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John Ashbery


To James Schuyler

The last block is closed in April. You
See the intrusions clouding over her face
As in the memory given you of older
Permissiveness which dies in the
Falling back toward recondite ends,
The sympathy of yellow flowers.
Never mentioned in the signs of the oblong day
The saw-toothed flames and point of other
Space not given, and yet not withdrawn
And never yet imagined: a moment's commandment.

These last weeks teasing into providential
Reality: that your face, the only real beginning,
Beyond the gray of overcoat, that this first
Salutation plummet also to the end of friendship
With self alone. And in doing so open out
New passages of being among the correctness
Of familiar patterns. The stance to you
Is a fiction, to me a whole. I find
New options, white feathers, in a word what
You draw in around you to the protecting bone.

This page only is the end of nothing
To the top of that other. The purity
Of how hard it is to choose between others where
The event takes place and the outside setting.
Day covers all this with leaves, with laughter and tears.
But at night other sounds are heard
Propositions hitherto omitted in the heat
Of smoke. You can look at it all
Inside out for the emblem to become the statue
Of discipline that rode in out of the past.

Not forgetting either the chance that you
Might want to revise this version of what is
The only real one, it might be that
No real relation exists between my wish for you
To return and the movements of your arms and legs.
But my inability to accept this fact
Annihilates it. Thus
My power over you is absolute.
You exist only in me and on account of me
And my features reflect this proved compactness.

That coming together of masses coincides
With that stable emptiness, detaining
Where this energy, not yet or only partially
Distributed to the imagination creates
A claim to the sides of early autumn.
Suffocating, with remorse, and winking with it
To table lands of disadumbrated feeling
Treetops whose mysterious hegemony concerns
Merely, by opening around factors of accident
So as to install miscellaneous control.

The part in which you read about yourself
Grew out of this. Your interpretation is
Extremely bitter and can serve no profitable end
Except continual development. Best to break off
All further choice. In
This way new symptoms of interest having a
Common source could produce their own ingenious
Way of watering into the past with its religious
Messages and burials. Out of this cold collapse
A warm and near unpolished entity could begin.

Although beyond more reacting
To this cut-and-dried symposium way of seeing things
To outflank next mediocre condition
Of storms. The hollow thus produced
A kind of cave of the winds; distribution center
Of subordinate notions to which the stag
Returns to die: the suppressed lovers.
Then ghosts of the streets
Crowding, propagating the feeling into furious
Waves from the perfunctory and debilitated sunset.

Yet no one has time for its preoccupation.
Our daily imaginings are swiftly tilted down to
Death in its various forms. We cannot keep the peace
At home, and at the same time be winning wars abroad.
And the great flower of what we have been twists
On its stem of earth, for not being
What we are to become, fated to live in
Intimidated solitude and isolation. No brother
Bearing the notion of responsibility of self
To the surrounding neighborhood lost out of being.

Slowly as from the center of some diamond
You begin to take in the world as it moves
In toward you, part of its own burden of thought, rather
Idle musing, afternoons listing toward some sullen
Unexpected end. Seen from inside all is
Abruptness. As though to get out your eye
Sharpens and sharpens these particulars; no
Longer visible, they breathe in multicolored
Parentheses the way love in short periods
Puts everything out of focus, coming and going.

Thus your only world is an inside one
Ironically fashioned out of external phenomena
Having no rhyme or reason, and yet neither
An existence independent of foreboding and sly grief.
Nothing anybody says can make a difference; inversely
You are a victim of their lack of consequence
Buffeted by invisible winds, or yet a flame yourself
Without meaning, yet drawing satisfaction
From the crevices of that wind, living
In that flame's idealized shape and duration.

Whereas through an act of bunching this black kite
Webs all around you with coal light: wall and reef
Imbibe and the impossible saturation,
New kinds of fun, is an earnest
Of the certain future. Yet the spores of the
Difference as it's imagined flower
In complicated chains for the eyebrow, and pre-delineate
Phantom satisfaction as it would happen. This time
You get over the threshold of so much unmeaning, so much
Being, prepared for its event, the active memorial.

