dark night, to leave people and the rain behind but am too caught up in my own selfish thoughts and desires for this. For it to happen I would have to be asleep and already started on my voyage of self-discovery around the world. One is certain then to meet many people and to hear many strange things being said. I like this in a way but wish it would stop as the unexpectedness of it conflicts with my desire to revolve in a constant, deliberate motion. To drink tea from a samovar. To use chopsticks in the land of the Asiatics. To be stung by the sun's bees and have it not matter.
Most things don't matter but an old woman of my acquaintance is always predicting doom and gloom and her prophecies matter though they may never be fulfilled. That's one reason I don't worry too much but I like to tell her she is right but also wrong because what she says won't happen. Yet how can I or anyone know this? For the seasons do come round in leisurely fashion and one takes a pinch of something from each, according to one's desires and what it leaves behind. Not long ago I was in a quandary about this but now it's too late. The evening comes on and the aspens leaven its stars. It's all about this observatory a shout fills.
THE VARIORUM EDITION
In collapsed mode the fish seem to ply downriver.
Evening settles in
with as many errors as usual. Too bad
they didn't ask my advice—I'd have told 'em
once more how the residuals taper off
into climate change.
Beer and pretzels is the one luxury here.
Tented figures walk the escarpment
behind which a luxury hotel is planned
for comic suicides in the next decade.
If all of us were one
again, how right life as usual would chime!
We can't keep combing out the old process
and have it rhyme,
neither can we rest at the table under the shade-
tree an anonymous donor provided.
We can only go on extracting fishhooks
from meanings that were intended to be casual.
Night settles briskly as with feather duster
and rag under arm, determined to be not too civilized.
It seems the sky left us
hanging, long ago, and now wants us undetermined,
untried sheep nosing out of mist.
Be thankful for all you haven't been, and could be
in a warier situation. For desk values. The shoehorn.
Our lives ebbing always toward the center,
the unframed portrait.
THE SLEEPING ANIMALS
I forget it. I've even
forgotten that I forgot
it. So go on with your
story, but make it
quick this time.
As if any admission were a cure ...
You can thank me for that,
in fact you can thank me double for that.
We're both riding in the same direction,
and really, how much policing is necessary
to punish people after dark?
Night, the sleeping animals—
it all gets carted away,
sooner or later. The fife and drum
rebegin. It's here that narrative,
in our sense, implodes.
The shabby tale that was left
in the hangar starts to look better, gold
highlights in the corners of the eyes.
But for this to happen we have to trust
the narrator. We must stay vigilant.
The tale is multicolored, and jerks
back and forth like the tail of a kite.
If he was so smart, how come we're not dumber?
How come I can see into the epicenter,
brilliant little ball of cold? Still,
when it's over, it's, like, over.
The colonel returned to his senses.
Quiet around here. The neighbors,
in wider arcs, getting to know each other.
The fresh falling away.
A sweetness wells out of the dark about now.
The explorer angles his telescope
at frigid violets on a settee.
A curate is near.
Frogs and envelopes join in the fun:
That was some joust! they say. Today we learned two things
too many: how to whimper, and the secret stasis of land.
Always, coming home
you pause before the little bridge, sigh, and turn ahead.
The real time of water gives you little wiggling room,
but it's all right, because it's all over.
Some dream accosted me on the turnpike. I felt straitlaced
for a moment, then remembered your threnody,
a cassation of bathtubs and violas d'amore.
It brought me to passion. I was able to turn back
with a clean slate, noting possible drifts
of meaning that disappeared as soon as
illuminated, then reemerged as from a fit of pique.
After my fall from the sixteenth floor my bones were lovingly assembled. They were transparent. I was carried into the gorgeous dollhouse and placed on a fainting couch upholstered with brilliant poppies. My ship had come in, so to speak.
