In case after reading yesterday’s “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” you were wondering, like me, what “a long nonsense poem” by John Ashbery looked / sounded / felt like, here is
She plundered the fun in his hair.
The others were let go.
There was a wet star on the stair.
Upstairs it had decided to snow.
Not everyone gets off at this stop
the turtlelike conductor said.
If you’d like to hear those beans hop
it could be arranged in your head.
Now from every side, cheerleaders
and their disc-eyed boyfriends come.
The latter put up bird feeders.
Birds alight on them and are dumb
with anticipation of the meal.
The punishment is not due
in our time said the wise old eel.
Its overture is still distant in the blue
sign of a vacant factory. You’ll know
when it starts up. Darn! That’s what I thought
it would be, I said. Isn’t there a hoe
somewhere to root these weeds out?
Or a chair on a blanket
of a manor house in time
and shouldn’t we somehow thank it
for the perfection of the climb?
Straight over roads, in culottes
the marching women go. Why besmirch
that casket, choose fleshpots
over a stand of young birch?
The veranda failed to make an impression,
ditto the lavaliere.
Potted ferns have become my obsession,
waltzing under the chandelier.
No one weeps to me anymore.
Then up and spake greengrocer Fred:
“Time and love are a whore
and after the news there is bed
to take to. Don’t you agree?
It’s lonely to believe, but it’s half
the fun. Here, take a pee
on me, but over there by that calf.”
The things we thought of naming
are crystals now. You can see from the porte cochere
now a small business flaming,
now the besotted rind of some pear.
It all seems ages ago—that time
of not being able to choose
or think of a rhyme
for “so many books to peruse
until the body is done.” A chicken
might pass by and never notice
us standing pale as a mannequin,
clutching a fistful of myositis
as though this would matter some day to some lover
when the time was ripe and our mooring
had been sliced. Then it would be time to rediscover
a plashing that would seem more alluring
for being ancient. You see, the past
never happened. Nothing can survive long in its heady
embrace. Our memories are a simulcast
of lost conventions, already
drowning in their sleep. In some such
wise we outgrew ourselves, lianas
over lichen. Forasmuch
as sweetness comes to the nicotianas
only at evening, your arrangement is overbred,
threadbare. You may want to think about this
a little. Down in their pavilion, whose overfed
airs waft lightly, naughtily, Dad and Sis
are waving, calling your name, over
and over again. But it’s like a wall of veil
tipped in. We can dance only alone. Rover
senses an advantage—it’s the Airedale
from the next block again. To keep even the peace
sounds extraneous, now. How many senses
do we need? Our motives predecease our
cashing them in. Fences
will be happy to relieve you of that icon
for a small consideration. And you,
what about you? Slowly unraveling, the chaconne
sizes us up: right pew,
wrong church. O if ever the devil
comes to claim his due, let it be after
the touching ceremony, yet before the revel
becomes frenzied, and ambitions turn to laughter.
Resist, friends, that last day’s dying.
The melodious mode obtains. Always
remember that. At trying
moments, practice the art of paraphrase.
Just because someone hands you something of value
don’t imagine you’re in it for the money.
You can always tell a gal-pal you
prefer the snakeroot’s scented hegemony.
Or go for a walk. It counts too.
In my charming madness I dress plainer
than when they used to mispronounce you,
but what’s correct streetwear in N’Djamena
clashes in the old upstate classroom.
Come, we’re weak enough to share a posset,
divide with the boys another hecatomb.
All other rodomontades are strictly bullshit.
Such are the passwords that tired Aeneas
wept for outside the potting shed,
when, face pressed to the pane, he sought Linnaeus’
sage advice. And the farm turned over a new leaf instead.
We can’t resist; we’re all thumbs, it seems,
when it comes to grasping mantras.
The oxen are waiting for us downstream; academe’s
no place for botanizing; the tantra’s
closed to us. Song and voice, piano and flowers,
abduct us to their plateau.
Look—becalmed, a horse devours
buttercups in the ruts by an old château.
If this is about being regal, it must be Japan
has assented. Let’s take the vaporetto
to where it goes. A sea cucumber of marzipan
promises decorum. The boatman quaffs Amaretto.
Well, and this is the way I’ve always done it. A fricative
voice from this valley wants to think so. Those jars of ointment
are still untouched. Were patients always so uncommunicative?
