Read Houseboat Days: Poems Online

Authors: John Ashbery

Houseboat Days: Poems (6 page)

BOOK: Houseboat Days: Poems

So fast I lose my breath, a not unpleasant feeling.

I feel as though I had been carrying the message for years

On my shoulders like Atlas, never feeling it

Because of never having known anything else. In another way

I am involved with the message. I want to put it down

(In two senses of “put it down”) so that you

May understand the agreeable destiny that awaits us.

You sigh. Your sigh will admit of no impatience,

Only a vast crater lake, vast as the sea,

In which the sky, smaller than that, is reflected.

I reach for my hat

And am bound to repeat with tact

The formal greeting I am charged with.

No one makes mistakes. No one runs away

Any more. I bite my lip and

Turn to you. Maybe now you understand.

The feeling is a jewel like a pearl.

The Thief of Poetry

To you

my friend who

was in this

street once

were on it


in with it

getting on with it


only passing by

a smell of hamburgers

that day

an old mattress

and a box spring

as it


filling the empty


of a street

in decay of time

it fell out that

there was no


whether out of a wish

to be moving on

or frustrated

willingness to stay

here to stand


the moment

had other plans

and now in this

jungle of darkness

the future still makes plans

O ready to go

Conceive of your plight

more integrally

the snow

that day

buried all but the most obtuse

only the most generalized


the low profile

becomes a constant again

the line of ocean

of shore




to rise again

in new


in explicit


drowns the hum

of space

the false point

of the stars

in specific

new way of happening


no one remembers

the day you walked a certain distance

along the beach

and then

walked back

it seems

in your tracks

because it

was ending

for the first time

yes but now

is another way of

spreading out

toward the end

the linear style

is discarded

though this is

not realized for centuries


another way of living had come and gone

leaving its width


now the tall cedars

had become locked into

the plan

so that everywhere

you looked

was burning


interior space

not for colonies

but already closed

turned in on itself

its back

as beautiful as the sea

where you go up

and say the word


to yourself

all was lived in

had been lived in

was coming to an end


in the featureless present

that was expanding to

cloister it

this just a little too

comic parable

and so insure the second


of that day seen against the street

of whichever way

you walked and talked

knowing not knowing

the thing that was describing you

and not knowing

your taller

well somehow more informed


as you wind down

only a second

it did matter

you come back so seldom

but it’s all right

the way of staying

you started comes back

procession into the fire

into the sky

the dream you lost

firm in its day

reassured and remembered

The Ice-Cream Wars

Although I mean it, and project the meaning

As hard as I can into its brushed-metal surface,

It cannot, in this deteriorating climate, pick up

Where I leave off. It sees the Japanese text

(About two men making love on a foam-rubber bed)

As among the most massive secretions of the human spirit.

Its part is in the shade, beyond the iron spikes of the fence,

Mixing red with blue. As the day wears on

Those who come to seem reasonable are shouted down

Why you old goat!
Look who’s talkin’. Let’s see you

Climb off that tower—the waterworks architecture, both stupid and

Grandly humorous at the same time, is a kind of mask for him,

Like a seal’s face. Time and the weather

Don’t always go hand in hand, as here: sometimes

One is slanted sideways, disappears for awhile.

Then later it’s forget-me-not time, and rapturous

Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells

The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded

And still apt to rise at times.)

A few black smudges

On the outer boulevards, like squashed midges

And the truth becomes a hole, something one has always known,

A heaviness in the trees, and no one can say

Where it comes from, or how long it will stay—

A randomness, a darkness of one’s own.


Like a serpent among roses, like an asp

Among withered thornapples I coil to

And at you. The name of the castle is you,

El Rey.
It is an all-night truck-stop

Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.

It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.

Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,

Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian—maybe others.

You know now that it has the form of a string

Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,

Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way

So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving—what?

A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,

Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

You are smart but the weather of this day startles and japes at you. You come out of it in pieces. Always pursuing you is the knowledge that I am there unable to turn around, unable to confront you with your otherness. This is another one of my houses, the one in Hampstead, the brick one in the middle of the block that you never saw though you passed along that street many times, sometimes in spring with a light drizzle blowing that made you avert your gaze, sometimes at the height of summer where the grandeur of the ideas of the trees swamped your ideas about everything, so you never saw my house. It was near where Arthur Rackham lived. I can’t quite remember the name of the street—some partly legible inscription on a Victorian urn: E and then MEL(E?), perhaps a Latin exhortation to apples or heroism, and down in the dim part a name like “Rossiter,” but that is too far down. Listen, I never meant for you not to be in my house. But you couldn’t because you were it.

In this part I reflect on the difficulty and surprise of being you. It may never get written. Some things are simultaneously too boring and too exciting to write about. This has to be one of them. Some day, when we’re stoned … Meanwhile, write to me. I enjoy and appreciate your phone calls, but it’s nice to get cards and letters too—so keep ’em comin’!

