Five Poems

John Ashbery

Promenade

My mind occupied by something,
I notice shoals of dry leaves
rattled by the wind, upsurging
like a dog that’s starting to lie down,
and a voice like that of my mother says,
‘Then you’ll just have to learn
to do without it. The leaves are shells.’

Another time the voice brings me
back from not too far away.
I was imagining sisters, how a door holds sway
over one’s long life, only coming at the end
to a ‘foolish consistency’,
by which time one has passed all
the reasonable objections,
is on one’s own.
And how can I care if this broad chair
is made of monotony, or whether
queer night had a hand in any of it?
It’s time to return to the chances
one wasn’t offered, that stain us blue.

All the reckoning is wrong.
What the caliph’s callipers redeemed
isn’t meant for us, far out
at the edge of Saturn’s rings,
the drop-off, whose scent echoes and soothes,
though it’s any day, as it is
(jabbering of the streets and above),
though quiet will adhere
to the reverse side, make its prerogatives known
another day, same day.

A Litmus Tale

The scribes sank in wonderment.
This was not the hierarchical file to which
access had been deeded. It was something
far more wonderful: an opaque pebble in the grass.

I am almost always looking
for themes to break down to further my research
into backward climes of noon alienation and majesty.
One, a little farther than here,
resonates today with unusual candour:
my own take on the dishevelled
frankness we all inhabit
at one time or another. Backing away from tribal sunshine
so as to inhabit a no doubt intact compunction of one’s own.

So Long, Santa

You were good to us,
but we’ve got to think these things
out for ourselves, check in with you
later – why did I say that?
Not everything has to be
as big and as full as earth.

After he found a million dollars in a slot
the boy persisted, dying without uncovering a lot.
It’s good to be painful
because it will come round again
and we won’t be ready:
Barbara Allen’s cruelty, the night wind
biting at scarves, pedestrians hurrying along.

And if I so longed for you as
to make the original millennial blush go away,
us back to our pets, things we had
to learn at school,
I’d be ashamed of my distance
from you, for being indispensable
as time and cures –
just getting the right thing right, for once.

After finishing everything up
I pay a formal call to the broker.
Sherry is drunk
and it will soon be time to think of the next set of circumstances.
Oh hell everything is that way,
this way, that way, twisted in the sun
of endurance –
the back way in then,
the assertion of formality without
a celebration next time.
That’s all any of us gets,

why I am happy with you, alone, just us.

Phantoum

Why his business was for sale I can’t exactly expose.
The bonds of cheap thinking repositioned us anyway,
plus you had to be a ghost to appreciate it.
Like you see so many of them.

The bonds of cheap thinking repositioned us anyway.
We found us enchanting, whirled by our partners
(like you see so many of them).
Along for the ride was a nursery of goats

who found us enchanting, whirled by our partners.
All that day and the next the light waxed dim.
Along for the ride was a nursery of goats,
running early, kids now, if only for the ease of it.

All that day and the next, the light waxed dim.
The albatross held and dissolved in mid-mist.
Running early, kids now, if only for the ease of it,
we tagged along on the sand, waving until it shed a last outline.

The albatross held and dissolved in mid-mist.
The auks were squawking, the emus shrieking.
We tagged along on the sand, waving until it shed a last outline.
The purple emu laid another egg.

The auks were squawking, the emus shrieking.
Grape and cherry were the flavours. Later they added mushroom.
The purple emu laid another egg.
After that we didn’t fit in any more.

Grape and cherry were the flavours. Later they added mushroom.
We were grape children, trying to cope in a mushroom world.
After that we didn’t fit in any more.
They studied ball playing, swinging the bat.

We were grape children, trying to cope in a mushroom world.
That didn’t go down well. Or did it?
They studied ball playing, swinging the bat.
After lunch it was time to quit over some girl.

That didn’t go down well. Or did it?
Daddy Warbucks was sad, but kept his reasons to himself.
After lunch it was time to quit over some girl.
He excused himself. Europe was calling.

Warbucks was sad, but kept his reasons to himself.
The others were off in a far corner of the room.
He excused himself – Europe was calling!
Besides, he had to work on the scenario.

The others were off in a far corner of the room.
The unspoken word beckoned. ‘Look, I came back.
Besides, I had to work on the scenario.’
Easy enough to say, if you’re a ghost

and the unspoken word beckons. Look, I came back.
It was all about you, from day one.
‘Easy enough to say, if you’re a ghost.
What possible use could they have for this old iron pot?’

It was all about you, from day one.
Only you mattered, on the desks and on the building’s façade.
What possible use could we have for this old iron pot?
And the game changed, or fell away.

Only you mattered on the desks. On the building’s façade,
in cafeterias and on playing fields the crowds shifted
and the game changed, or fell away.
It’s OK, it’s only a flesh wound. It’s almost healed.

In cafeterias and on playing fields the crowds shifted.
Why his business was on sale I can’t exactly expose
(it’s OK, it’s only a flesh wound, it’s almost healed),
plus you had to be a ghost to appreciate it.

Forwarded

It’s coming on six o’clock
again.
The sun rehearses an elaborate
little speech, strictly
pro forma – no, wait –
it’s saying something, like
Be glad it’s over.
We waited for you.
I loved you,
and these were the consequences:
bright nights, lit sea,
buttered roofs, dandelion breath.
The dream of seeing it all.

Next year let’s live in harm’s way,
under the big top. Incongruous,
blue will find us, and the sun.

Like the growl of a friendly dog
it backs up, shivers itself
out of here . . .

‘Never heard . . . anymore.’