Even Jeremy? He’s late for his appointment,
and I must go down an inclined plane
to the city’s anthill, with only dissolved rage
for company. And should some perdurable chatelaine
gain control over the police, must we summon the archimage
to bandage the hurt? Only a little moisture
remains at the tip of the tongue, a pro forma
signal of engagement. Before the great rupture,
still a duo, we sang the “Casta Diva” from Norma
on Sunday morning. Now all’s retrograde;
the new openness cloys. Pencils are to sharpen,
yet I keep mine dull. My cockade
is tarnished, my dress puny, my shoes of cordovan
behind the bed. Sometimes I like to ride in a carriage,
over dales and downs. My fiancée is a lacrosse player.
When the moon is full one’s in the mood for marriage,
amiable for a while. But the village soothsayer
warned us against it, of dreary days to come
unless we interacted on a vast scale. And who can predict
furtive new developments? Because we’d swum
the Hellespont long ago, in our youth, we assumed the verdict
would be sealed by now. And you know, only anonymous
lovers seem to make it to the altar. The rest are branded
with a time and place, and rarely know each other. The eponymous
host of the Bridge and Barrel, a moralist, was openhanded,
yet nothing could bar the tear from one blue eye. He’d chattered
vainly till now. So I assumed the aggressor’s fate.
Behind the door crockery clattered
mysteriously, the beadle was stunned, the boilerplate
contract wilted in the intense heat
of the deluged afternoon. Even when the tumbrel
arrived, it seemed it would have to wait
for the century to catch up. Meanwhile, in the adumbral
hall not a whistle could be heard, no screams, no catcalls,
unless you counted the willows’ sobbing.
Evening came on boisterous. Pirouettes and pratfalls
were executed before an admiring crowd. Demons were hobnobbing
with whatever entered on skis. To have proffered
only this was sublimely sufficient. But what of cattails
loosing seeds on the air like milkweed? A scoffer’d
not turn away, just this once, for what prevails
is most certainly what will be current
years from now: celadon pods with opal juices
oozing from them. Fruits of the sand, blackcurrant
and bayberry, and a crowd of mild smiles, a burnoose’s
wandering cord. When needed to combat flatulence,
the correct pills turn up in pairs. I mistook embroidery
in the stair carpet for something else, the doll’s petulance
for a sign from the heavens. The whole darn menagerie
is after me now; I have strength for but one curtain call,
and that a swift one. But will the critics
recite my reasons? Luckily a landfall
materialized in the nick of time. Luckily my desire wasn’t great. Politics
overwhelms us all. In seasons of strife we compose palinodes
against the breakers, retracting what was lithe
in our believing. By evening, its heresy implodes
under an August moon; repercussions writhe
in a context of mangroves. Perfervid scroungers
invade the Catalog Fulfillment Center, diverting the sick energy
in our wake into easeful light, and day. A few loungers
on the mezzanine are puzzled, but most are not. The ambient lethargy
incises its monogram on the walls of bathhouses, in wooden
tunnels: To wit, man plays a role in his conspiracy,
ergo, he cannot be a victim. After a sudden
denouement, the climate again turns bland; its apostasy
was too minute to register on God’s barometer.
Only an occasional letter to the Times
hinted that a change might have occurred.
Otherwise it was beau fixe on the speedometer
as it raced toward clayey lands with windmills
and similar giddy appurtenances. From far,
from night and morning, innovations arrive in schools, whippoorwills
are calling. The Circolo Italiano welcomes new adherents, a streetcar
bearing members of the Supreme Court floats in the sky like a zeppelin.
It was all over in a trance. Now it’s the fiction
weighs us down, an iron corset. Adrenaline
is channeled into new, virtuoso ways, wherein constriction
is viewed as normal, soothing as an antimacassar.
