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Houseboat Days

Houseboat Days

by John Ashbery

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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1.00(w) x 1.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Houseboat Days


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1977 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5915-1


    Street Musicians

    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
—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."

    Collective Dawns

    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.

    Wooden Buildings

    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.

    Unctuous Platitudes

    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 Explanation

    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.

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