Rivers and Mountains

Rivers and Mountains

by John Ashbery

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From one of our most important modern poets comes an essential early collection, including the famous long poems “The Skaters” and “Clepsydra”

When Rivers and Mountains was published in 1966, American poetry was in a state of radical redefinition, with John Ashbery recognized as one of the leading voices in the New York School of poets. Ashbery himself had just returned to America from ten years abroad working as an art critic in France, and Rivers and Mountains, his third published collection of poems, is now considered by many critics to represent a pivotal transition point in his artistic career. The poet who would gain widespread acclaim with his multiple-award-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) is, in this collection, still very much engaged in the intimate, personal project of taking his poetry apart and putting it back together again, interrogating not just the act of writing but poetry itself—its purpose, its composition, its fundamental parts.
Nominated for a National Book Award by a panel of judges that included W. H. Auden and James Dickey, Rivers and Mountains includes two of Ashbery’s most studied and admired works. “Clepsydra,” which takes its name from an ancient device for measuring the passage of time, echoes both the physical form and the philosophical weight of a water clock in its contemplation of the experience of time as it passes. “The Skaters,” the long poem that closes the collection, was immediately praised as a masterpiece of modern American poetry, and is the work that perhaps most clearly introduces the voice for which Ashbery is now well known and loved: generous, restless, wide-ranging, and human. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480459199
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/09/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 230,695
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. He authored more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and he 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.
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

Rivers and Mountains


By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1997 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5919-9


    These Lacustrine Cities

    These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
    Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
    They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
    Though this is only one example.

    They emerged until a tower
    Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
    Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
    Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

    Then you are left with an idea of yourself
    And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon
    Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others
    Who fly by you like beacons.

    The night is a sentinel.
    Much of your time has been occupied by creative games
    Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.
    We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,

    To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air
    To you, pressing you back into a startled dream
    As sea-breezes greet a child's face.
    But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.

    The worst is not over, yet I know
    You will be happy here. Because of the logic
    Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
    Tender and insouciant by turns, you see

    You have built a mountain of something,
    Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
    Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
    Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

    Rivers and Mountains

    On the secret map the assassins
    Cloistered, the Moon River was marked
    Near the eighteen peaks and the city
    Of humiliation and defeat—wan ending
    Of the trail among dry, papery leaves,
    Gray-brown quills like thoughts
    In the melodious but vast mass of today's
    Writing through fields and swamps
    Marked, on the map, with little bunches of weeds.
    Certainly squirrels lived in the woods
    But devastation and dull sleep still
    Hung over the land, quelled
    The rioters turned out of sleep in the peace of prisons
    Singing on marble factory walls
    Deaf consolation of minor tunes that pack
    The air with heavy invisible rods
    Pent in some sand valley from
    Which only quiet walking ever instructs.
    The bird flew over and
    Sat—there was nothing else to do.
    Do not mistake its silence for pride or strength
    Or the waterfall for a harbor
    Full of light boats that is there
    Performing for thousands of people
    In clothes some with places to go
    Or games. Sometimes over the pillar
    Of square stones its impact
    Makes a light print.

    So going around cities
    To get to other places you found
    It all on paper but the land
    Was made of paper processed
    To look like ferns, mud or other
    Whose sea unrolled its magic
    Distances and then rolled them up
    Its secret was only a pocket
    After all but some corners are darker
    Than these moonless nights spent as on a raft
    In the seclusion of a melody heard
    As though through trees
    And you can never ignite their touch
    Long but there were homes
    Flung far out near the asperities
    Of a sharp, rocky pinnacle
    And other collective places
    Shadows of vineyards whose wine
    Tasted of the forest floor
    Fisheries and oyster beds
    Tides under the pole
    Seminaries of instruction, public
    Places for electric light
    And the major tax assessment area
    Wrinkled on the plan
    Of election to public office
    Sixty-two years old bath and breakfast
    The formal traffic, shadows
    To make it not worth joining
    After the ox had pulled away the cart.

    Your plan was to separate the enemy into two groups
    With the razor-edged mountains between.
    It worked well on paper
    But their camp had grown
    To be the mountains and the map
    Carefully peeled away and not torn
    Was the light, a tender but tough bark
    On everything. Fortunately the war was solved
    In another way by isolating the two sections
    Of the enemy's navy so that the mainland
    Warded away the big floating ships.
    Light bounced off the ends
    Of the small gray waves to tell
    Them in the observatory
    About the great drama that was being won
    To turn off the machinery
    And quietly move among the rustic landscape
    Scooping snow off the mountains rinsing
    The coarser ones that love had
    Slowly risen in the night to overflow
    Wetting pillow and petal
    Determined to place the letter
    On the unassassinated president's desk
    So that a stamp could reproduce all this
    In detail, down to the last autumn leaf
    And the affliction of June ride
    Slowly out into the sun-blackened landscape.