And more swiftly continually in evening, limpid
Storm winds, commas are dropped, the convention gapes,
Prostrated before a monument disappearing into the dark.
It would not be good to examine these ages
Except for the sun flecks, little, on the golden sand
And coming to reappraisal of the distance.
The welcoming stuns the heart, iron bells
Crash through the transparent metal of the sky
Each day slowing the method of thought a little
Until oozing sap of touchable mortality, time lost and won.

Like the blood orange we have a single
Vocabulary all heart and all skin and can see
Through the dust of incisions the central perimeter
Our imaginations' orbit. Other words,
Old ways are but the trappings and appurtenances
Meant to install change around us like a grotto.
There is nothing laughable
In this. To isolate the kernel of
Our imbalance and at the same time back up carefully;
Its tulip head whole, an imagined good.

The sense of that day toward its center
Is perforated or crisscrossed with rewards
As though the stumbling that stranded me here were
The means of some spontaneity. But upper pressures
Lifted the direction of the prevailing winds
Allowing an awaited entrance down below.
Yet all is different metric system
Flapping from grace to intense surprise.
As in a tub. No candle is lit. No theory
Strip it to the maturity of surroundings.

Its landscape puts toward a pointed roof
Continuing inquiry and reappraisal of always new
Facts pushing past into bright cold
As from general spindles a waterfall of data
Is absorbed above by command. Whether construed
As lead or gold it leaves a ring
On the embellished, attendant time. The farms
Knew it, that is why they stood so still.
The gold might reverse them to fields
Of flowering sand or black, ancient and intimate.

The volcanic entrance to an antechamber
Was not what either of us meant.
More outside than before, but what is worse, outside
Within the periphery, we are confronted
With one another, and our meeting escapes through the dark
Like a well.
Our habits ask us for instructions.
The news is to return by stages
Of uncertainty, too early or too late. It is the invisible
Shapes, the bed's confusion and prattling. The late quiet. This is how it feels.

The pictures were really pictures
Of loving and small things. There was a winter scene
And half-hidden sketches of the other three seasons.
Autumn was a giant with a gray woollen cap.
Near him was spring, a girl in green draperies
Half sitting, half standing near the trunk of an old tree.
Summer was a band of nondescript children
Bordering the picture of winter, which was indistinct
And gray like the sky of a winter afternoon.
The other pictures told in an infinity of tiny ways

Stories of the past: separate incidents
Recounted in touching detail, or vast histories
Murmured confusingly, as though the speaker
Were choked by sighs and tears, and had forgotten
The reason why he was telling the story.
It was these finally that made the strongest
Impression, they shook you like wind
Roaring through branches with no leaves left on them.
The vagueness was bigger than life and its apotheosis
Of shining incidents, colored or dark, vivid or serious.

But now the tidings are dark in the
Expected late afternoon suddenly dipping into
Reserves of anxiety and restlessness which dutifully
Puff out these late, lax sails, pennants;
The vertical black-and-white-striped weather indicator's
One sign of triumph, a small one, to stand
For universal concessions, charters and deeds to
Wilderness or the forested sea, cord after cord
Equaling possession and possessiveness
Instantaneously extending your hesitation to an

Empire, back lands whose sparsely populated look is
Supreme dominion. It will be divided into tracts
And these be lived in the way now the lowered
Angles of this room. Waxed moustache against the impiety
Of so much air of change, but always and nowhere
A cave. Gradually old letters used as bookmarks
Inform the neighbors; an approximate version
Circulates and the incident is officially closed.
And I some joy of this have, returning to the throbbing
Mirror's stiff enclave, the sides of my face steep and overrun.