There were others, lovers, sitting and speaking nearby. "Are you the Countess of C?" I demanded. She smiled and returned her gaze to the other. Someone brought in a tray of cakes which were distributed to the guests according to a fixed plan. "Here, this one's for you. Take it." I looked and saw only a small cat rolling in the snow of the darkened gutter. "If this is mine, then I don't want it." Abruptly the chords of a string quartet finished. I was on a shallow porch. The village movie palaces were letting out. I thought I saw a cousin from years back. Before I could call out she turned, sallow. I saw that this was not the person. Conversations continued streaming in the erstwhile twilight, I betook myself to the tollbooth. The pumpkin-yellow sun lit all this up, climbing slowly from ankles to handlebar.
He had shaved his head some seven years ago. The lovers were bored then. They no longer meandered by the brook's side, telling and retelling ancient secrets, as though this time of life were an anomaly, a handicap that had been foreseen. "In truth these labels don't go far. It was I who made a career in singing, but it could just as well have been somewhere else."
Indeed? The dust was sweeping itself up, making sport of the broom. The solar disk was clogged with the bristles of impending resolution. Which direction did he say to take? I'm confused now, a little. It was my understanding we would in joining hands be chastised, that the boss man would be sympathetic, the sly apprentice unresonant as a squatter's tree house. See though, it wasn't me that dictated ...
that dictated the orbits of the plants, the viburnum at the door. And just as I had called to you, the image decomposed. Restlessness of fish in a deodorant ad. By golly, Uncle Ted will soon be here. Until it happens you can catch your breath, looking about the walls of the familiar nest. But his flight was delayed for five hours. Now someone was interested. The travel mishaps of others are truly absorbing. He read from a large timetable and the helium balloon rose straight up out of the city, entered the region of others' indifference and their benighted cares. Can't that child be made to stop practicing?
In another life we were in a cottage made of thin boards, above a small lake. The embroidered hems of waves annoyed the shoreline. There were no boats, only trees and boathouses.
It's good to step off that steel carousel. The woods were made for musicianly echoes, though not all at once. Too many echoes are like no echo, or a single tall one. Please return dishes to main room after using. Try a little subtlety in self-defense; it'll help, you'll find out.
The boards of the cottage grew apart and we walked out into the sand under the sea. It was time for the sun to exhort the mute apathy of sitters, hangers-on. Ballast of the universal dredging operation. The device was called candy. We had seen it all before but would never let on, not until the postman came right up to the door, borne on the noble flood. Racked by jetsam, we cry out for flotsam, anything to stanch the hole in the big ad.
We all came to be here quite naturally. You see we are the lamplighters of our criminal past, trailing red across the sidewalks and divided highways. Yes, she said, you most certainly can come here now and be assured of staying, of starving, forever if we wish, though we shall not observe the dark's convolutions much longer (sob). Utterly you are the under one, we are all neighbors if you wish, but don't under any circumstances go crawling to the barrel organ for sympathy, you would only blow a fuse and where's the force in that? I know your seriousness is long gone, facing pink horizons in other hemispheres. We'd all blow up if it didn't. Meanwhile it's nice to have a chair. A chair is a good thing to be. We should all know that.
The last trail unspools beyond Ohio.
THEME PARK DAYS
Dickhead, they called him, for his name was Dong, Tram Van Dong. Carefully he slid open the small judas in his chest and withdrew a heart-shaped disk. It appeared to be cut from thicknesses of newspaper crudely stapled together. There was handwriting on one side, "spirit writing," he indicated with a motion of his head. Yet it all seemed for naught, ancient stock-market quotations or chalked messages on hoardings of the last century, with plus and minus signs featured prominently. "O vos omnes," he breathed, "blown together like milkweed on the hither shore of this embattled plain, will your feet soon mean to you what once they did? I think not. Meanwhile the tempest brays, favor is curried, the taffetas of autumn slide toward us over the frosted parquet, and this loquat heart is yours for the dividing. Sailboat of the Luxembourg! Vibrations of crisp mornings ripple ever closer, the joiner joins, the ostler ostles, the seducer seduces, nor stirs far from his crimson hammock. Delphic squibs caparison the bleak afternoon and the critics love it, eat it up, can't get enough of it. 'More pap! More pap!' Have a care, though, lest what I tell you here trespass beyond the booth of our conniving. Yet it will spread, as surely as an epidemic becomes the element we have chosen to live in: our old infectious experiment."
