Hotel Lautréamont, from 1992, is one of John Ashbery’s best books, in my opinion. These are my favorites.
STILL LIFE WITH STRANGER
Come on, Ulrich, the great octagon
of the sky is passing over us.
Soon the world will have moved on.
Your love affair, what is it
but a tempest in a teacup?
But such storms exclude strange
resonance: The power of the Almighty
reduced to its infinitesimal root
hangs like the chant of bees,
the milky drooping leaves of the birch
on a windless autumn day —
Call these phenomena or pinpoints,
remote as the glittering trash of heaven,
yet the monstrous frame remains,
filling up with regret, with straw,
or on another level with the quick grace
of the singing, falling snow.
You are good at persuading
them to sing with you.
Above you, horses graze forgetting
daylight inside the barn.
Creeper dangles against rock-face.
Pointed roofs bear witness.
The whole cast of characters is imaginary
now, but up ahead, in shadow, the past waits.
FROM ESTUARIES, FROM CASINOS
It’s almost two years now.
The theme was articulated, the brightness filled in.
And when we tell about it
no wave of recollection comes gushing back —
it’s as though the war had never happened.
There’s a smooth slightly concave space there instead:
not the ghost of a navel. There are pointless rounds to be made.
No one who saw you at work would ever believe that.
The memories you ground down, the smashed perfection:
Look, it’s wilted, but the shape of a beautiful table remains.
There are other stories, too ambiguous even for our purposes,
but that’s no matter. We’ll use them and someday,
a great event will go unreported.
All that distance, you ask, to the sun?
Surely no one is going to remember to climb
where it insists, poking about
in an abstract of everyday phrases? People have better
things to do with their lives than count how many
bets have been lost, as we all know the birds were here once.
Here they totter and subside, even in surviving.
In history, the best bird catchers were brought before the king,
and he did something, though nobody knows when.
That was before you could have it all
by just turning on the tap, letting it run
in a fiery stream from house to garage —
and we sat back, content to let the letter of the thing notice us,
untroubled by the spirit, talking of the next gull to fly away
on the cement horizon, not quibbling, unspoken for.
We should all get back to the night that bore us
but since that is impossible a dream may be the only way:
Dreams of school, of travel, continue to teach and unteach us
as always the heart flies a little away,
perhaps accompanying, perhaps not. Perhaps a familiar spirit,
possibly a stranger, a small enemy whose boiling point
hasn’t yet been reached, and in that time
will our desire be fleshed out, at any rate
made clearer as the time comes
to examine it and draw the rasping conclusions?
And though I feel like a fish out of water I
recognize the workmen who proceed before me,
nailing the thing down.
Who asks anything of me?
I am available, my heart pinned in a trance
to the notice board, the stones
inside me ready to speak, if that is all that can save us.
And I think one way or perhaps two; it doesn’t matter
as long as one can slip by, and easily
into the questioning but not miasmal dark.
Look, here is a stance —
shall you cover it, cape it? I
don’t care he said, going down all those stairs
makes a boy of you. And I had what I want
only now I don’t want it, not having it, and yet it defers
to some, is meat and peace and a wooden footbridge
ringing the town, drawing it all in after it. And explaining the way to go.
After all this I think I
feel pretty euphoric. Bells chimed, the sky healed.
The great road unrolled its vast burden,
the climate came to the rescue — it always does —
and we were shaken as in a hat and distributed on the ground.
I wish I could tell the next thing. But in dreams I can’t,
so will let this thing stand for it, this me
I have become, this loving you either way.
LE MENSONGE DE NINA PETROVNA
This slave brings me tea,
and happy, I sit for a moment, a spare
moment. Time under the tree passes,
and those things which I have left undone
find me out! O my spirit shall be
audited! and unknown readers
grasp the weight of my words
as their feather hulls blow away
leaving the crabbed and sullen seed
behind. And how many of these shall grow?
Really I thought it was autonomous
as the bird’s song, the vulture’s sleep,
under crags to whom virtuous
dreams come and torture them awake:
All alone lest someone fear
approach too near, in a fever
that binds the edge of sleep
where it blurs to hysterical necessity,
in these hours I am someone.
A patch of damp cannot ever overcome
the hurricane that blows where it wishes,
and the Christmas tree ornaments may well be
dispersed, that look so perfect,
as must we all, to the distant cheering
of high-school students at a game
who mean no harm
but their kind words cannot save us
or quite leave us alone
as one hand of the clock homes
in on its chosen numeral.
Costumes and memorized poems are the order
of this night
as through an enormous pastry tube
clouds ooze around the stars, lest
(so brittle and unimportant are they)
the wherewithal be lacking
to bring earth into some semblance
of unity under the sky
that mocks us and will never
let us be entirely
all that we were someday to be.
HOW TO CONTINUE
Oh there was once a woman
and she kept a shop
selling trinkets to tourists
not far from a dock
who came to see what life could be
far back on the island.
And it was always a party there
always different but very nice
New friends to give you advice
or fall in love with you which is nice
and each grew so perfectly from the other
it was a marvel of poetry
And in this unsafe quarter
much was scary and dirty
but no one seemed to mind
the parties went on from house to house
There were friends and lovers galore
all around the store
There was moonshine in winter
and starshine in summer
and everybody was happy to discover
what they discovered
And then one day the ship sailed away
There were no more dreamers just sleepers
in heavy attitudes on the dock
moving as if they knew how
among the trinkets and the souvenirs
the random shops of modern furniture
and a gale came and said
it is time to take all of you away
from the tops of the trees to the little houses
on little paths so startled
And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love