Better to live in a fictive aura, I say, than putter
in one’s garden forever, praying to NASA
at dusk, as in Millet’s Angelus, closing a shutter
on substantive dreaming. That, after all, is where we’re
at. It is time for the rebuilding of melody
on a grand scale. Reread Shakespeare; a fakir here
and there won’t sabotage the kernel of parody
baked into the airiest ontological mille feuilles, nor change that gold
back into straw. The medicine men knew what they were doing when
they lanced boils with direct imaging. Charm gained a foothold,
then exploded into bronze deities. No matter, the regimen
practiced by the ancients, i.e., inhaling
dust and air near a body of water, is still around to restore
lost fossils of wit to their living, vibrant selves, unveiling
a menu both familiar and alluring. Before
quitting this backdrop of a Renaissance piazza, open
your body and mind to all comers. They are both factory and garden
to the happy few, thunderstorms to some, a dull weapon
though fierce, to others. And as attitudes harden,
the lost light stares as a man in pajamas
crosses the ravaged street. All this decision-making entails
sophomoric stunts and impatience. From the Bahamas
to Torquay stretches the dun pilgrimage. Cocktails
infiltrate it, but the man knows he must go
just so far and stop, that his beloved will have forgotten
him by then. He must choose the stars or the snow,
a naked stick figure. All the rotten
things that can befall a man with a comb and toothbrush
already happened to him, leagues ago. And there is no ending
it. Yet the past is profitless slush,
same as the present. Tomorrow is on hold, pending,
and great lizards infiltrate the Dalmatian-spotted
sky. Was it for this you gave yourself up
to some cause or other, that has now trickled away, dotted
with colored pom-poms? Only a final hiccup
sits on the step, awaiting orders. You were wrong about language,
see. Its arrows are raining down like ejected porcupine
quills. An archer (Robin Hood, for instance) could gauge
the correct distance between identical hummocks. Which is fine
with me, except I don’t think anybody’s going to notice
the directive that brought you here. Best to marshal the
secondary promptings and forget the awful journey before rigor mortis
sets in. You mean it hasn’t? Right. Then I’m still in the Marshalsea,
my dependency shall never cease! And there’s a kind of happiness,
though a bitter one, in that. I’m going to cash in my chips
and quit while I’m winning. The loveliness
of statues of statesmen survives, a barcarole drips
from their sagging jaws, graphic as springtime.
In twos and threes, peasants
vanish behind yon ridge. The celestial pantomime
engulfs them slowly. The pheasants
of our kingdom aren’t as plump as yours. No matter.
I’ll wager a microclimate’s responsible. And did your sister
ever loan you those three bucks? No, the regatta
closed down while we were still ogling its pinnaces, and a twister
slashed through at that precise moment, there was nowhere
to hide, in the confusion we got separated.
Now I must arise and go where
the flying fishes play, and poppies perplex the cultivated
plain. Go ahead, I’ll keep an eye on things, you can breathe
easy. It’s what I had in mind: a sail printed all over
with musical staves. I would unsheathe
love’s whippet and embrace us all, even if Rover
never growled again. “Springs, when they happen, happen elsewhere.
A certain sexiness …” ventured the prince. But where, oh where, is the nectar
that makes babes of us? Our printout’s in disrepair,
the parterres are fading, and the projector
is spinning out of control. Half a hundred youths
could sustain us, swimming in the moat
with reeds to breathe through. The emptied booths
by the front gate are cheerless indeed. A stoat
swept by me on the waters, halfway to refurbished oblivion,
but my antennae suggest nothing apposite
to formalize his trajectory. A safe-conduct from the Bolivian
chargé d’affaires flutters in the breeze of my room. In the windows opposite,
a massacre is reflected. Is it meant as codicil,
or mere free-form tangling? Anyway, night is serendipitous
again; swallows clutter my windowsill;
bats are executing stately arabesques. A precipitous
slide into belief must have occurred recently, but left no earnest
of its passing. A videotape of sports bloopers
keeps unreeling, determined to rescue its syllabus from the furnace
of eternity; airheads are treated roughly. One of those Victorian peasoupers
is equalizing everything, titmouse and pterodactyl
alike. When it will be the fashion again we’ll have trochees
galore. Even the bellicose double-dactyl
will flourish for a time, in Okefenokees
of subjectivity. Lakes will overflow, bargain
counters shrivel to nothing, the Great Bear look away, brittle
talismans explode at dormer windows. The degradation Ruskin
warned against is back, a heap of frozen spittle.
We see one thing next to another. In time they get superimposed
and then who looks silly? Not us, as you might think, but the curve
we are plotted on, head to head, a parabola in the throes
of vomiting its formula, piqued by the sullen verve
of day, while night is siphoned off again. And as wolverines
prefer Michigan, so this civil branch of holly is nailed to your door, lest you
fear my coming, or any uncivil declaiming, or submarines
in the bay that spreads out before us, or any gumshoe.
