Two Poems

John Ashbery

Pale Siblings

Cheerio. Nothing on the shore
today. Far out to sea, some eczema
mimicking sunlight and shadow, with but temporary success.

Was it for wandering that I have been punished?
Or was it another plot of the siblings,
Always anxious to torment, to twist my hair
into witches’ brooms, with no inherent power?

Remember they love you like powder
in the air, and it wouldn’t take them long at all.
Twenty-five years ago it was different. Please
be patient. Your term too will arrive.

See, he’s a very good friend for you, you know that.
You just don’t want to sit in a pile of ashes all day long,
licking the milk from your chin. Do you? Then get up
off your ass, stride into the melting twilight,
see the sights of the city. More grass
there than you’d expected, you can bet.

So I wandered fleecy as a cloud and one day an old shepherd crossed my path, looking very wise with his crook. How much use do you get out of that thing, I asked him. Depends, he replied. Sometimes one of ’em doesn’t go astray for months on end. Other times I’ve got my hands full with them running around in all directions, laughing at me. At me! Well, I never would have taken on this job, this added responsibility, rather, if being thanked was all I’d had on my mind. Yes, I said, but how do you avoid it when someone’s really grateful, and graceful, and you’re fading away like you’re doing now, your rainbow cap a cigar-store Indian’s wooden feather head-dress, and all your daughters frantic with glee or misapprehension as you slide by, close to them though they can’t see you? Oh, I’ve learned to cope shall we say, and leave it at that. Yes, I said, by all means, let’s.

How Dangerous

Like a summer kangaroo, each of us is a part
of the sun in its tumbling commotion. Like us
it made no move to right things, basking where the spent stream
trickled into the painted grotto.

Yes, and the snow-covered steppe, part of the same opera,
stretched into dimness, awaiting the tenor’s aria
of hopelessness. Yet no shadow fell across any of it.
It might have been real. Perhaps it was. Stranger tales
have been spun by travellers in unreassuring inns
while the last embers collapse one into the other, waking
no riposte. ‘It was at a garrison in central Tadzhikistan.’
And then sort of get used to it, and then not be there.

Each noted with pleasure that the other had aged,
realising as well that new scenery would have to be sent for
and transported thousands of miles over narrow-gauge railroads –

a fountain in a park, a comforting school interior,
a happy hospital – and that, yes, it would be worth waiting for.