So many ways grew over to this
Mild decline. The grave of authority
Matches wits with upward-spinning lemon spirals
Telling of the influences of night, so many decisions
Not to act accruing to the outward stretches.
The civilities of day also creep
To extremities, fly on a windowpane, sweeping
The changed refuse under the rug. Just one step
Takes you into so much outside, the candor
Of what had been going on makes you pause momentarily,

A bag of October, without being able to tell it
To the others, so that it loses silence.
I haven't made clear that I want it all from you
In writing, so as to study your facial expressions
Simultaneously: hesitations, reverse darts, the sky
Of your plans run through with many sutured points.
Only in this way can a true basis for understanding be
Set up. But meanwhile if I try to turn away
Looking for my own shadow in the excess
Like quarreling jays our heads fall to in agreement.

It exposed us on a moving gangway.
Leaning from an upper story
We should not separate in misunderstanding.
Where you were going was the key to
Saturday afternoon spent in shopping and washing dishes
Just right so the newly strengthened land would
Disinter the music box what keeps happening to
The photo of a baby girl disguised as an old man
With a long white beard. What comes after
The purge, she not mentioning it yet.

This meant (and the tone voice, repeating
"He's hurt real bad" worked up the wall of celerity
To inaudible foam) all divers and all speechless
Apostrophes of solar unit stay on the bottom.
At last there was a chance to explore the forest,
Shadow of yawning magnetic poles, in which the castle
Had been inserted like an afterthought - bare walls
With somewhere a center and even further, a widening
To accommodate eventual reaction, such as ropes,
Pikes, chains of memory, of sleep, and an end of board.

The apotheosis had sunk away
As wind incarnates its glass cone
Aiming where further identifications should
Not be worked for, are reached. The whole
Is a mound of changing valors for some who
Live out as under a dome, are participated in
As the ordinary grandeur of a dome's the thing that
Keeps them living so that additional grace
Is eternal procrastination, not to be considered
Unless a description of the actual scene.

Shedding perennial beauty on angles
Of questions asked and often answered in a
Given period. It all moves more slowly, yet
The change is more complete than ever before:
A pessimistic lighting up as of autumn woods
Demanding more than ever to be considered, for full
Substance. For the calculable stutter of a laugh.
Returning late you were not surprised to meet
This gray visitor, perpendicular to the weather.
Quiet ambition of the note variously sounded.

All space was to be shut out. Now there was no
Earthly reason for living; solitude proceeded
From want of money, her quincunxes standing
To protect the stillness of the air. Darkness
Intruded everywhere. This was the first day
Of the new experience. The familiar brown trees
Stirred indifferent at their roots, deeply transformed.
Like a sail its question disappeared into
An ocean of newsprint. To be precipitated
In desire, as hats are handed. Awnings raised.

Coming in the phaeton to the end of the
Day that had served on previous occasions
An orchard diminishes the already tiny
Notion of abstract good and bad qualities
Pod of darkness which goes vociferating early
Unchangeables that next in time's mire have hid weapons.
Past waterfalls wooden huts open places
Assaulted by the wind, the usual surroundings chafed
Foreknowledge of the immense journey, as the sea
Flattens, uncritical, beyond wide docks.

To persist in the revision of very old
Studies, as though mounted on a charger,
With the door to the next room partly open
To the borrowed density, what keeps happening to
So much dead surprise, a weight of spring.
An odor of explosives hangs over the change,
Now at its apogee. This presupposes a will
To carry out all instructions, dotting the last i
Though cancelling with one stroke of a pen all
The provisions, revisions and so on made until now.

But why should the present seem so particularly urgent?
A time of spotted lakes and the whippoorwill
Sounding over everything? To release the importance
Of what will always remain invisible?
In spite of near and distant events, gladly
Built? To speak the plaits of argument,
Loosened? Vast shadows are pushed down toward
The hour. It is ideation, incrimination
Proceeding from necessity to find it at
A time of day, beside the creek, uncounted stars and buttons.

