In the latest issue:

The American Virus

Eliot Weinberger

The Home Life of Inspector Maigret

John Lanchester

Story: ‘Have a Seat in the Big Black Chair’

Diane Williams

The Last Whale

Colin Burrow

In Beijing

Long Ling

Princess Margaret and Lady Anne

Rosemary Hill

At the Movies: ‘Arkansas’

Michael Wood

Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen

At Home

Jane Miller

The Ottoman Conundrum

Helen Pfeifer

Poem: ‘Muntjac’

Blake Morrison

The Inequality Engine

Geoff Mann

Short Cuts: In Tripoli

Jérôme Tubiana

Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler

At Auckland Castle: Francisco de Zurbarán

Nicola Jennings

Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin

Diary: In the Isolation Room

Nicholas Spice

Five PoemsJohn Ashbery
Close
Close

Chronic Symbiosis

These things can be arranged, he said.
Besides, glitter has become reasonable again.
Hadn’t you heard? For one irrational second I thought
today’s subject was plagiarism, as symbolised
by that desk. But no, it’s joy
in never knowing, in having once known,
and in its still not being too late to know.
Yes, but I know now that I knew
long ago when children
around me grew. Some I liked, others
probably not as much. And from that the road to living sped
ever onward, brambles in its hair, dark patches
under the trees where no moon was. Which means I guess
I can summon all objects from their shelves,
sucked with us into the vacuum-cleaner bag
the open road is. Quick, tell me a story

that I may repeat it with minor variations
and the job be over. Rakes and shovels lean beside
the open door this evening with a special lustre
all their own, that they can’t know. And I,

I was spirited away by a handsome enchanter
to a medium-sized city not twenty miles from here
and live my life as I can hear and smell it. No grouch
am I, yet hardly an earth-mother either. That’s
what befalls most of us plagiarists. We write steadily
away in a barn, with straw and barn swallows for company,
mindless of inspiration or imagination. We have everything
we need for today. We can feed it to crows.

Like a Sentence

How little we know,
and when we know it!

It was prettily said that ‘no man
hath an abundance of cows on the plain, nor shards
in his cupboard.’ Wait! I think I know who said that! It was ...

Never mind dears, the afternoon
will fold you up, along with preoccupations
that now seem so important, until only a child
running around on a unicycle occupies centre-stage.
Then what will you make of walls? And I fear you
will have to come up with something,

be it a terraced gambit above the sea
or gossip overheard in the marketplace.
For you see it becomes you to be chastened:
for the old to envy the young,
and for youth to fear not getting older,
where the paths through the elms, the carnivals, begin.

And it was said of Gyges that his ring
attracted those who saw him not,
just as those who wandered through him were aware
only of a certain stillness, such as precedes an earache,
while lumberjacks in headbands came down to see what all the fuss was about,
whether it was something they could be part of
sans affront to self-esteem.
And those temple hyenas who had seen enough,
nostrils aflare, fur backing up in the breeze,
were no place you could count on
having taken a proverbial powder
as rifle butts received another notch.

I, meanwhile ... I was going to say I had squandered spring
when summer came along and took it from me
like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment
while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine.
But here it is winter, and wrong
to speak of other seasons as though they exist.
Time only has an agenda
in that wallet at his back, while we
who think we know where we are going unfazed
end up in brilliant woods, nourished more than we can know
by the unexpectedness of ice and stars
and crackling tears. We’ll just have to make a go of it,
a run for it. And should the smell of baking cookies appease
one or the other of the olfactory senses, climb down
into this wagonload of prisoners.

The metre will be screamingly clear then,
the rhythms unbounced, for though we came
to life as to a school, we must leave it without graduating
even as an ominous wind puffs out the sails
of proud feluccas who don’t know where they’re headed,
only that a motion is etched there, shaking to be free.

The Confronters

Which of the incredible lies will prove true?
Ah, you ask me things
I wish I could not even ask myself.

A fire burns in a fireplace,
Cups are on a sill.

A man is working. He moves along. There is so
much to learn, so many teachers.

A dog howls from a roof.
Is it a wolf? Someone wants it to be.

In short there are these topics.
In winter and in summer there were.
The other seasons mediate
and end up having more topics.

‘Hives with no bees,’ you said.
Which is how I remember them
through a blood-red transparent curtain, that looked
like rubber.

The various inequalities are parcelled out,
now. There are suburban subdivisions
with no shards of land left on them.
Impatient dawns arrive.

From the Observatory

When they had climbed the Valley of Thieves
and rested at the aleatory base camp
a horseshoe moon began to pierce the curtain of dreams.

It seemed there was something wrong with everything.
The greenhouse was ethereal and too far away.
A gnat ignited the harbour; it rose up gold and sloppy,
with too many seals to think about. The basement
was a dirigible. The Home Counties bristled at suggestions
of voyeurism and venery: ‘Was it for this you came?
To watch us writhe and cringe? Are you happy,
knowing the palace janissaries have subdued us?’

The cult of personality issued conflicting commands
that managed to puddle every surface.
It’s like it was before the flood. Nothing
is dry enough or wet enough. What’s needed is a sense
of invitation, to this or some other domed picnic.
But since we’re here, we might as well memorise the rules
for future reference. All other details
are as the exterior of this wall that reared us: ancient,
trapped in an understanding of the present, where submarines
gather, and eavesdroppers ply their trade.

                                         And the riddle
unknotted itself; the second agreeable ordeal began.

Many Are Dissatisfied

yet the wind from Seattle blows over and over,
against the facing page and against the anthill.
You would wonder at all the crumbs
that have been dropped, lest you find your way
through this tangled story of ours,
and at how the gentlemen fliers cursed us
as mere entertainers, made us put our wallets away.

There was nothing they wouldn’t do to make us comfortable,
short of approving our lifestyle.
Which is why I fester on the porch,
a Hun without a regiment, till the great pretender
comes to knock us over.
It was so grey and mild,
the evening we played air hockey, that I could hardly
condone your singing. You thought about your neighbour’s come,
listlessly, as a child with a slinky badgers cardoons,
while in the great specialist’s plaid-panelled waiting-room
the air has gone mad.

My question to you now is: How
do we escape the fat boy, in lemon overalls,
twenty storeys high, with feet two blocks in diameter?
I guess it was just that spring
emptied like an Egyptian sewer into the street,
fringing our losses before the bad time that went away.
Or is it all declamation – the wanting
to sue nature for the tide’s infirmities,
sliding off into a lather,
mouthing the old pulchritude a house has?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995

Let me tell you about John Ashbery.
Grumbling if not the first, it comes
pernickity over the garnished brown-specked hill,
not unlike ‘Ash Wednesday’. ‘John, John,’
it seems to be saying, over and over,
as if there is nothing for us to do
but to be spelt on by those old witches,
icy in diaphicity. Yes, I did say that.
you heard it right, gloomy in the corner.
‘John Horner?’ And now at this point you should know
it’s Jack we’re talking beneath. Way, way down,
down, down, down. And surely right.

Robert Sargent
Washington DC

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences