He was sat in an obscure corner of the world, In Memphis (of late), and left alone to read Obscure histories, of the fishing of sea-bream, And grouper, of the proper ecological relations, Of sponge, tortoise, and the sunlight which scatters Thru the unlanc'd emeraldry of sea-skin, Their holy bilayer. This curriculum Like most, went totally unfulfilled, unrepentant though he stayed Thereto. Power, charm, height were promised Him at the outset of this, An odyssey in Aramaic, but the cashing-in thereof Proved plus dificcile than expected, And there is your general lesson. By whom were such promises forsworn, whose Was the setting hand which him there In prematurely (truly) aging Memphis him set? Keen, but too late arrived. This door Now shall close. For you alone stood it Ajar and now nevermore shall its threshold Suffer the calls of prostrating neighbors.
Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.
An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,“Wakefulness,” in John Ashbery, Wakefulness, 1999
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?
Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”
In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.
I was introduced to his works by this September 2018 LitHub article by Nathan Goldman, on the pleasures of Ashbery’s poetry. Written a year after the master’s death, the piece is part personal engagement on Goldman’s part with Ashbery’s work and part deliciously close reading of his final poem, “Climate Correction”.
“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.
Orpheus liked the glad personal quality“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?
All other things must change too…
…Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action
No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,
“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,
Though I can understand the language of birds, and
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…
Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”
Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”
So what if there was an attempt to widen“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.
We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?
Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.
In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.
By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.
The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.
‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.
We tramped for miles on a wooded walk
Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk.
Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor
While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.
We came to a bend, where the river grew wide
And green mountains rose on the opposite side.
My guides moved back. I stood alone,
As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.
Shelf by stone shelf the river fell.
The white water goosetailed with eddying swell.
Faster and louder the current dropped
Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.
I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,
My journey done where the world ended.
I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,
The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.
Los Angeles’s poet laureate-ship also appears to have lapsed – Robin Coste Lewis, whose debut collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, blasted onto the world and won a National Book Award in 2015, was appointed to a two year term in April of 2017.
Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin“Summer,” by Robin Coste Lewis, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, 2015
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being
postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling
inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled
a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion
after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could
know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know.
Legendary LA poet Bill Mohr (also a CSU Long Beach professor of English) posted about the city’s department of culture putting out applications for the next poet laureate, which were due in March of this year. So I guess we’ll have to see.
Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission,“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015
I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.
How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how
Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?
Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations
In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.
I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope.
How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.
A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs
Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.
Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says
That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission?
Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly?
In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.
…This is what you wanted to hear, so why“Soonest Mended,” by John Ashbery in The Double Dream of Spring, 1966
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…
There are no mountains On the sky-rim here, no. Not much offered to the gauzy eye, Squat and squinting, On the lookout for orogenies And irruptions. It’s a flat place. For the Puritans, the most attractive features of this, The nearer coast, was respite, a chance to get away from it all, Arable land less the masses which tended to teem. What they Wanted was mostly a place to die alone, together, or to wait At any rate, for the date of biblically preordained death. By accident, The soil left them too much surplus and toleration ended up as A sound manner to run a society, but it needn’t have turned out Like this. They could’ve taken their time, Subsisting on chaffish maize And melting into their rocks, Plymouth and otherwise. Maybe they could’ve Had their time taken away from them. You’ve a preference?
I sneezed, and there came to be a honeybee Lying on the turf. Writhing, writhing amid its stalks, His arms catching for some fast, that his wings Might underfoot take air, and him deliver Anon to higher ground. The ejecta previously mine, now his and the earth's, Strung itself along a glimmer, and waited. I In scruff wonderment could not disprove that This had been the bug's birth, a new specter, From my head fully formed like Athena. Else, time, God, and the wind Had sat him there, overturned in the field of cane, To receive an expression of the limbic energies, Those not meant for surgical discrimination, Reserved to federal power. This logic I detested, but spent the rest of my hour In full capture of his aching end.
Betty, who with her Scotch tongue New stews could set to boil ladleless, Sat inhomogenously upon the bus seat. Yes, Friend, inhomogeneous - for within her made rent The hoary statistic of gaseous state and without, On her visage, ruled well-traveled liquid, Fit to meet whose nature it and she chanced Upon the highway. Remaining, isn’t it a safevouched Truth that her length of leg for solids cleared A new land-grant on this sceptered isle? Then my demonstration Its end will take with the accreditation of their unreacting Mutual acknowledgment. By mutual we must take to mean Shared and unforcedly so, and by acknowledgement We must take to mean that some extension of the whole, Which other philosophers have called of late the “part,” The part of another encounters and no conflict arouses. The display now comes, highcoats, and your miserable year, For catch precise by the pupil how sat Her legs come up at the knee and her arms Then undercut. How her head tired itself lays To rest among the limbs’ cradle, and how her Hair disapproves not but joins in the embrace, Offering a veil of patience. Here is the triple point Where coexistence the scarce thing we can assert Lies and all perturbations, waiting in the wings, Like mortal assassins their daggers encloak.
