Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
One died, and the soul was wrenched out
Of the other in life, who, walking the streets
Wrapped in an identity like a coat, sees on and on
The same corners, volumetrics, shadows
Under trees. Farther than anyone was ever
Called, through increasingly suburban airs
And ways, with autumn falling over everything:
The plush leaves the chattels in barrels
Of an obscure family being evicted
Into the way it was, and is. The other beached
Glimpses of what the other was up to:
Revelations at last. So they grew to hate and forget each other.
So I cradle this average violin that knows
Only forgotten showtunes, but argues
The possibility of free declamation anchored
To a dull refrain, the year turning over on itself
In November, with the spaces among the days
More literal, the meat more visible on the bone.
Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in pine forests,
In coves with the water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could.
The Other Tradition
They all came, some wore sentiments
Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness
Of the hour, and indeed the sun slanted its rays
Through branches of Norfolk Island pine as though
Politely clearing its throat, and all ideas settled
In a fuzz of dust under trees when it's drizzling:
The endless games of Scrabble, the boosters,
The celebrated omelette au Cantal, and through it
The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices
Of the days, dragging every sexual moment of it
Past the lenses: the end of something.
Only then did you glance up from your book,
Unable to comprehend what had been taking place, or
Say what you had been reading. More chairs
Were brought, and lamps were lit, but it tells
Nothing of how all this proceeded to materialize
Before you and the people waiting outside and in the next
Street, repeating its name over and over, until silence
Moved halfway up the darkened trunks,
And the meeting was called to order.
I still remember
How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.
The road home was nicer then. Dispersing, each of the
Troubadours had something to say about how charity
Had run its race and won, leaving you the ex-president
Of the event, and how, though many of those present
Had wished something to come of it, if only a distant
Wisp of smoke, yet none was so deceived as to hanker
After that cool non-being of just a few minutes before,
Now that the idea of a forest had clamped itself
Over the minutiae of the scene. You found this
Charming, but turned your face fully toward night,
Speaking into it like a megaphone, not hearing
Or caring, although these still live and are generous
And all ways contained, allowed to come and go
Indefinitely in and out of the stockade
They have so much trouble remembering, when your forgetting
Rescues them at last, as a star absorbs the night.
Sometimes a word will start it, like
Hands and feet, sun and gloves. The way
Is fraught with danger, you say, and I
Notice the word "fraught" as you are telling
Me about huge secret valleys some distance from
The mired fighting—"but always, lightly wooded
As they are, more deeply involved with the outcome
That will someday paste a black, bleeding label
In the sky, but until then
The echo, flowing freely in corridors, alleys,
And tame, surprised places far from anywhere,
Will be automatically locked out—vox
Clamans—do you see? End of tomorrow.
Don't try to start the car or look deeper
Into the eternal wimpling of the sky: luster
On luster, transparency floated onto the topmost layer
Until the whole thing overflows like a silver
Wedding cake or Christmas tree, in a cascade of tears."
You can have whatever you want.
Own it, I mean. In the sense
Of twisting it to you, through long, spiralling afternoons.
It has a sense beyond that meaning that was dropped there
And left to rot. The glacier seems
Impervious but is all shot through
With amethyst and the loud, distraught notes of the cuckoo.
They say the town is coming apart.
And people go around with a fragment of a smile
Missing from their faces. Life is getting cheaper
In some senses. Over the tops of old hills
The sunset jabs down, angled in a way it couldn't have
Been before. The bird-sellers walk back into it.
"We needn't fire their kilns; tonight is the epic
Night of the world. Grettir is coming back to us.
His severed hand has grabbed the short sword
And jumped back onto his wrist. The whole man is waking up.
The island is becoming a sun. Wait by this
Mistletoe bush and you will get the feeling of really
Being out of the world and with it. The sun
Is now an inlet of freshness whose very nature
Causes it to dry up." The old poems
In the book have changed value once again. Their black letter
Fools only themselves into ignoring their stiff, formal qualities, and they move
Insatiably out of reach of bathos and the bad line
Into a weird ether of forgotten dismemberments. Was it
This rosebud? Who said that?
The time of all forgotten
Things is at hand.
Therefore I write you
This bread and butter letter, you my friend
Who saved me from the mill pond of chill doubt
As to my own viability, and from the proud village
Of bourgeois comfort and despair, the mirrored spectacles of grief.
