New Constructions

John Ashbery
Joe Brainard, Garden IV. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery and Eric Brown Art Group.
Detail. Joe Brainard, Garden IV, 1969, watercolor on paper and collage, 14 x 11 inches, 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery and Eric Brown Art Group.

Boy I can remember when February
gave out and it was all "no quarter" - the sect of the
levellers passed over and was as night and fire
and more peace. He returned in an hour.
Perpetually flummoxed doorkeepers trying to kill
the men who did the migration proceedings
in the evening news
were backed up all the way to the Arctic Circle.

The aunts were out in zones
of cozy brilliance I
noticed with teapots to their names
like birthing, and they could do Finland then.
It was a kind of parenting. I notice they
doubled our salaries. It was all over
by 6p.m.

Many causes later he came
in and hurt himself. I
saw a lot of cherry bombs. Is this the place
where one foregathers?
If so, what are all the urchins doing?
Oh, she warned it's just to the end of the block
where knee-high tulips pucker and all is reassuring
as they'd rather not have you believe. Does
that clear everything up? Well I think so well I
would like to see the proof of the invitation:
a hand print. I'm so sorry these are inexcusable.
I'll dust myself up, or off;

meanwhile in the clearing they are pouring something.
Do you think you could be kind to come in

and matter where the horse esteems mechanized shortcuts?
Say rather he came in and hurt himself,
and now the bagpipers have nothing left to mourn,
the day just wheezes and goes down a funnel
counterclockwise. It was all just a fit
to have made you start bolt upright
on the steppe terns parted from
with little glovelike cries
awaiting the refrigerator that was to have us all
on its digital menu.
Wait, there are extenuating circumstances
and I myself am just a bum;
whatever came in with the weather
and dematerialized in the corners of the room, just so
am I to myself and others around.
But how do you justify

the crank silhouetted against the sky?
That's just it, I don't; it is all leftovers
and why am I crying
when the boats pass
in the narrow ship channel
with corduroy undies for all the years
I took off from Mrs. Bacon's
and the way they came flooding back at me
like complaints in a gyroscope
or an armillary of vexations.
Then she proposed take this needle
and thread it for the two
messages you have missed.

I'll not start another reptile war;
I look to the end of the komodo dragons thundering overhead.
Otherwise I sleep under the eaves; the cabbages
keep me company at evening, and are all
the society anyone wants. And yes,
I keep up the sewing, the round robin
of Lettergate wherever a spare postal employer
taxes us with unlived puns: There
do we stop and pitch camp,
and I'll tell you it's not going to get easier,
only harder.
With that they

took off, just a bundle
of stems to make a totem with.
I sit on the site over and over,
let it absorb hard doing,
piecemeal reconciliations, laundry
marks rubbed out in the wash, seasonal
hares and conviviality and the rest,
the rest.

John Ashbery (1927–2017) was a poet whose many collections of poetry include Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Originally published:
April 1, 1998


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