Do the rest of them wonder, out there? Glockenspiel. What about? Downbeat, quarter rest, Quarter rest, and: I mean about the Dismemberment of their kith and kin, Do they ponder the sucking dread Of a sibling’s early end? Did space in its Unflappable maw, the totality, having, once there, No recourse but consciousnessless, make them Weep and beat their tonsured chests anew? Did they? or is that why I’m here now with you? Don’t rush the euphonium melody here. The question...is ill-posed, leveed with a Greater potential for reharm than suture. The untrammeled waterpath of your thoughts, That riverprint proper to you, to secure that alone, Was I put here with you. Oboe, now: Sever it clean, and test me with a skewer probe, The cleaner to leave your immaculate touch. Got a Rorschach? I was told that would do, Or a stultifying sequence of primitives, that too. Anything To close this rotten cycle. The horns mute. My life stands for only few an indexable rosary, Some gilded object of worship, latterly Of art historical value. Scupper that thought, And your next too. Maybe with more scupper That unlovable instinct to develop the motives Could’ve been squashed in childhood, When, like your collarbone, it was made of Sugared glass.
The only thing next to you there then is The diving bell, a wigwam of passions, Inscrutable to even our doggedest detectives And theologians, those sobbing - I meant Slobbering packed minds. Finely - Finally - fine, a lee - pick your way Over to the garden. It was made just for you. If it please (DV) collect of the sashaying delights Some new fortitude - don’t you need it? You look cannonblasted, guttered. Want a coffee? It was made just for you. (Offscreen) Zadok the Prie... And Nathan...Proph... Anoooointed Solomon... Feel better yet? Good. Another second And I wouldn’t’ve been able to stand You. Two microphones I brought you. Now go get me those pictures I need. (Offscreen) Triumph! Triumph!
Were an errant wind to blow Down a scaping rag and bluffer Your twin ‘ttached poles up kingdom come Thereby to escarp your virgin (undeflowered) Holdfast and profit, - If such a gust should contravene, ‘Gainst all contrariwise indications and plans, Laid best as they may be, And, knowing you, I know how bestly they may be - Then wouldn’t you stand, nay, kneel Blueberried, crumbling a compote, insufficient, Unresolved and destitute! Let it then be that such a sail comes to pass, And assume your destitution as a given of the problem, Then I only pretend to offer unto the community Of investigators, the Pythagoreans and Donglin fellas, A new loop in the tool belt. I as mere, prostrating, supplicant and detestable Agent of a reputablest brokerage offer To you Swiss Guards in a hostile mob, I bring with me Germs to scour the continent of risk. Insurance! My man, it’s the naturalest link between us, Though you and I may never have broken bread At the wedding of your niece, some fragrant princess, By the dendritic alchemy landed upon By another palace’s wizard, who cares, We can get to an understanding. We can Mutually profit, symbiote, both remoras On the back of this great shark called Industrialism. Sing it with me now!
Try it for yourself, Now. I’d tell you to do it “at home,” but You can’t, so go get in a car, get it up to speed. 60 will do. Ready? Then let fall your brimming skull, loose From their fasts those stalwart neck muscles of yours. Hmm. Maybe in your case, a heavy-browed Praxiteles would wheel around And ask a sweaty pupil to redo the tendons. The skin on master’s Palms softens as his gaze hits them, hungrily. One finger bend, And the energy needed to holster that visionary boundlessness arcs, audibly. Anyway, for now, Let’s let the head lean back. Close those eyes, love. Oops! You can’t be driving. Okay. That settled, tilt the mind’s cup back, Yawing, yawing. Ready the proscenium for the show. If you’ve got the sun right (and refer yourself to the attached calibrations, If you need), you ought now be entering a dazzlement. A kaleidoscopic tunnel, all hot reds and popping goldenrods, Figmentary loves of your whirling lenses. How would I describe their distribution? You belabor me, Sweetness, but mark their compaction, the space between The bundles, where pure air alone transmits. Unfamiliar? No, impossible, as this is the view known to Every spellbound babe. Your dog even knows this and faces it sternly. Before we close, you should know That relatively few men have seen as you have, an Untruth in all the important ways, but a proposition We are blessed to have hold here. At Promontory Point, Some hilarious son of the west will look to the head of steam on the horizon, And espy for himself this your view; Of all the generations since Adam his may be the first to do so.
‘From Conjecture to Confirmation,’ he titled his section, Proudly, swimmingly, in a state of flow. Out there the grass grew unchallenged, out there he could not Use his familiar scalpels to dissect sociality. When inequalities fail, cast the problem into topology, he was taught, Taught taught taught. And now he squats low Over a desk of cocobolo, rasping amours To Ricci flows. Bring her back, master. Bring Her back, Cantor, and I will cut the knot You never could. When the moon rose that hillside with us, And you turned back to examine whence we came In the mercurial torchlight, my little daemon tickled And I forgot how to prove the theorem of Pappas for the first time.