Through bearded twilight I hear things like “Now see here, young man!” or “Henry Groggins, you old reprobate!” or “For an hour Lester has been staring at budget figures, making no progress.” I know these things are, that they are. At night there are a few things, and they slide along to make room for others. Seen through an oval frame, one of the walls of a parlor. The wallpaper is a conventionalized pattern, the sliced okra and star-anise one, held together with crudely gummed links of different colored paper, among which purple predominates, stamped over a flocked background of grisaille shepherdesses and dogs urinating against fire hydrants. To reflect on the consummate skill with which the artist has rendered the drops as they bounce off the hydrant and collect in a gleaming sun-yellow pool below the curb is a sobering experience. Only the shelf of the mantelpiece shows. At each end, seated on pedestals turned slightly away from one another, two aristocratic bisque figures, a boy in delicate cerise and a girl in cornflower blue. Their shadows join in a grotesque silhouette. In the center, an ancient clock whose tick acts as the metronome for the sound of their high voices. Presently the mouths of the figures open and shut, after the mode of ordinary conversation.

Thought I’d

Row across to you this afternoon,

My Irina! Always writing your beloved articles,

I see. Happened on one only recently in one of the more progressive journals.

Brilliantly written, or so it seemed, but isn’t your thought a bit too

Advanced by present-day standards? Of course, there was much truth

In what you said, but don’t you feel the public sometimes has more truth

Than it can cope with? I don’t mean that you should … well, “fib,”

But perhaps, well, heh heh, temper the wind to the shorn lamb

A bit. Eh? How about it, old boy?

Or are you so in love with your “advanced” thinking that everything else

Seems old hat to you, including my conversation no doubt? In that

Case I ought to be getting on. Goodness, I’ve a four-thirty appointment and it’s

Already five after. What have you done with my hat?

These things I write for you and you only.

Do not judge them too harshly. Temper the wind,

As he was saying. They are infant things

That may grow up to be children, perhaps—who knows?—

Even adults some day, but now they exist only in the blindness

Of your love for me and are the proof of it.

You can’t think about them too long

Without knocking them over. Your castle is a house of cards,

The old-fashioned kind of playing cards, towering farther

Than the eye can see into the clouds, and it is also built on

Shifting sands, its base slurps out of sight too. I am the inhabitable one.

But my back is as a door to you, now open, now shut,

And your kisses are as dreams, or an elixir

Of radium, or flowers of some kind.

Remember about what I told you.

Blue Sonata

Long ago was the then beginning to seem like now

As now is but the setting out on a new but still

Undefined way.
now, the one once

Seen from far away, is our destiny

No matter what else may happen to us. It is

The present past of which our features,

Our opinions are made. We are half it and we

Care nothing about the rest of it. We

Can see far enough ahead for the rest of us to be

Implicit in the surroundings that twilight is.

We know that this part of the day comes every day

And we feel that, as it has its rights, so

We have our right to be ourselves in the measure

That we are in it and not some other day, or in

Some other place. The time suits us

Just as it fancies itself, but just so far

As we not give up that inch, breath

Of becoming before becoming may be seen,

Or come to seem all that it seems to mean now.

The things that were coming to be talked about

Have come and gone and are still remembered

As being recent. There is a grain of curiosity

At the base of some new thing, that unrolls

Its question mark like a new wave on the shore.

In coming to give, to give up what we had,

We have, we understand, gained or been gained

By what was passing through, bright with the sheen

Of things recently forgotten and revived.

Each image fits into place, with the calm

Of not having too many, of having just enough.

We live in the sigh of our present.

If that was all there was to have

We could re-imagine the other half, deducing it

From the shape of what is seen, thus

Being inserted into its idea of how we

Ought to proceed. It would be tragic to fit

Into the space created by our not having arrived yet,

To utter the speech that belongs there,

For progress occurs through re-inventing

These words from a dim recollection of them,

In violating that space in such a way as

To leave it intact. Yet we do after all

Belong here, and have moved a considerable

Distance; our passing is a facade.

But our understanding of it is justified.

Spring Light

The buildings, piled so casually

Behind each other, are “suggestions

Which, while only suggestions,

We hope you will take seriously.” Off into

The blue. Getting there is easier,

But then we hope you will come down.

There is a great deal on the ground today,

Not just mud, but things of some importance,

Too. Like, silver paint. How do you feel

About it? And, is this a silver age?

Yeah. I suppose so. But I keep looking at the cigarette

Burns on the edge of the sink, left over

From last winter. Your argument’s

Nearly beyond any paths I’m likely to take,

Here, or when I eventually leave here.


Orpheus liked the glad personal quality

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

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