Let who can take courage from the dawn's
Coming up with the same idiot solution under another guise
So that all meanings should be scrambled this way
No matter how important they were to the men
Coming in the future, since this is the way it has to happen
For all things under the shrinking light to change
And the pattern to follow them, unheeded, bargained for
As it too is absorbed. But the guesswork
Has been taken out of millions of nights. The gasworks
Know it and fall to the ground, though no doom
Says it through the long cool hours of rest
While it sleeps as it can, as in fact it must, for the man to find himself.
The tests are good. You need a million of them.
You'd die laughing as I write to you
Through leaves and articulations, yes, laughing
Myself silly too. The funniest little thing ...
That's how it all began. Looking back on it,
I wonder now if it could have been on some day
Findable in an old calendar? But no,
It wasn't out of history, but inside it.
That's the thing. On whatever day we came
To a small house built just above the water,
You had to stoop over to see inside the attic window.
Someone had judged the height to be just right
The way the light came in, and they are
Giving that party, to turn on that dishwasher
And we may be led, then, upward through more
Powerful forms of poetry, past columns
With peeling posters on them, to the country of indifference.
Meanwhile if the swell diapasons, blooms
Unhappily and too soon, the little people are nonetheless real.
Out here on Cottage Grove it matters. The galloping
Wind balks at its shadow. The carriages
Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.
This is America calling:
The mirroring of state to state,
Of voice to voice on the wires,
The force of colloquial greetings like golden
Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.
In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives;
The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.
If this is the way it is let's leave,
They agree, and soon the slow boxcar journey begins,
Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs
Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered
Only as a recurring tic. And midway
We meet the disappointed, returning ones, without its
Being able to stop us in the headlong night
Toward the nothing of the coast. At Bolinas
The houses doze and seem to wonder why through the
Pacific haze, and the dreams alternately glow and grow dull.
Why be hanging on here? Like kites, circling,
Slipping on a ramp of air, but always circling?
But the variable cloudiness is pouring it on,
Flooding back to you like the meaning of a joke.
The land wasn't immediately appealing; we built it
Partly over with fake ruins, in the image of ourselves:
An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling stone pier
For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed
And only partially designed. How are we to inhabit
This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,
As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,
In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet
Unrealized projects, and a strict sense
Of time running out, of evening presenting
The tactfully folded-over bill? And we fit
Rather too easily into it, become transparent,
Almost ghosts. One day
The birds and animals in the pasture have absorbed
The color, the density of the surroundings,
The leaves are alive, and too heavy with life.
A long period of adjustment followed.
In the cities at the turn of the century they knew about it
But were careful not to let on as the iceman and the milkman
Disappeared down the block and the postman shouted
His daily rounds. The children under the trees knew it
But all the fathers returning home
On streetcars after a satisfying day at the office undid it:
The climate was still floral and all the wallpaper
In a million homes all over the land conspired to hide it.
One day we thought of painted furniture, of how
It just slightly changes everything in the room
And in the yard outside, and how, if we were going
To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today,
It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details
So as to be able to include them; otherwise the narrative
Would have that flat, sandpapered look the sky gets
Out in the middle west toward the end of summer,
The look of wanting to back out before the argument
Has been resolved, and at the same time to save appearances
So that tomorrow will be pure. Therefore, since we have to do our business
In spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?
That way, maybe the feeble lakes and swamps
Of the back country will get plugged into the circuit
And not just the major events but the whole incredible
Mass of everything happening simultaneously and pairing off,
Channeling itself into history, will unroll
As carefully and as casually as a conversation in the next room,
And the purity of today will invest us like a breeze,
Only be hard, spare, ironical: something one can
Tip one's hat to and still get some use out of.
The parade is turning into our street.
My stars, the burnished uniforms and prismatic
Features of this instant belong here. The land
Is pulling away from the magic, glittering coastal towns
To an aforementioned rendezvous with August and December.
The hunch is it will always be this way,
The look, the way things first scared you
In the night light, and later turned out to be,
Yet still capable, all the same, of a narrow fidelity
To what you and they wanted to become:
No sighs like Russian music, only a vast unraveling
Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond
To these bare fields, built at today's expense.
The Gazing Grain
The tires slowly came to a rubbery stop.