We’ll party when the millennium gets closer. Meanwhile
I wanted to mention your feet. A dowser
could locate your contentedness zone. But where have you been while
folk dancing broke out, and colorful piñatas, waking Bowser
in his kennel, rendering the last victuals in
the larder unappetizing? Yet those feet shall impose the glory
of my slogans on the unsuspecting world that belittles
them now, but shall whistle them con amore
anon. That doesn’t mean “peace at any price,”
but a shaking-down of old, purblind principles
that were always getting in the way. Self-sacrifice
will be on the agenda, a lowering of expectations, a ban on municipal
iron fences and picnics. Man must return to his earth,
experience its seasons, frosts, its labyrinthine
processes, the spectacle of continual rebirth
in one’s own time. Only then will the sunshine
each weekday lodges in its quiver expand till the vernal
equinox rounds it off, then subtracts a little more each day,
though always leaving a little, even in hyperboreal climes where eternal
ice floes fringe the latitudes. On a beautiful day in May
you might forget this, but there it is, always creeping up on you.
Permit me then for the umpteenth time to reiterate
that basking in the sun like an otter or curlew
isn’t the whole story. Tomorrow may obliterate
your projects and belongings, casting a shadow longer than the equator
into your private sector, to wit, your plan to take a Hovercraft
across the lagoon and have lunch there, leaving the waiter
a handsome tip. For though your garrison be fully staffed,
the near future, like an overcrowded howdah,
trumpets its imminent arrival, opens the floodgate
of a thousand teeming minor ills, spoiling the chowder
and marching society’s annual gymkhana, letting in smog to asphyxiate
palms and eucalpytuses. One paddles in the backwash of the present,
laughing at its doodles, unpinning its robes,
smoothing its ribbons, and lo and behold an unpleasant
emu is blocking the path; its one good eye probes
your premises and tacit understandings, and the outing
is postponed till another day. Or you could be reclining
on a rock, like Fra Diavolo, and have it sneak up on you, spouting
praise for the way the city looks after a shower, divining
its outer shallows from the number of storm windows
taken down and stashed away, for it has the shape of a sonata—
bent, unyielding. And, once it’s laid out in windrows,
open to the difficult past, that of a fish on a platter.
Expect no malice from it and freshets
will foam, gathering strength as they leapfrog the mountain.
But a quieter realism plumbs the essence of ponds, as nitwits
worship the machine-tooled elegies of the fountain,
that wets its basin and the nearby grass. In a moment the dustmen
will be here, and in the time remaining it behooves
me to insist again on the lust men
invent, then cherish. But since my mistress disapproves,
I’ll toe the line. And should you ask me why, sir,
I’ll say it’s because one’s sex drives are like compulsive handwashing:
better early on in life than late. Yet I’m still spry, sir,
though perhaps no longer as dashing
as in times gone by, and can wolf down the elemental
in one gulp—its “How different one feels after doing something:
calm, and in a calm way almost tragic; in any case far from the unwholesome
figure we cut in the reveries of others, a rum thing
not fit to be seen in public with.” Yet it is this ominous bedouin
whose contours blur us when someone glimpses
us, and is what we are remembered as, for no one can see our genuine
side falling to pieces all down our declamatory gestures. They treat pimps as
equals, ignoring all shortcomings save ours. And of course, no commerce
is possible between these two noncommunicating vessels of our being. As urushiol
is to poison ivy, so is our own positive self-image the obverse
of all that will ever be said and thought about us, the vitriol
we gargle with in the morning, just as others do. This impasse
does, however, have an escape clause written into it: planned
enhancements, they call it. So that if one is knocked flat on his ass
by vile opprobrium, he need only consult his pocket mirror: The sand
will seem to flow upward through the hourglass; one is pickled
in one’s own humors, yet the dismantled ideal
rescued from youth is still pulsing, viable, having trickled
from the retort of self-consciousness into the frosted vial
of everyone’s individual consciousness noting it’s the same
as all the others, with one vital difference: It belongs to no one.