    Last Month

    No changes of support—only
    Patches of gray, here where sunlight fell.
    The house seems heavier
    Now that they have gone away.
    In fact it emptied in record time.
    When the flat table used to result
    A match recedes, slowly, into the night.
    The academy of the future is
    Opening its doors and willing
    The fruitless sunlight streams into domes,
    The chairs piled high with books and papers.

    The sedate one is this month's skittish one
    Confirming the property that,
    A timeless value, has changed hands.
    And you could have a new automobile
    Ping pong set and garage, but the thief
    Stole everything like a miracle.
    In his book there was a picture of treason only
    And in the garden, cries and colors.

    Civilization and Its Discontents

    A people chained to aurora
    I alone disarming you

    Millions of facts of distributed light

    Helping myself with some big boxes
    Up the steps, then turning to no neighborhood;
    The child's psalm, slightly sung
    In the hall rushing into the small room.
    Such fire! leading away from destruction.
    Somewhere in outer ether I glimpsed you
    Coming at me, the solo barrier did it this time,
    Guessing us staying, true to be at the blue mark
    Of the threshold. Tired of planning it again and again,
    The cool boy distant, and the soaked-up
    Afterthought, like so much rain, or roof.

    The miracle took you in beside him.
    Leaves rushed the window, there was clear water and the sound of a lock.
    Now I never see you much any more.
    The summers are much colder than they used to be
    In that other time, when you and I were young.
    I miss the human truth of your smile,
    The halfhearted gaze of your palms,
    And all things together, but there is no comic reign
    Only the facts you put to me. You must not, then,
    Be very surprised if I am alone: it is all for you,
    The night, and the stars, and the way we used to be.

    There is no longer any use in harping on
    The incredible principle of daylong silence, the dark sunlight
    As only the grass is beginning to know it,
    The wreath of the north pole,
    Festoons for the late return, the shy pensioners
    Agasp on the lamplit air. What is agreeable
    Is to hold your hand. The gravel
    Underfoot. The time is for coming close. Useless
    Verbs shooting the other words far away.
    I had already swallowed the poison
    And could only gaze into the distance at my life
    Like a saint's with each day distinct.
    No heaviness in the upland pastures. Nothing
    In the forest. Only life under the huge trees
    Like a coat that has grown too big, moving far away,
    Cutting swamps for men like lapdogs, holding its own,
    Performing once again, for you and for me.

    If the Birds Knew

    It is better this year.
    And the clothes they wear
    In the gray unweeded sky of our earth
    There is no possibility of change
    Because all of the true fragments are here.
    So I was glad of the fog's
    Taking me to you
    Undetermined summer thing eaten
    Of grief and passage—where you stay.
    The wheel is ready to turn again.
    When you have gone it will light up,
    The shadow of the spokes to drown
    Your departure where the summer knells
    Speak to grown dawn.
    There is after all a kind of promise
    To the affair of the waiting weather.
    We have learned not to be tired
    Among the lanterns of this year of sleep
    But someone pays—no transparency
    Has ever hardened us before
    To long piers of silence, and hedges
    Of understanding, difficult passing
    From one lesson to the next and the coldness
    Of the consistency of our lives'
    Devotion to immaculate danger.
    A leaf would have settled the disturbance
    Of the atmosphere, but at that high
    Valley's point disbanded
    Clouds that rocks smote newly
    The person or persons involved
    Parading slowly through the sunlit fields
    Not only as though the danger did not exist
    But as though the birds were in on the secret.