We talked, and after that went out.
It was nice. There was lots of time left
And we could always come back to it, and use it later
But the flowers dropped in the conservatory
For this was the last day of the year
Conclusion of many ups and downs, it had begun
To be foreshadowed, leaning out into novelty
As into a bank of subtraction. The night
A dull varnish muffled the comic eagerness
Of those first steps, halted for all eternity.

Then the accounts must be reexamined,
Shifting ropes of figures. Expressions of hope
Too late, a few seconds before. Only normal
Transparent width separated them from the smaller,
Flame-colored phenomena of each settled day.
This information was like a road no one ever took
Perhaps because the end was widely known, a collection
Of ceiling fumes, inert curiosity, attacked
Rarely, and out of compunction, by millionaires
Bent on turning everyday affairs into something tragic.

Thus there was a time for all activity
As memory of regret not made known
Except as illegal pilfering of the furthest
Sketchy place of the course of a day
Which scarcely matters even for anxious
Gendarmes of these late, recent hours, now
So frequently referred to. Thus floods,
Surprising us, seem to subside
When scarcely begun. Yet so much in time for
What arrives, unnoticed our separate, parallel thought.

It is that moment of sinking in
Is always past, yet always in question, on the surface
Of the goggles of memory. Nothing is stationary
Nor yet uncertain; a rhythm of standing still
Keeps us in continual equilibrium, like an arch
That frames swiftly receding clouds, never
Getting deeper. The shouts of children
Penetrate this motion toward, as a drop of water
Slides under a lens. Soon all is shining, mined,
Tears dissolving laughter, the isolated clouds spent.

It is appropriate that this extension is,
Has been, and always should be independent
Of elaborate misgivings concerning the future status
Of a hostile address toward each other.
Not being able to see one's way clear to
Approving ecstatic, past projects is
Equivalent to destruction of all these myths,
Wiped, like dust, from the lips. So
The weather of that day, and scalloped
Appearance of those who went by you

Are changed like mist. You see, it is
Not wrong to have nothing. But
It is important that the latter be not just
The points of disappearance, signs of the
Reduction of the little that was left, which
Disappeared all the faster because it was so little.
This part of the game keeps you for old ostracism
Long mixed with wrinkles of that horrible, blatant day
To be avoided at all costs because already known
And perhaps even more because, unlike carelessness, avoidable.

That hole, towering secret, familiar
If one is poking among the evening rubbish, yet how
Square behind you in the mirror, so much authority
And intelligence in such a miserable result.
Could it bind you because of the simplicity
Or could you in fact escape because of that limp frame,
Those conditions tumbling upward, like piles of smoke?
In that way any disorderly result is often seen
As the result of the general's fixed smile, calipers,
Moustache, and the other way was closed too.

Out of this intolerant swarm of freedom as it
Is called in your press, the future, an open
Structure, is rising even now, to be invaded by the present
As the past stands to one side, dark and theoretical
Yet most important of all, for his midnight interpretation
Is suddenly clasped to you with the force of a hand
But a clear moonlight night in which distant
Masses are traced with parental concern.
After silent, colored storms the reply quickly
Wakens, has already begun its life, its past, just whole and sunny.

Thus reasoned the ancestor, and everything
Happened as he had foretold, but in a funny kind of way.
There was no telling whether the thought had unrolled
Down to the heap of pebbles and golden sand now
Only one step ahead, and itself both a trial and
The possibility of turning aside forever. It was the front page
Of today, looming as white as
The furthest mountains, and oh, all kinds of things
Caught in that net and shaken, so often
The way people respond to things.

It had grown up without anybody's
Thinking or doing anything about it, so that now
It was the point of where you wanted it to go.
The fathers asked that it be made permanent,
A vessel cleaving the dungeon of the waves.
All the details had been worked out
And the decks were clear for sensations
Of joy and defeat, not so closely worked in
As to demolish the possibility of the game's ever
Becoming dangerous again, or of an eventual meeting.