Alliterative festoons in the sky noted
That this branchy birthplace of presidents was also
The big frigidaire-cum-cowbarn where mendicant
And margrave alike waited out the results
Of the natural elections. So any openness of song
Was the plainer way. O take me to the banks
Of your Mississippi over there, etc. Like a plant
Rooted in parched earth I am
A stranger myself in the dramatic lighting,
The result of war. That which is given to see
At any moment is the residue, shadowed
In gold or emerging into the clear bluish haze
Of uncertainty. We come back to ourselves
Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement.
These days stand like vapor under the trees.
There is no reason for the surcharge to bother you.
Living in a city one is nonplussed by some
Of the inhabitants. The weather has grown gray with age.
Poltergeists go about their business, sometimes
Demanding a sweeping revision. The breath of the air
Is invisible. People stay
Next to the edges of fields, hoping that out of nothing
Something will come, and it does, but what? Embers
Of the rain tamp down the shitty darkness that issues
From nowhere. A man in her room, you say.
I like the really wonderful way you express things
So that it might be said, that of all the ways in which to
Emphasize a posture or a particular mental climate
Like this gray-violet one with a thin white irregular line
Descending the two vertical sides, these are those which
Can also unsay an infinite number of pauses
In the ceramic day. Every invitation
To every stranger is met at the station.
The Couple in the Next Room
She liked the blue drapes. They made a star
At the angle. A boy in leather moved in.
Later they found names from the turn of the century
Coming home one evening. The whole of being
Unknown absorbed into the stalk. A free
Bride on the rails warning to notice other
Hers and the great graves that outwore them
Like faces on a building, the lightning rod
Of a name calibrated all their musing differences.
Another day. Deliberations are recessed
In an iron-blue chamber of that afternoon
On which we wore things and looked well at
A slab of business rising behind the stars.
The luxury of now is that the cancelled gala has been
Put back in. The orchestra is starting to tune up.
The tone-row of a dripping faucet is batted back and forth
Among the kitchen, the confusion outside, the pale bluster
Of the sky, the correct but insidious grass.
The conductor, a glass of water, permits all kinds
Of wacky analogies to glance off him, and, circling outward,
To bring in the night. Nothing is too "unimportant"
Or too important, for that matter. The newspaper and the garbage
Wrapped in it, the over, the under.
You get thrown to one side
Into a kind of broom closet as the argument continues carolling
Ideas from the novel of which this is the unsuccessful
Stage adaptation. Too much, perhaps, gets lost.
What about arriving after sunset on the beach of a
Dank but extremely beautiful island to hear the speeches
Of the invisible natives, whose punishment is speech?
At the top of his teddy-bear throne, the ruler,
Still lit by the sun, gazes blankly across at something
Opposite. His eyes are empty rectangles, shaped
Like slightly curved sticks of chewing gum. He witnesses.
But we are the witnesses.
In the increasingly convincing darkness
The words become palpable, like a fruit
That is too beautiful to eat. We want these
Down here on our level. But the tedium persists
In the form of remarks exchanged by birds
Before the curtain. What am I doing up here?
Pretending to resist but secretly giving in so as to reappear
In a completely new outfit and group of colors once today's
Bandage has been removed, is all.
Loving Mad Tom
You thought it was wrong. And afterwards
When everyone had gone out, their lying persisted in your ears,
Across the water. You didn't see the miserable dawns piled up,
One after the other, stretching away. Their word only
Waited for you like the truth, and sometimes
Out of a pure, unintentional song, the meaning
Stammered nonetheless, and your zeal could see
To the opposite shore, where it was all coming true.
Then to lay it down like a load
And take up the dream stitching again, as though
It were still old, as on a bright, unseasonably cold
Afternoon, is a dream past living. Best to leave it there
And quickly tiptoe out. The music ended anyway. The occasions
In your arms went along with it and seemed
To supply the necessary sense. But like
A farmhouse in the city, on some busy, deserted metropolitan avenue,
It was all too much in the way it fell silent,
Forewarned, as though an invisible face looked out
From hooded windows, as the rain suddenly starts to fall
And the lightning goes crazy, and the thunder faints dead away.
That was a way of getting here,
He thought. A spear of fire, a horse of air,
And the rest is done for you, to go with the rest,
To match up with everything accomplished until now.
And always one stream is pointing north
To reeds and leaves, and the stunned land
Flowers in dejection. This station in the woods,
How was it built? This place
Of communicating back along the way, all the way back?
And in an orgy of minutes the waiting
Seeks to continue, to begin again,
Amid bugs, the harking of dogs, all the
Maddening irregularities of trees, and night falls anyway.
Excerpted from Houseboat Days by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1977 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.