    Into the Dusk-Charged Air

    Far from the Rappahannock, the silent
    Danube moves along toward the sea.
    The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
    Like the Niagara's welling descent.
    Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
    Near where it joined the Cher.
    The St. Lawrence prods among black stones
    And mud. But the Arno is all stones.
    Wind ruffles the Hudson's
    Surface. The Irawaddy is overflowing.
    But the yellowish, gray Tiber
    Is contained within steep banks. The Isar
    Flows too fast to swim in, the Jordan's water
    Courses over the flat land. The Allegheny and its boats
    Were dark blue. The Moskowa is
    Gray boats. The Amstel flows slowly.
    Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
    Underneath. The Liffey is full of sewage,
    Like the Seine, but unlike
    The brownish-yellow Dordogne.
    Mountains hem in the Colorado
    And the Oder is very deep, almost
    As deep as the Congo is wide.
    The plain banks of the Neva are
    Gray. The dark Saône flows silently.
    And the Volga is long and wide
    As it flows across the brownish land. The Ebro
    Is blue, and slow. The Shannon flows
    Swiftly between its banks. The Mississippi
    Is one of the world's longest rivers, like the Amazon.
    It has the Missouri for a tributary.
    The Harlem flows amid factories
    And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
    Flowing. Through hard banks the Dubawnt
    Forces its way. People walk near the Trent.
    The landscape around the Mohawk stretches away;
    The Rubicon is merely a brook.
    In winter the Main
    Surges; the Rhine sings its eternal song.
    The Rhône slogs along through whitish banks
    And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past.
    The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
    But the Moldau's wet mud ensnares it.
    The East catches the light.
    Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
    And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
    The Po too flows, and the many-colored
    Thames. Into the Atlantic Ocean
    Pours the Garonne. Few ships navigate
    On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
    On the Elbe. For centuries
    The Afton has flowed.

    If the Rio Negro
    Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
    The jungle flowers, the Tagus
    Would still flow serenely, and the Ohio
    Abrade its slate banks. The tan Euphrates would
    Sidle silently across the world. The Yukon
    Was choked with ice, but the Susquehanna still pushed
    Bravely along. The Dee caught the day's last flares
    Like the Pilcomayo's carrion rose.
    The Peace offered eternal fragrance
    Perhaps, but the Mackenzie churned livid mud
    Like tan chalk-marks. Near where
    The Brahmaputra slapped swollen dikes
    Was an opening through which the Limmat
    Could have trickled. A young man strode the Churchill's
    Banks, thinking of night. The Vistula seized
    The shadows. The Theiss, stark mad, bubbled
    In the windy evening. And the Ob shuffled
    Crazily along. Fat billows encrusted the Dniester's
    Pallid flood, and the Fraser's porous surface.
    Fish gasped amid the Spree's reeds. A boat
    Descended the bobbing Orinoco. When the
    Marne flowed by the plants nodded
    And above the glistering Gila
    A sunset as beautiful as the Athabaska
    Stammered. The Zambezi chimed. The Oxus
    Flowed somewhere. The Parnaiba
    Is flowing, like the wind-washed Cumberland.
    The Araguaia flows in the rain.
    And, through overlying rocks the Isère
    Cascades gently. The Guadalquivir sputtered.
    Someday time will confound the Indre,
    Making a rill of the Hwang. And
    The Potomac rumbles softly. Crested birds
    Watch the Ucalyali go
    Through dreaming night. You cannot stop
    The Yenisei. And afterwards
    The White flows strongly to its ...
    Goal. If the Tyne's shores
    Hold you, and the Albany
    Arrest your development, can you resist the Red's
    Musk, the Meuse's situation?
    A particle of mud in the Neckar
    Does not turn it black. You cannot
    Like the Saskatchewan, nor refuse
    The meandering Yangtze, unleash
    The Genesee. Does the Scamander
    Still irrigate crimson plains? And the Durance
    And the Pechora? The São Francisco
    Skulks amid gray, rubbery nettles. The Liard's
    Reflexes are slow, and the Arkansas erodes
    Anthracite hummocks. The Paraná stinks.
    The Ottawa is light emerald green
    Among grays. Better that the Indus fade
    In steaming sands! Let the Brazos
    Freeze solid! And the Wabash turn to a leaden
    Cinder of ice! The Marañón is too tepid, we must
    Find a way to freeze it hard. The Ural
    Is freezing slowly in the blasts. The black Yonne
    Congeals nicely. And the Petit-Morin
    Curls up on the solid earth. The Inn
    Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack's
    Galvanized. The Ganges is liquid snow by now;
    The Vyatka's ice-gray. The once-molten Tennessee's
    Curdled. The Japurá is a pack of ice. Gelid
    The Columbia's gray loam banks. The Don's merely
    A giant icicle. The Niger freezes, slowly.
    The interminable Lena plods on
    But the Purus' mercurial waters are icy, grim
    With cold. The Loing is choked with fragments of ice.
    The Weser is frozen, like liquid air.

