Conjunctions:19 Other Worlds

It Must Be Sophisticated
There are attics in old houses
where doubt lingers as to the corrosive
effect of night-blindness: namely
are its victims directly linkable to a chain
of events happening elsewhere? If so,
we should shrug off resemblances

to our line of work. What was said around
the house had undue influence on one of several
shapely witnesses. And, as dames do,
she started talking to any and every
interlocutor out of harm’s way. One day
you wake up and they’ve skipped. Or was it

always empty like this? It’s hard
to remember a time when it wasn’t. Maybe
your memory’s playing tricks on you? Maybe
there never was such a person as Lisa Martins?
Maybe it’s all over when you stand up
to walk the last mile in Enna Jettick shoes,

and they draw the blind quickly to forget you.
Once forgotten you’re as good as dead,
anyway. And who would help you now?
You might as well be trapped at the bottom of a well
in the Sahara. They don’t know you’re alive,
or that your life was anything but exemplary

when it came time for you to live.
The fashionable present keeps queening it
over the slightly dishonorable past. Your
bridesmaids are scattered on the wind.
You don’t feel like having lunch. Maybe
a walk, and a cup of tea later?

We’ll see you at the end of the month!
they cried. Now it keeps ticking,
there must be a mystery down there,
darn it. I’ll find it if it takes all night
and then some other sleuth can solve it.
I was only hired as a go-between. My tour is ended,

and if I’ve a piece of advice for you, it’s
check out the rafters, the moldings.
You can’t tell who might have bargained
for clemency in your absence, leaving you holding
the bag when you got back, restless,
ready to start school, but the vagrant air’s black,

what with the negative promise of spring.
The boys are still rehearsing their parts
they haven’t been over, and really
it’s none of my business. Said the table to the chair.
I was confined here. That’s all I know,
truthfully. During the amnesty I walked

out through the open gate. The streets were full of people,
running back and forth, talking disjointedly. I was
supposed to be somewhere else, but no one knew it.
In the confusion I returned home.
Now the newshounds pester us daily.
What was I born for? More experiments?

Why are they fighting over a fuse? It doesn’t
seem to be harmless like those people are listening to over there;
at the same time, everyone’s a suspect in the new
climate and country. The wind turns a page
of the old tome, then another and another; soon
it’s riffling through them too fast to stop.

There’s nothing in it anyway. Time to move on
to another frontier beyond the transparent frieze
of foliage, guns, barges, to where he began.
Sure, dem days is gone forever, but it’s the attention span
that’s really gone. Back when they’d send for you
once they got a house built, it was clever

to hedge your bets and produce a fraternal twin
made of bedclothes with a mop for a wig
while you scaled the wall on a rope ladder
to be the next new thing that thinks
and cautions others not to. Far from the
inner city cry of conflicting attitudes, one fled with one’s

holy illusions intact, one’s misconceptions too, until the whole
mindset took on a largely symbolic
look, an indifferent jewel, toy
of the weather, of successive washes of light,
I can hardly believe I’m here
in this tiny republic carved out of several conflicting

principalities. It’s enough, perhaps, that I was questioned
at the edge of my performance. That now I’m safe
from my own sang-froid and scores of others,
that mere forgetfulness can save up to fifty-three lives,
that they can share your power and go on glancing
upward. Because after all we were the three

original ones, the president, vice-president and treasurer
of our class. And were formed to repay
what obscure debt and be summarily
taken out of school and handed over to our parents.
It’s what matters then, and after. No one
says you have to live up to principles; indeed, what are they?

What difference does it make which one came too close
in the richly darkened theater, if all
they were after was to coax you into the light,
watch you blink a minute, and then pass on, they too,
to the larger arenas, each in the wind,
in the sand, the reeds, growing? Because even if it doesn’t

punish you exactly, the thing has been
lived through, the experience sealed.
O what book shall I read
now? for they are all of them new, and used,
when I write my name on the flyleaf. Look,
here is another one unread, not written. Time for you to choose.

John Ashbery (1927–2017) was a poet, art writer, collagist, and translator from the French. His over twenty-five collections include Commotion of the Birds, Breezeway, Notes from the Air, A Worldly Country (all from Ecco), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, Penguin), which received a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and National Book Award. President Obama presented Ashbery with a National Humanities Medal in 2012.