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All that distance, you ask, to the sun?
Surely no one is going to remember to climb where it insists, poking about
in an abstract of everyday phrases? People have better
things to with their lives than count how many
bets have been lost, and we all know the birds were here once.
Here they totter and subside, even in surviving.

In history, the best bird catchers were brought before the king,
and he did something, though nobody knows when.
That was before you could have it all
by just turning on the tap, letting it run
in a fiery stream from house to garage—
and we sat back, content to let the letter of the thing notice us,
untroubled by the spirit, talking of the next gull to fly away
on the cement horizon, not quibbling, unspoken for.

We should all get back to the night that bore us
but since that is impossible a dream may be the only way:
dreams of school, of travel, continue to teach and unteach us
as always the heart flies a little way,
perhaps accompanying, perhaps not. Perhaps a familiar spirit,
possibly a stranger, a small enemy whose boiling point
hasn’t yet been reached, and in that time
will our desire be fleshed out, at any rate
made clearer as the time comes
to examine it and draw the rasping conclusions?

And though I feel like a fish out of water I
recognize the workmen who proceed before me,
nailing the thing down.
Who asks anything of me?
I am available, my heart pinned in a trance
to the notice board, the stone
inside me ready to speak, if that is all that can save us.

And I think one way or perhaps two; it doesn’t matter
As long as one can slip by, and easily
Into the questioning but not miasmal dark.
Look, here is a stance—
Shall you cover it, cape it? I
Don’t care he said, going down all those stairs
makes a boy of you. And I had what I want
only now I don’t want it, not having it, and yet it defers
to some, is meat and peace and a wooden footbridge
ringing the town, drawing all in after it. And explaining the way to go.
After all this I think I
feel pretty euphoric. Bells chimed, the sky healed.
The great road unrolled its vast burden,
the climate came to the rescue—it always does—
and we were shaken as in a hat and distributed on the ground.
I wish I could tell the next thing. But in dreams I can’t,
So will let this thing stand in for it, this me
I have become, this loving you either way.

From Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery (Ecco, 2007).
The poem was originally published in Hotel Lautréamont (Knopf, 1992).

Ashbery has just been named poet laureate for mtvU, a subsidiary of MTV that is broadcast on university campuses.

Author John Ashbery - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Author John Ashbery
Author John Ashbery - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Author John Ashbery

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