Thus a few may climb several steps above the crowd, achieve fame
and personal fulfillment in a flaring instant, sing songs to one
more beloved than the rest, yet still cherish the charm and quirkiness
that entangle all individuals in the racemes
of an ever-expanding Sargasso Sea whose murkiness
comes at last to seem exemplary. So, between two extremes
hidden in blue distance, the dimensionless
regions of the self do have their day. We like this, that,
and the other; have our doubts about certain things; enjoy pretension less
than we did when we were young; are not above throwing out a caveat
or two; and in a word are comfortable in the saddle
reality offers to each of her children, simultaneously
convincing each of us we’re superior, that no one else could straddle
her mount as elegantly as we. And when, all extraneously,
the truth erupts, and we find we are but one of an army of supernumeraries
raising spears to salute the final duet
between our ego and the endlessly branching itineraries
of our semblables, a robed celebrant is already lifting the cruet
of salve to anoint the whole syndrome. And it’s their proper
perspective that finally gets clamped onto things and us, including
our attitudes, hopes, half-baked ambitions, psychoses: everything an eavesdropper
already knows about us, along with the clothes we wear and the brooding
interiors we inhabit. It’s getting late; the pageant
oozes forward, act four is yet to come, and so is dusk.
Still, ripeness must soon be intuited; a coolant
freeze the tragic act under construction. Let’s husk
the ear of its plenitude, forget additional worries,
let Mom and apple pie go down the tubes, if indeed
that’s their resolve. For, satisfying as it is to fling a pot, once the slurry’s
reached the proper consistency, better still is it to join the stampede
away from it once it’s finished. Which, as of now,
it is. Wait a minute! You told us eternal flux
was the ordering principle here, and in the next breath you disavow
open-endedness. What kind of clucks
do you take us for, anyway? Everyone knows that once something’s finished,
decay sets in. But we were going to outwit all that. So
where’s your panacea now? The snake oil? Smoke and mirrors? Diminished
expectations can never supplant the still-moist, half-hesitant tableau
we thought to be included in, and to pursue
our private interests and destinies in, till doomsday. Well, I
never said my system was foolproof. You did too! I did not. Did too!
Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too. Hell, I
only said let’s wait awhile and see what happens, maybe
something will, and if it doesn’t, well, our personal
investment in the thing hasn’t been that enormous, you crybaby;
we can still emerge unscathed. These are exceptional
times, after all. And all along I thought I was pointed
in the right direction, that if I just kept my seat
I’d get to a destination. I knew the instructions were disjointed,
garbled, but imagined we’d eventually make up the lost time. Yet one deadbeat
can pollute a whole universe. The sensuous green mounds
I’d been anticipating are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a dull
urban waste reveals itself, vistas of broken masonry, out of bounds
to the ordinary time traveler. How, then, did he lull
us, me and the others, into signing on for the trip?
By exposing himself, and pretending
not to see. Solar wind sandpapers the airstrip,
while only a few hundred yards away, bending
hostesses coddle stranded voyagers with canapés
and rum punch. To have had this in the early stage,
not the earliest, but the one right after the days
began to shorten imperceptibly! And one’s rage
was a good thing, good for oneself and even
for others, at that critical juncture. Dryness
of the mouth was seldom a problem. Winking asides would leaven
the dullest textbook. Your highness
knows all this, yet if she will but indulge
my wobbling fancies a bit longer, I’ll … Where was I? Oh, and then
a great hurricane came, and took away the leaves. The bulge
in the calceolaria bush was gone. By all the gods, when
next I saw him, he was gay, gay as any jackanapes. Is
this really what you had in mind, I asked.
But he merely smiled and replied, “None of your biz,”
and walked out onto the little peninsula and basked
as though he meant it. And in a funny kind of way, the nifty
feeling of those years has returned. I can’t explain it,
but perhaps it means that once you’re over fifty
you’re rid of a lot of decibels. You’ve got a tiger; so unchain it
and then see what explanations they give. Walk through
your foot to the place behind it, the air
will frizz your whiskers. You’re still young enough to talk through
the night, among friends, the way you used to do somewhere.
An alphabet is forming words. We who watch them
never imagine pronouncing them, and another opportunity
is missed. You must be awake to snatch them—
them, and the scent they give off with impunity.
We all tagged along, and in the end there was nothing
to see—nothing and a lot. A lot in terms of contour, texture,
world. That sort of thing. The real fun and its clothing.
You can forget that. Next, you’re
planning a brief trip. Perhaps a visit to Paul Bunyan
and Babe, the blue ox. There’s time now. Piranhas
dream, at peace with themselves and with the floating world. A grunion
slips nervously past. The heat, the stillness are oppressive. Iguanas …
From Can You Hear, Bird (1995).