(from Chinese Whispers)
The philosopher walked over to me and tapped me on the brow
with his pencil. Now does this remind you of anything?
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
Yes, if it’s in sync with the marrow of the growing world.
I can relate to that mattress. I do. I mean I do, sometimes.
And what day of the week might this be?
I’ll make a wild guess—it’s Thursday. You’re wrong,
though it seems like a Thursday. They sent me the Times
upstream all the way, it arrived and began to smile, I
was startled, I always am when it’s like that. But this
time it was different, more was at stake, though I don’t know
what, exactly. More overtime, perhaps. Get
on with it, we don’t have all night. You think
I like watching the candles gutter? Well, do you?
Yes, I think you do rather, but that’s not the point.
Well what is the fucking point? It’s that you were here,
earlier, and took too long to get here. By then
it was too late, but you’d been here earlier, hoping to cast
it as earlier, and yourself in a favorable light.
That light is now swaying from the chandelier, like an orangutan
awaiting further instructions, in mid-mischief, wondering if
all this is porridge after all. The philosopher is your boyfriend.
Remember you were hot before. Now it seems like an unseasonable crust,
with breath still to be counted, the weird smell,
and the way it all tallies with the trellis up the chimney.
You, on the other hand, were out of the country, or so you say,
and so couldn’t possibly have witnessed the flare
that in fact no one saw, and can get on with it. My
conscience is clear. I’m hungry, and lunch, or supper, is waiting.
Between sleep and rubbish is the remembrance,
scent to one who can smell. What a relief, though—if snow flies
and they decide to walk back into it, that will make one more game.
Yes, mon chou, the way it is has been decided. When they come up for air
at the same moment, a truce is called,
and the staircase draped with shagreen. Others
than they may of course make decisions, but only in the infinity
of ways which concern us. We blacked out for a moment.
Still others avoid laxatives and beef. We cannot logically condone
headway in the matter. I said you brought back library books
that were due on June 23, 1924, and you owe me four trillion eight hundred
thousand twenty-three cents. Luckily a moratorium
was introduced in the last decade, forgiveness was invented,
and you are free to sulk by the ladder.
As it was I took the elevator to the top,
walked around and didn’t see anything and came back down.
Then, acting on a hunch, I went up much faster
than the first time, and spotted two lovers entwined on the horizon,
but let them go, training the big bertha instead on a rabbit
limping across hallowed ground, was dismissed, took early retirement instead
to avoid embarrassment all round, and now am as you see me:
a blind cook serving pornographic muffins to paying guests
over cocktails before the sea opens and drinks us, then closes over us,
smacking its lips like an idiot.
Everything from soup to nuts is OK with me. Her bust came
buckled to Dad’s breeches, someone in trouble.
Halving and having a new thing are the same.
I always preferred him, he was a wreck, superior to the common man,
but oh so separate. If he had dimples,
everybody had to have them. If he went to bed with someone
everybody else had to too. It was his summer of fun.
The fashions “dictated” a lot of things just then, we were cool
with that. Some of you might think of life as some kind of upper berth
on a honeymoon. Marriage on stilts. The absolute truth is,
no one’s going to look at you once it’s done.
We may as well refresh ourselves—the chase soon comes to a head,
though not for long, as Galileo’s orange teaches.
The truth is always a bit further on, and sits there.
No one can read the expression
on its supplanted face.
The third monster seemed to think it was his turn to say something. “Well…”
“Folks I can’t go on like this, that is, you can’t.
Whoever suffers fate’s naughty cudgel ought to come clean.
Otherwise there’s no explanation, and that cannot be,
as we know. In some other life siphoned out of this one with a tube we can all
kiss our masters, for that day anything is play.
The raddled cowslips of diverted energy have a vested interest in us.
The team partly owns a share of each one of us. Go figure. Ask Neptune.
And insofar as I count, I’m lowering the iron shutter
on today’s wares. God help us if he comes along. But if he doesn’t
we shall be sisters all the same, tame in embroidery, yet resistant
where least expected. My dog speaks proof. I can ladle surf too,
I used to be a bathhouse attendant. I got good grades in math.
Didn’t get into the college of my choosing. Oh well. It’s triste,
the drain choked with tumbleweed, mascara on the clouds, the wooden false fronts
of our little downtown, only we hadn’t left it this way, and ought not
as darkness falls and the real fur flies. You get caught out at night.”
The girl in the drawing said it and made it happen to me,
then turned right over.
The nexus of the star is a superbrain
that can take in you and me and not be mottled or disturbed,
while we lead quiet, shadowed lives. Insignificance is all we have.
The colors, dark ocean maroon, we belong to in the sense that earth belongs to us,
more reassurance, and when day collapses it’s the same—a plight
that is a solution. That’s why I can never go back to philosophy—
its halls and chambers are a paradigm of emptiness, not the real thing,
for only under stones is the knowledge
of underneath, and my desire is mammoth.
So it’s decided. I’ll pack my suitcase
or something, we have the tickets.
Someday I’ll get you there, I know this, the flaming artery obstructs
but not that much, chestnuts still bask in the fire.
But when it came time to sample other essences
she had absconded, wasn’t behind the goalpost.
In this way, rhizome-like, life gets added to life until there is no
and again tackles its dull awareness of today’s
not remembering our names, only faces.
But there’s no mistaking their intent.
The missile had locked on its prey, houses are swept
for weddings, they cry and can’t alter anything.
We each had an appetizer, the pupils left.
My tetrahedron is open to the night.
(“But was it hinted that brains slant otherwise?
That a draft of cunning will get you into the fair,
where, as long as you keep quiet, you can own great, quivering beasts?
That one’s breath on the moat ignores the shoulders of pike,
and once more the canon desires what it devours,
made to come round again? That we were cousins once in Duluth?
That there is scrimping out there where buzzards plough
the greenery and bellboys interrupt? I’ll be my own vast placebo.
Twilight comes with a rush and wet plumbing.
There is more to our story, more to the telling of it—”)
The unbuilt demands added attention. We got swept along,
and you never learned Jay’s last name. Perhaps it was Jay.
Evening ebbed on the hour.
The newspaper arrived by pigeon post,
as might be. We loved hot food. There is something else
for you and me. Sighed the voyante. And they wonder why it didn’t
taste just right. With dead milk. But surely that
was an inning, it had to be. We had all worked so hard. It comes over me,
all this loss, and then the time. Added to your hours. For a few thrilling minutes
she came and sat by us. “For now, it’s all right. The children would
you to be this way, happy. But the older I get the harder
it is for me to climb the giant root,
beyond which is an extension of everything, see? You do see.
I’ll leave you the latchkey, at last. Don’t hesitate to use it.
Don’t call me. Or see anything wrong with this.” Like a charming
serpent, she took her leave, with one half of us in suspense,
the other clotured. But it was turning out this way. I knew it all
along, in the hallway of your dwelling. You shouldn’t make such noises
and not mean them. There’ll come a day when we’ll live off noise,
but for now the square forecourt is overgrown. I’ve loved some things in my time,
cast others aside, let others fall by the wayside. The feast such
as we now reap it is heavy, indistinct. Their voices blur. They could croon.
Each to the other thinks: It’s gone. But rotten. Days will
go on turning themselves inside out for us, and trees warble for us,
but not often and not very well.
CHINESE WHISPERS by John Ashbery. Copyright ©2002 by John Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. on behalf of the author.