CONJUNCTIONS:21 Fall 1993
And the Stars Were Shining
John Ashbery


I

It was the solstice, and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog.
The stars were still out in the field,
and the child prostitutes plied their trade,
the only happy ones, having learned how unhappiness sticks
and will not risk being traded in for a song or a balloon.
Christmas decorations were getting crumpled in offices
by staffers slumped at their video terminals,
and dismay articulated otherness in orphan asylums
where the coffee percolates eternally, and God is not light
but God, as mysterious to Himself as we are to Him.

Say that on some other day garlands disbanded
in the fresh feel of some sea air,
that curious gulls coasted from great distances
to make sure nothing was getting more than its share
of pebbles, and the leaky faucet suddenly stopped dripping:
It was day, after all. One of those things like a length of sleep
like a woman's stocking, that you lay flat
and it becomes a unit of your life and -- this is where it
gets complicated -- of so many others' lives as well
that there is no point in trying to make out, even less read,
the superimposed scripts in which the changes of the decades
were rung, endlessly, like invading kelp, and
whatever it takes to be a simp is likely not what saved you
in time to get here, changing buses twice, and after,
when they sent you to your corner to lick
your wounds you found you liked licking
so much you added it to your repertory of insane gestures,
confident that sleep would punish those outside
even as it rescued you from the puzzle of the dance,
some old fire, thought extinguished, that now
blazes in the stove, and in an instant we realize we are free
to go and return indefinitely. Is that

what you meant by lasting? Oh, sure,
hedgerows are in it too, and the doves there and insects
and treed raccoons that eye one with frank disapproval:
"You unmitigated disaster, you!" I was pleased to discover
one could flatten or otherwise compress it, its Tom
Tiddler's ground having induced only a subcoma, a place
where grown men drink screwdrivers and giggle at the melee
that would certainly have resulted if someone, some prince-regent
      or sheriff
hadn't been in charge, while the long day moped
and opened the fan of its grievances, harassment
being the only one that stands out in the blur now, after such
      distance.

The steed returned home alone, requiting all previous loves.


II

To have been robbed of a downturn
today, I have drunk some water,
rollicked in the texture of a late,
unfinished sonata,
sinking into snow,
falling forward in the oratory,
violent as the wolf's cue and anything
you take from that side of the ledger
only beware of boredom, boredom-as-spell.

Then, slipping into the gentle jacket of
my having to know why everybody passes me,
how I cursed that heir, braided that subway
of signals seen only from behind,
the old rug and its mug -- all were madness for me,
yet only dust. And as I undid its much-stitched
frogs, a near melancholy approached
from across the lake -- little slivers
of sense unbent, that were right about it all
in their way, though I unlatched these tears,
bleached for the occasion.
                                        The stairs knew
it was under them, but by the same token couldn't acknowledge
the enormous debt lifted from the mountain's brow.

And the same foreman, the same teacups jingle still,
following a localized pattern,
uncovering what till now has been everyone's pill.


III

The nude thing was taken around
to various ambassadorial residences.

And on the day he had come home
to see her, her in the maze of
sandwiches some artisan proposed,
he was like a bee in summer.

Remember the reflexive mode, the soul
can live with that, or live behind
it he said, to no avail. The last
breasts caught up.

And in the morning like sugar she gave her head
to the toll-places the mind suggests.


IV

"words like so many tiny wheels"
--Joubert                     

Divide the answer among them
on the facade of the spinning jenny as it
approaches improbably,
a toxic avenger . . .

Later amid the hay of reasons
we sort out a sparse claim.
Was it to be thirty he dressed her
in black-and-white checkers of gingham,

or,

perforce, did the lad go athirst
thinking no doubt too late of the spines,
pelage of mingled hairs and spines,
when all would have meant protection
for him from the main highway, the chief.

                                                             A porch

rattles in the near, clear distance.
There was never any insistence on a name,
though we all have one. Funny, isn't it?
Yours is Guy. I like "Guy," "Fanny" too,
and they grow up and have problems same as us --
kind of puts us out into the middle of the golf course
of the universe, where not too much ever happens,

except growing up, hook by hook,
year after tethered year.
And in the basement, that book,
just another thing to fear.


V

The problem
would have to have had so many other things wrong with it
to remain remonstrably a problem that we would have had to
       float,
it to its bottle of capers, I to my mound of gin,
for the others to see us and pretend not to notice.

That would have been the bonanza, the great volcano,
but as they say in Cheyenne, "Ain't some weekends no
more than sister days of the week when it comes to volleyball
and dimity shrouds," and aquarelles are for the masses
to live off of, when food and conversation run out.
I know because I was a kid with a banana,
but that's for eternity only. All other gaps open out
in the mind of the possessed. I'll be glad to

repeat what I said in court, but send
no lawyers after me, no papier bleu, if you please . . .
And the spider shinnied down the thread it was making as it did so,
curious about what other alarming event could be occupying this
      same moment,
and when he got there, well, it was too late. Death
makes no excuses and, by the same token, exacts none.
The race
is to the fit, and it's a great day for the race,
the human race, yes, but also the tent race,
and my husband is as a cored apple to me:
beautiful, sometimes, and in and out of the dark.

We cared less for each other
than any two people on earth, but the point is we cared.
Don't tell the scotties we didn't.
They wouldn't believe you anyway -- it's just
that my mind is full of eyes, days like this.


VI

A silly place to have landed,
I think, but we are here.
The door to the dressing room is ajar.
A tremendous fight is going on in there.
Later, they'll ask and you'll say you heard nothing
out of the ordinary, now, not that day.
Madame had gone out . . .

So bring the scenery with you.
Midwife to gargoyles, as if all or something
were appropriate, you circle the time inside you,
plant an asterisk next to a kiss,
and it was going to be okay again, and the love
of which rnuch was made settles closer, is a paw
against a wrist. Hasn't finished yet,

through the bread-and-butter machine continues to churn out
faxes, each grisette has something different
about her forehead, is as a poinsettia
in the breeze of Rockefeller Center. I don't like
a glacier telling me to hurry up, the ride down is precipitous.
Then a smile broke out on the ocean face:
we had arrived in time for the late lunch.
The dogs were instructed not to devour us.
And so much that in the past
was kept in flavors of ice-cream sodas now jumps
into one's path. We'll have to
take note of that for tonight's return trip,
though silver sleighbells pamper us,
hint that we'll get to see the Snow Queen
after all, at long last, obscuring the fact
that somebody was running along the courtyard.
Then the janitor wasn't screwy, the mickey
he was to have been slipped was stuck in heavy traffic,
and all those conversations about carbon dioxide
were a smokescreen too. How brittle it all was,
in the way abstractions have, and yet how
much it mattered for those children: It was their
funeral, and they should have had a say in its undoing
by the lighthouse's repeated lunges.
He claimed it was to read Sir Walter Scott by.

No one ever questions him. That asparagus-like mien
wasn't made to encourage dolts and stutterers.
Yet I think a clue is back here
behind the sofa, where lost bunnies whimper
and press together. He had been a seafarer,
who knew where his last hamburger
had come from, and whose cursive signature adorned
the polished bullet. in a little while peace
would establish itself, welcome foreigners and venture capital,
and tides rush in to destroy
what little progress in unleashing the sense of things
I and my classmates had made. We were still
at the beginning of the alphabet, chanting things like "Tomes
will open to disgorge intuiting of our altered dates,
we stepchildren, who had no place to go, and nowhere
to be late, and brash breezes
play with our buoys. Still, a little consideration
might have helped, at that point." And time will be as precise
as a small table with a cordless telephone on it, next to a television.


VII

Rummaging through some old poems
for ideas -- surely I must have had some
once? Some people have an idea a day,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber. And these are probably
the suspicious ones. Anyway, in poems
are no ideas. No ideas in things, either --
her name is Wichita.

Later with candles coming to the
celebration, it occurred to me how
all this helps -- if it wasn't here
we'd be like lifeguards looking for prey.
Look, one of them stops me. "Your
candle, sir?" Dammit, I know there was something
I was supposed to remember, and now I'm lost.
"Oh no you're not, the smile on that big
bird's beak should be enough to let you in,
on the secret, and more." He's here to help,
the whole darn nation is, even as
tidal waves suck at its precipices and high-speed
dust storms dement its populace. One
will say he's seen an anchor in the sky --
why am I telling you this? It's just that the light,
violet, impacted, made a difference
for a moment
back there.

The bug-black German
heels and back areas, the long tilted
cloaks for sale, the others -- yes,
they're still here?
Something must be done about it
before it does it itself. You know
what that will be like. The white tables with their
roses are so beautiful. It doesn't mater if the corn is faded.


VIII

I've never really done this before.
See, I couldn't do it. Does this
make a difference to you, my soul's
windshield wiper? See, I can try again.

Now, try to expose it.
We'll look back and it won't seem
so long ago. This late in Dec.
you go from day to night in 32 minutes,
the peonies ajar --
That which I polished
as a child stands up to me.
A peashooter blows away
the soldiers.

I have seldom encouraged more libidinousness
on the road to the tracks. My shanty
looks okay to me now, I can live with it
if not in it,
who had the prescience -- the prescience of mind
to buy a part of New York
while it was still a logo on someone's umbrella,
a rococo convict from the Laocoön tableau.
Those snakes get worse each season
the deaf man said
and he had reason
on his side, they were strangling his kid
and goat even as we talked in the parched
weather that was obscurely damp and white.
Next swamp we'll do better,
tidy up things, the davenport
that got thrown out, the kerosene lamp
you wanted for your henhouse. The stoves,
so many of them. The refrigerator:
Eskimos really do need them
to keep their food from freezing
you sal 'd to the teacher, and my eye
is dry, all the riddles came undone.

Hot, swift choices
over the lake in May.
The old gray mare.
Violets blossomed loudly
like a swear word in an empty tank.
The fish mostly had gone home
the admiral repeated falling into
his habitual stammer --whenever he came
to the words "iron blow" it happened for him,
poor rich man, who despised the stall tickets
once he recovered from the rage
of being within us again.

And whether it was smoke on a balcony
or idle laurels that seem to creep
out of his books in the library
we were chastened -- "by the experience"
and so went to bed and never read again.
It was glorious standing up in the various rain
to keep clear of the teeth but that changed nothing
fast like a fast game of checkers.
The kind of cry that can't be heard

yet others outside might know of
soon as the mist was sucked
up through a tube and the platonic curve
returned for various dignitaries to perch on
like members of the Foreign Legion or the French Academy.
Androgynous truths never shattered anyone's
complacency on Broadway even though they use thermal down
now (I thought it had been outlawed) --
beckoning though maybe not at you
as you come to evaluate
all the leaning together.

And the store models are free
for the asking -- aye, that's just it,
"for the asking." What isn't? And who
can make that chirp
sound round in the eye of the traveling salesman --
taller than might have been expected, than Mont Blanc --
who sees the talisman perishing amid lichees
while others gape and walk back toward
Washington Square.

If I had night I would feed it to you
but I have something much better -- the desire to run
away for president, with you
in my back seat. And whether butter
brings a smell of gas with it or the Beefeaters
look bloated, all is of some concern to us --
we didn't need to be separated before you knit that
sweater as a plenary indulgence: shimmering
with only pastel colors like a life lived
near sunlight exclusively, like a page-turner's
romance with the page and the soloist.

It breaks into thunder:
thought that comes to you,
a safe haven from the shipping.
Lo, a low hill welcomes those who wish
to climb its flanks, to its summit
just over the near horizon, blue and cream,
the colors of my navy she said, I'll bet yours
are similar too. That was why I had to play
my gray cape, the lost card

no one is ever conscious of having.
And if we had something for the stew,
some salt or something, why that could go in too
as long as land could still be sighted
to the left, a silver crow's nest in which all
lost objects, blue Christmas tree ornaments, arise
and sing the national anthem of Hungary
and the river garments come together with a clap
to shield those who never previously wore them
and the gold tooth extracted from a brooch
join in the general clamor
of do-gooders--the common sort of folk
all over us like a coat of burrs.

Once the bear knew he headed back to his cave.

Winter wasn't clear yet
but all the days of the year were tumbling out of its crevices,
the chic ones and the special-interest ones,
and those with no name upon them.
Everything looked slight
which was all right.

Then the magician entered his chamber.
Too bad there are no more willows
but we'll satisfy his bent commands anyway,
have a party in the dark,
throw love away, go neck in the park,
fill out each form in sextuplicate -- then let the storm
be not far behind, the old graves and swords
of winter erupt out of turn. It won't be bad
for us. You see, the penguins have stayed away too long,
ditto the flamingos. I think I can make it all
come together, but for that
there must be a modicum of silence.
Your ear's just the place for it.


IX

New technology approaches the bridge.
The weir, ah the weir, combing the falls,
like the beautiful white hair of a princess.

In the oxidation tank he thinks
of fish, how strange they can get the oxygen
they need from the water, and then when it goes blank--
why, pouf! And you realized the past suffered
from housemaid's knee, and that when the present
came along, why no one would speak up,
and it just moved in, with pets . . .
For the medium future I had thought striped stockings
and a kind of beard like a haze, seen only
on certain ancient sun deities who walked
absorbed in fields, as children groused
and crocuses sputtered the unbelievable word.

Right, it's definitely our situation.
we can come out of it but not simply leave it.
It will die of having so many things in it,
like a barrel choked with leaves. Yet sooner or later,
you know, one is dipped in it
and spotted lawns, greatcoats emerge.
The cistern really was built
by the workmen while you were away.
It's alive and containing.
And so many horticulturalists sway,
inebriated with the hardiness
of the ranunculus, the gladiolus.
Even so, he asked us to leave him
alone, at night, wanted to think
or something, about love or something,
something that turned him on.

Only later when we came to bask
in his friendship, did that marine eye astonish us:
out over so much plains, such doo-wop wind,
you'd think it wouldn't spell "ceremonial" to him.
But he merely shaved the numbers off, dawn removed
the fingerprints, and why I am with you
and these several elves, no one can piece together:
not Great-aunt Josephine or her mortician boyfriend,
not the robbers of the "School of Night" drawing.
And we shifted, you and I, causing the rowboat to take on water.
Strange, how a few decibels can make your day.


X

Of course some of us were more risible -- then.
Stopping by an apartmentful of freeloaders
on a snowy evening, I was asked about the other
mysteries,
and, forced to prevaricate, noted
that time was setting in.

As one gets peeled away from life
and distant waterspouts put their kibosh on the horizon,
just one message makes it through the triple filters:
Go easy. Your chums on this shore have
worked long and hard on the inclined-plane thing;
if you haven't any suggestions (and you haven't),
let them continue to think it was sorcery
that was lacking. The fact that no directional
arrows pointed the way to the mother lode
proves their greenery to them, and they begin
to reason: "The kitchen's not such a bad place,
if it's sinks you're after. Sure, Caruso was singing
somewhere behind the padlocked velvet door,
but if we stay - no, linger - here, the problem
will reverse itself. Tom and Jerrys all around."

As for the ritual endowment
so prized by the Coca-Cola girl, that only arrived later
to prove its wetness and wildness non-fatal
just before the sun came out and caked it.

We sure live in a bizarre and furious
galaxy, but now it's up to us to make it
into an environment for maps to sidle up to,
as trustingly as leeches. Heck, put us
on the map, while you're at it.
That way we can smoke a cigarette, and stay and sway,
shooting the breeze with night and her swift promontories.


XI

"But in the soul of man there are innumerable infinities."
--Traherne                                        



There is still another thing I have to do.
I've never been able to do this
and I have this announcement to make
over all the streets, all the years we have been difficult
leading to this. This icon. That walks and jabbers
fortuitously or not. Bells splinter the ice
and I am away, on a trip somewhere. Kansas.
It doesn't matter for me
and matters so old for you, sobs distant as tractors.
We are the people we came to see
or might as well be, bringing cabbages as gifts,
talking nonstop, barbed wire stringing the trees,
cigar smoke bellowing.

