John Ashbery, The Dong with the Luminous Nose (1998)

The Dong With the Luminous Nose
(a cento)

Within a windowed niche of that high hall
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night.
Come, Shepherd, and again renew the quest.
And birds sit brooding in the snow.

Continuous as the stars that shine,
When all men were asleep the snow came flying
Near where the dirty Thames does flow
Through caverns measureless to man,
Where thou shalt see the red-gilled fishes leap
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws
Where the remote Bermudas ride.

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me:
This is the cock that crowed in the morn.
Who’ll be the parson?
Beppo! That beard of yours becomes you not!
A gentle answer did the old Man make:
Farewell, ungrateful traitor,
Bright as a seedsman’s packet
Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles.

Obscurest night involved the sky
And brickdust Moll had screamed through half a street:
“Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
Every night and alle,
The happy highways where I went
To the hills of Chankly Bore!”

Where are you going to, my pretty maid?
These lovers fled away into the storm
And it’s O dear, what can the matter be?
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple bells they say:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
On the wide level of the mountain’s head,
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,
In autumn, on the skirts of Bagley Wood.
A ship is floating in the harbour now,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

from John Ashbery’s Wakefulness (1998)

Having contracted his scope and formal means, Ashbery again gave free rein to his expansive impulses in Can You Hear, Bird (1995), which remains his longest collection to date. Organized alphabetically by poem title, the book is informed by the playful formalism of Oulipo, as its dedication to Harry Mathews suggests. The most spectacular instance of Ashbery’s simultaneous attraction to and impatience with formal constraint comes in “Tuesday Evening,” a long nonsense poem whose rhymed quatrains gradually move from strict tetrameter to sprawling Ogden Nash lines. Wakefulness (1998) is the shortest of Ashbery’s recent collections, which may explain why it seems less distinctive in theme and texture than the others, mostly picking up threads from previous books. Its most sustained engagement with poetic tradition comes in “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” an ingenious cento that patches lines from famous poems by Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Edward Lear, and others into a surprisingly coherent quilt.
Roger Gilbert, “Ludic Eloquence: On John Ashbery’s Recent Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 48.2 (2007). 195-226. 223 n. 15.

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