IN WHATEVER MODE
"Tenderly," we thought. It estranged us a little.
A later kindness dissipates a sullen era's
awning. In the end we are all bores.
That's what it's for.
I plant my feet on the path
and look down a certain way. Surely, all this is coming
to an end, but, just as surely,
we know ourselves as affable.
A fine furor provoked it, storm swimming
in the weather vane. Two looked out.
"It's bait and switch time." Only if you mean it,
mean, that is, other stars.
The book hadn't been checked out all day.
"What are we to do for you ..." A stranger,
ein Fremdes, shouted. The wide avenue of lamentation.
Others than you I've swatted
when it was impersonal. Now, it's you
I come back to. Out of love? The grown man whimpers.
Be careful with the vegetables, penises.
It was slowly she came down from the roof
to examine the withered nest in my hand, blunt thing.
I'd imagined you brutal, somewhat, under summer scarves.
Now the only way out is backward through the mess of cleaning.
Back to the back rows of the orchestra
where impatient silent citizens wait.
But it's not for us to let them go. Offer them a pear;
see how crystal the ditch is beside the main waterway.
Someone is coming to brunch.
And we can just leave it outdoors
all winter. That way, no one will mind.
It's the beauty of it, beauty of the fallen stone.
FROM THE DIARY OF A MOLE
Shoehorning in one's own tribute to crustiness is another life-form for him. Something then went out of us. In the pagan dawn three polar bears stand in the volumetric sky's grapeade revelation.
"Time to go to the thoughtful house."
They may not get you here, they may not get you there, they may not get you everywhere, but they will get you somewhere. Yet the proposition never came to a vote, was not voted on. You see the realism in it? No, of course you don't, for something else is still there, something to replace all of it in one block. Anent the spillway: His crimes are gorgeous but don't matter just now. Later
we will call him on them. When it subsides. That is, everything.
Just a teardrop of milk, thanks. Don't believe that rag. It inferred we were adolescents, once, that sex roared over us like a mudslide, leaving us. We were lost. So lost, in fact, that his mother didn't know me till I came out toward her, and she knew me and was not afraid, was glad in fact, for the rainbow late in the day in its foam of cloud, poised above the basin. Then I had a preshrunk sweater sent to him and asked if there was anything else. "Nothing, a fresh breeze." Still, leaves are asleep. The bears act as if no one's there. She curls up in the curlew's nest, weeping on its golden eggs. It took the savagery of centuries of animal conflict to bring us just short of this, and you, why have you done? Oh, I don't much matter I guess. If that's all I'll be on my way. To the box in which savage handwriting is hidden, too dense for you to decipher, too lorn for a world to unravel just now, but like they say I'll be suing you. So really it's fine until Christmas I can stand it, a runt, I'll just go on blooming in my box, unaware of things sleeping pagans say about us, glad to crash, collapse the silk hat, garden's done and I'm all in and breathless for a breather. Come right in. What world is this.
TOO MUCH SLEEP IS BAD
I don't have a chronic cough.
Cats don't drool over me.
You can't listen to the change that's being monitored.
You can only participate in your life—
and they finally get it wrong.
THE BIG IDEA
Don't hit the bull's-eye.
The long winter festers,
day after unguarded day.
People are "shoveling out,"
night a monotony of stars and
The Big Idea
flourished for a while, then flagged
short of the summit.
The people's republics
went under like failing bakeries.
Always, in the shadows at the edge,
there was time to say this. And something.
Half past ten and the village
is out of order, shot through
with delirium tremens.