It was all the same to us,
we came in and out,
were thoughtful as strawberries, and the great athlete overturned us,
made us obsolete. Now that was a day I can trace
with a little mental calisthenics
and find I know what I was doing, to whom
I spoke, the kings, carriages, it was all there.
And my knowing derives no comfort
from that parallel shelving of events.
No kind of nexus. As if the doll herself knew
what you weren't supposed to know, and survived the fall
from the attic window to incriminate you,
just before the draft swept her into the furnace.
The burning is beginning again.

But there are a giant two of us,
the remnant, or product, or a complex
bristling-up-around, then a feigning of disinterest
in a corner of the room, and the fuse ignites
the furniture with blue. It's earth-shattering, they say,
as long as you contain it,
and you have to, can. The brain-alarm is being recalled
but the message exists even with no words to inflict it,
no stanzas to be cherished. For we end
as we are forgiven, with chords the bird promised
caught in our throats, O sweetest song,
color of berries, that I lied for and extended
improbably a little distance from the given grave.


XII

A late glimmer read into it
what is not to be intuited,
only pressed, like a hand or pants,
as the sea presses against rock
for lack of anything better
to do -- surrounded by buddies
taking a breather, it was always thus with you,
you who come close enough to me:
Oh, you've often found
clues in the garden where the hornets
and the robins make their nests;
clues on the stairway, in the vestry
and the garage with its enormous drums.
Say something that will strengthen me,
let me sip all the colas of the world
before I dive off this reef, into
that region of ferns and bubbles that awaits us,
where all are not so bright, but a few are.
These we clasp to us, our bodies' tattoos
seeking psychiatric help, and the earth
guzzles and slurps rhythmically.
A dog would like you for it,
but here no voice says to come all the way in.

Here are holdings,
taking name in the urban dusk
that grazed you just now. Have you brought the lesson?
Good, I was sure of it. But can no longer
go out past the doorman. Here, take this basket of iced cookies
anyway. And he jubilates. Everything is in time for him,
eating in the capacity, along with the French
and motorcycle community, is what the headphones told us.
And when we no longer have each other to look at
these buzz and resonate still. From what dark pitcher
or mirror I brought you, from Duluth, and minus
astral influences, you are grateful, and for wrappings in general.
It is time to feast
so soon again.

Slow crows still rally round that puncture mark
in a Danish heaven where a sawhorse delivers
the belated aspirin and spools are wound
in the interests of a greater clarity than this:
soon, all will be hidden,
like a stage behind a red velvet curtain,
and this mole on your shoulder -- no need to ask
it its name. In the brisk concealment
that has become general everything thrives:
bushes, lampposts, motels at the edge of airports
whose blue lights guide the descending vehicle
to a safe berth in soon-to-be night,
as wharves welcome their vessels, however frumpy
they may seem, with open arms.
And I think it says a lot about us, about
our welcoming, that days don't disturb themselves
or think too much about it, or manage
the disheveled trace that was to have been our signature.
We're too cagey for that in any case,
wouldn't be fooled by the most elaborately duplicated passport,
bill of lading. It's as though we've come refreshed
from another planet, and spied immediately what was lacking in
       this one:
an orange, fresh linens, ink, a pen.

Still the hothouse beckons.
I've told you before how afraid this makes me,
but I think we can handle it together,
and this is as good a place as any
to unseal my last surprise: you, as you go,
diffident, indifferent, but with the sky for an awning
for as many days as it pleases it to cover you.
That's what I meant by "get a handle," and as I say it,
both surface and subtext subside quintessentially
and the dead-letter office dissolves in the blue acquiescence of
       spring.


XIII

You get hungry,
you eat hot.
Home's a cold delivery destination.
The emphatic nose puts it on hold.
Clubs are full.
I kind of like the all-night dust-up
though I'm sworn to secrecy,
with or without a cat.

I let so many people go by me
I sort of long for one of them, any
one, to turn back toward me,
forget these tears. As children we played at being grownups.
Now there's trouble brewing on the horizon.

So -- if you want to come with me,
or just pull at my sleeve, let them make that discovery.
Summer won't end in your lap,
nor are the stars more casual than usual.
Peace, quiet, a dictionary -- it was so important,
yet at the end nobody had any time for any of it.
It was as if all of it had never happened,
my shoelaces were untied, and -- am I forgetting anything?