    And so is the Kama. And the beige, thickly flowing
    Tocantins. The rivers bask in the cold.
    The stern Uruguay chafes its banks,
    A mass of ice. The Hooghly is solid
    Ice. The Adour is silent, motionless.
    The lovely Tigris is nothing but scratchy ice
    Like the Yellowstone, with its osier-clustered banks.
    The Mekong is beginning to thaw out a little
    And the Donets gurgles beneath the
    Huge blocks of ice. The Manzanares gushes free.
    The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
    But the Dnieper is still ice-bound. Somewhere
    The Salado propels its floes, but the Roosevelt's
    Frozen. The Oka is frozen solider
    Than the Somme. The Minho slumbers
    In winter, nor does the Snake
    Remember August. Hilarious, the Canadian
    Is solid ice. The Madeira slavers
    Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.
    The Dvina soaks up the snow. The Sava's
    Temperature is above freezing. The Avon
    Carols noiselessly. The Drôme presses
    Grass banks; the Adige's frozen
    Surface is like gray pebbles.
    Birds circle the Ticino. In winter
    The Var was dark blue, unfrozen. The
    Thwaite, cold, is choked with sandy ice;
    The Ardèche glistens feebly through the freezing rain.

    The Ecclesiast

    "Worse than the sunflower," she had said.
    But the new dimension of truth had only recently
    Burst in on us. Now it was to be condemned.
    And in vagrant shadow her mothball truth is eaten.
    In cool, like-it-or-not shadow the humdrum is consumed.
    Tired housewives begat it some decades ago,
    A small piece of truth that if it was honey to the lips
    Was also millions of miles from filling the place reserved for it.
    You see how honey crumbles your universe
    Which seems like an institution—how many walls?

    Then everything, in her belief, was to be submerged
    And soon. There was no life you could live out to its end
    And no attitude which, in the end, would save you.
    The monkish and the frivolous alike were to be trapped in death's capacious
    But listen while I tell you about the wallpaper—
    There was a key to everything in that oak forest
    But a sad one. Ever since childhood there
    Has been this special meaning to everything.
    You smile at your friend's joke, but only later, through tears.

    For the shoe pinches, even though it fits perfectly.
    Apples were made to be gathered, also the whole host of the world's ailments
    There is no time like the present for giving in to this temptation.
    Tomorrow you'll weep—what of it? There is time enough
    Once the harvest is in and the animals put away for the winter
    To stand at the uncomprehending window cultivating the desert
    With salt tears which will never do anyone any good.
    My dearest I am as a galleon on salt billows.
    Perfume my head with forgetting all about me.

    For some day these projects will return.
    The funereal voyage over ice-strewn seas is ended.
    You wake up forgetting. Already
    Daylight shakes you in the yard.
    The hands remain empty. They are constructing an osier basket
    Just now, and across the sunlight darkness is taking root anew
    In intense activity. You shall never have seen it just this way
    And that is to be your one reward.

    Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living.
    The night is cold and delicate and full of angels
    Pounding down the living. The factories are all lit up,
    The chime goes unheard.
    We are together at last, though far apart.

    The Recent Past

    Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination.
    As today the sky 70 degrees above zero with lines falling
    The way September moves a lace curtain to be near a pear,
    The oddest device can't be usual. And that is where
    The pejorative sense of fear moves axles. In the stars
    There is no longer any peace, emptied like a cup of coffee
    Between the blinding rain that interviews.

    You were my quintuplets when I decided to leave you
    Opening a picture book the pictures were all of grass
    Slowly the book was on fire, you the reader
    Sitting with specs full of smoke exclaimed
    How it was a rhyme for "brick" or "redder."
    The next chapter told all about a brook.

    You were beginning to see the relation when a tidal wave
    Arrived with sinking ships that spelled out "Aladdin."
    I thought about the Arab boy in his cave
    But the thoughts came faster than advice.
    If you knew that snow was a still toboggan in space
    The print could rhyme with "fallen star."


Excerpted from Rivers and Mountains by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1997 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


Publisher's Note,
These Lacustrine Cities,
Rivers and Mountains,,
Last Month,
Civilization and Its Discontents,
If the Birds Knew,
Into the Dusk-Charged Air,
The Ecclesiast,
The Recent Past,
The Thousand Islands,
A Blessing in Disguise,
The Skaters,
About the Author,

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