Tomorrow we shall arrive here
wondering what all the fuss was about.
Gawkers perpetuate the misquoted line.
One is all fingertips, one feels something
like at the border, a nowhere shine.
WHY NOT SNEEZE?
Oh dark days and punctual,
always backing into our alley,
feigning surprise for the umpteenth time:
Why don't you just go away?
Leave us to the land that binds
us and itself to present methods.
Leave the golf course simmering in light that has steeped
too long. It's the same with us, dull
on certain days.
Wake up, you're looking at this magazine.
A SWEET PLACE
How happy are the girls on the cocoa tin,
as though there could be nothing in the world but chocolate!
As though to confirm this, a wall stood nearby,
displaying gold medals from various expositions—
Groningen 1893, Anvers 1887—whose judges had had the good sense
to reward the noble chocolatiers. All love's bright-bad sweetness
gleams in those glorious pastilles.
But the empathy valve's
shut by someone—a fibrous mist
invades their stubborn cheeks and flaxen hair.
Time for the next audition.
Who to watch? What new celeb's dithering
is this, commemorated in blazing script?
The torches are extinguished in marl.
I will live in a house in the middle of the road,
it says here. No shit!
What did I do to deserve this? Who controls
this anger management seminar? They've had their way with me;
I am as I was before. Thank heaven! If I could but remember
how that was. Always, it's nightfall
in a wood, some paths are descended,
and looking out over the ropy landscape, one sees
a necessity that was at the beginning.
Further up there is fog. But it's nice being standing:
We should be home soon,
dearest, a dry hearth awaits us, and the indulgence of sleep.
What if I really was a drifter,
would you still like me? Would you vote
for me in the straw polls of November, wait for me
in the anteroom of December, embrace the turbulent, glittering skies
the New Year brings? Lie down with me once and for all?
The radio is silent, fretful; it bides its time
and the world forgets to consider. There is room to tabulate
the wonders of its sesquicentennials,
but the aftermath's unremarkable, picked
clean by a snarky wind.
Then I became as one who followed.
VIEW OF DELFT
The afternoon is slow, slower and slower
until a full stop is reached
long before anyone realized it.
Only the faintest nip in the air
causes these burghers to become aware
that their time is passing too, and then but fitfully.
Go stack those bricks over there.
See what the horse is doing.
Everything around you is waiting.
It is now apologized for.
The sky puts a finger to its lips.
The most optimistic projections confirm
the leakage theory. Another drop in temperature
is anticipated. It's all about standing still,
isn't it? That and remaining in touch with
a loose-fitting impression of oneself:
oneself at fifteen, out at night
or at a party in the daytime.
Oh sure, I knew it was me all along.
Then the sneezes got up to go.
Excerpted from Chinese Whispers by John Ashbery. Copyright © 2002 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.
Table of Contents
A Nice Presentation,
The Variorum Edition,
The Sleeping Animals,
Theme Park Days,
In Whatever Mode,
From the Diary of a Mole,
Too Much Sleep Is Bad,
The Big Idea,
Why Not Sneeze?,
A Sweet Place,
View of Delft,
Postilion of Autumn,
This Deuced Cleverness,
The Lightning Conductor,
I Asked Mr. Dithers Whether It Was Time Yet He Said No to Wait,
Haven't Heard Anything,
In the Time of Pussy Willows,
All That Now,
Little Sick Poem,
A Man Clamored,
Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,
Portrait with a Goat,
The Decals in the Hallway,
The Evening of Greuze,
As Umbrellas Follow Rain,
Reminiscences of Norma,
Random Jottings of an Old Man,
Her Cardboard Lover,
On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments,
The Business of Falling Asleep,
Hints and Fragments,
If You Ask Me,
Like Air, Almost,
The Blessed Way Out,
Sight to Behold,
The Business of Falling Asleep (2),
Sir Gammer Vans,
About the Author,