But it was not easy to tell in what direction
The permanence tended, whether it was
Easy decline, like swallows after the rough
Business of the long day, or eternal suspension
Over emptiness, dangerous perhaps, in any case
Not the peaceful cawing of which so much had been
Made. I can tell you all
About freedom that has turned into a painting;
The other is more difficult, though prompt - in fact
A little too prompt: therein lies the difficulty.

And still not satisfied with the elder
Version, to see the painting as pitch black
Was no cause for happiness among those who surround
The young, and had expected contaminated
Fires lit by the setting sun, and sunken boats.
It seemed the only honorable way, and fertile
If darkness is ever anything else. But the way
Of that song was to be consumed, corrosive;
A surprise dragging the signs
Of no peace after it, into the disquiet of early accidents.

The head notwithstanding. A narrow strip of land
Coinciding with the riders to where
Illusion mattered no more than the rest. Flat
Walls only surrounding only abating memory.
On this new area ideas kept the same
Distance, with profiles spent into the sparse
Immediacy of excavation, land and gulls to be explored.
It was time to compare all past sets of impressions
Slowly peeling these away so that the mastered
Impression of servitude and barbarism might shrink to allegorical human width.

A moment of addition, then one hidden look
At it all, but it is scattered, not the outline
Of your famous openness, but kind of the sleeves
In the weather time after the doubtful present saluted.
All that ever came of it was words
To indicate any kind of barrier, with the land
Lasting beyond hope or scruple, both cell and vortex.
Further on it is a forest of mud pillars. Determined
To live, so that you and your possessions
May be dealt with at last, you forgot the other previous station.

If there was no truth in it, only pleasure
In the telling, might not others set out
Across impossible oceans with this word whose power
Was the opposite reverence to secret deities
Of shame? Or absent-mindedness? Because the first memory
Now, like patches, was worn, only as the inadequate
Memento of all that was never going to be? Its
Allusion not even blasphemous, but truly insignificant
Beside that lake opening out broader than the sun!
This, then, was indifference: it was what it always had been.

The boat stood hieratically still
On the unread page of water. No moon punching
With ideas of the majesty of crowds. A universal infamy
Became the element of living, a breath
Beyond telling, because forgetful of the
Chaos whose expectancy had engendered it, and so on, through
Popular speech down to the externals of present
Continuing - incomplete, good-natured pictures that
Flatter us even when forgotten with dwarf speculations
About the insane, invigorating whole they don't represent.

The victims were chosen through lightness in obscurity.
A firm look of the land, old dismissals
And the affair was concluded in snow and also in
The satisfaction of the outline formulated against the sky.
People were delighted getting up in the morning
With the density that for once seemed the promise
Of everything forgotten, and the well-being
Grew, at the expense of whoever lay dying
In a small room watched only by the progression
Of hours in the tight new agreement.

And they now too seem invaded, though before it was
The dancers who anticipated making unnecessary
The curtailment of one to the other. And yet,
As though this were strict premonition, their chance
Is canceled out by earlier claims, a victim perhaps
Of its earnestness. The dance continues, but darker, and
As if in a sudden lack of air. And as one figure
Supplants another, and dies, so the postulate of each
Tires the shuffling floor with slogans, present
Complements mindful of our absorbing interest.

One swallow does not make a summer, but are
What's called an opposite: a whole of raveling discontent,
The sum of all that will ever be deciphered
On this side of that vast drop of water.
They let you sleep without pain, having all that
Not in the lesson, not in the special way of telling
But back to one side of life, not especially
Immune to it, in the secret of what goes on:
The words sung in the next room are unavoidable
But their passionate intelligence will be studied in you.

But what could I make of this? Glaze
Of many identical foreclosures wrested from
The operative hand, like a judgment but still
The atmosphere of seeing? That two people could
Collide in this dusk means that the time of
Shapelessly foraging had come undone: the space was
Magnificent and dry. On flat evenings
In the months ahead, she would remember that that
Anomaly had spoken to her, words like disjointed beaches
Brown under the advancing signs of the air.

February 1, 2003 in Poems | Permalink