the words on the page

Image result for book

the words on the page

printed with ink of antique presses

bound in museums of leather

fit artifice for eternal life,

secluded and quiet in the forgotten corner

of a scholar’s shelf

 

as shadows surround the stacks

and lamplight reminds us

that even in the night nuts and bolts

are turning in the invisible factory

carved into a cliff jutting from the left temple.

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Roll On, John.

Today American Literature lost one of its giants, John Ashbery, but to use the word “lost” is misleading. Like all great writers, his words will endure. He crafted his poems carefully, braiding phrases and images in the manner of a collagist. Many readers were befuddled by his work, and those who hold meaning as the highest virtue in a poem will be disappointed with Ashbery’s oeuvre.This is not to say that his work lacks meaning, rather his poems have an integrity that exists without coherence. Ashbery’s poems are great at evoking a mood, but they do not seek to demonstrate a moral or a message. Subversively, Ashbery often offers an oblique critique of the human condition.

As a reader I have found two consistent themes in Ashbery’s poetry: confusion and loss. Many times the speaker of a poem will ruminate on a phrase only to dismiss it or introduce a concept but forget about it before the conclusion of the poem.

In the poem “On the Empress’s Mind”, we experience firsthand this theme of confusion. It begins “Let’s make a bureaucracy/First we can have long lists of old things/and new things repackaged as old ones.” Bureaucracy is a necessary inconvenience of modern society. From the convoluted customer service systems of private enterprise to the labyrinth of civil servants in the public sector, bloated institutions suffocate modern man. The complexity of bureaucratic systems can disorient a person until he is unaware of what he was initially searching for.

Another aspect of contemporary life mentioned in the poem comes with the lines “we can have long lists of old things/and new things repackaged as old ones.” People are bombarded with advertisements for things they don’t need, and the same timeless materials are reshaped and re-purposed to suit needs we never even knew we had. From cell phones that keep changing  to automobiles that are shinier than the old ones, people are misled into believing that the new is always better than the old, even if the substance remains the same at its core.

Later in the same stanza, Ashbery shows us that materialism cannot fill the void that people have in their hearts when he writes, “…motorbikes whiz up, to ask for directions/or colored jewelry, so that one can go about one’s visit/a tad less troubled than before.” The wealth of the empress allows her to construct projects that bear no relevance to herself or to her subjects. Her wealth and privilege does not save her from the pain of a world without meaning. She laments “No one knows what it’s about anymore.”

The last stanza has an interesting juxtaposition. The speaker is stubbornly optimistic, and she asserts, “Tonight the party will be better than ever.” However, Ashbery uses the pathetic fallacy to suggest otherwise when he mentions “the rain that sifts through sobbing trees”. The poem does not have much plot, but it is heavy on monologue, description, and insinuation. The reader can infer that there has been a fallout in the empress’s relationship by the end of the poem. This metaphorical fall from grace accentuates the disparity between the empress’s perceived status and her actual efficacy in improving her own life. Through the empress, Ashbery shows us that for all of the wealth and technology the modern world possesses, it lacks what it needs most, namely a sense of spiritual and emotional steadiness. We are busy seeking new gadgets and more money instead of values and the emotional strength to anchor us in life’s turbulent waters.

John Ashbery’s poems serve as a poignant reminder of what we are missing.

smooth sailing

Image result for miniature sailboats

smooth sailing

on a saturday morning a small boat sets sail

aided by autumn gales in a fountain of water swirling

around a statue of a maiden in the posture

of some unmemorable saint kneeling, arms open

 

to receive absolution. a pigeon with candy wrappers

stuck to his feet rests upon her arm. he thinks

he is a white dove whittled from ivory, a messenger

of the almighty sent to herald rainbows and the beginning

of a halcyon season as a child wrapped in a red windbreaker watches

 

the boat glide upon the green surface, waves rippling under

the hull buoying the elfin seafarers onward to a country

beyond our significance, cascading down earth’s steep edge.

tenement dreams

tenement dreams

i wake before sunrise to swat

flies away from the windowsill

where a potted plant with slouching stem

sustains itself through seasons of bitterness.

 

through it all, we both remain unchanged,

i crack peanut shells with dirty fingernails

as the hours promenade like women

in a pageant, adorned with lush pink fabrics until

streetlights illuminate the walls of my room

and time slushes in the gutters after a shower.

praising the mind’s interior

praising the mind’s interior

wallpaper with icons of seals and walruses

patterned on its blanched lime surface absorbs

sunlight intruding through broken blinds,

 

which strikes a mobile dangling lopsided from the ceiling.

a spider rests in a snug corner as moths devour

old sheets, but still some charm imbues the place

with secondhand grace,

giving it a quality of unnameable splendor

 

though people stroll past on the sidewalk

immersed in their own difficulties

unaware of the  symphonies

of cockroaches squeaking and a broken

refrigerator humming as the redolence

of rancid bacon effluviates

in every silent place and even

the locales squelching with the sound

of  lower frequencies.

untitled (8/21/2017)

the torpor of twilight binds us

to back porches where long-dead

leaves lie exsiccated, rotting

in the evening air as you pile

them into heaps. white mushrooms

sprout beneath your feet. we’re an unearthly

audience to terrestrial affairs, and when

a cat cries in the distance, you can’t recall

why you’re here drumming the aboriginal

blues with your broomstick, your mind

being neither near nor there.

headstones

headstones

monuments of cracked limestone

and chipped marble loom over high grass

in a small plot near the intersection

of a three-lane road and old railroad tracks;

the relics stand in sunlight, artificial trees

rooted in the deep, dark forest of memory.

 

you can wander for hours on a small plot of land

unraveling bonds  solidified and soured,

then hardening again, curious preciptate

of human relationships, the tight rope of family,

both the force that chokes and the clement gust

of air imbibed upon release. see how the names

repeat themselves and the mottoes, biblical

and otherwise bear the same sentiments.

what a pleasure it is to die for god or country

but the spasms in your chest are uncertain

 

and the slow, soft thud of your boot upon sod

sounds ominous, and from the ornate rocks

you discern nothing except the gleam of sunlight,

and you deduce nothing important from the dwindling day.

 

paper fish

paper fish

when my sister was six or some age

thereabouts, she gave me a paper fish

longer than her arm, colored with an array

of shades pulled from her box of dull pastel

crayons. the fish’s head is red, but some scales

were lime or purple or yellow, a fish to rival

rainbows, a gift from a child, a child herself

a token from god who lets life continue as it is,

a spiraling swirl of water flowing endlessly

into a small hole at the beckoning of a lever.

 

the fish is already fraying although not even

a year has passed for paper is paper despite

the vibrant impermanence that dots our

thoughts. a caged bird sings inside the mind,

and for all of our straining we can barely

hear the notes, the vocal cords’ faint strumming.

three birds in a nest

Picture writing prompt.

three birds in a nest

I.

one is dappled with flecks

of straw preening his feathers

eager to make his fluffy downing

glisten in morning sunlight

he is a solitary shack in a soundless

forest and when a tree falls

with no one to witness it

the vibrations choir him to flight

 

II.

two was the first brother to hatch

his pink flesh drizzled in amniotic fluid

he watched his brothers slowly emerge

from tan eggshells speckled and spotted

in intricate codes that only nature could decipher

he would hover above them until their heads broke free

and when they did he would peck and peck

with his fat beak until the birds were initiated

into the rites of cruelty but then he aged and became wise

studied yoga and astrology the secret magnetic forces

underpinning our existence and when a violent wind

upended twigs and tufts of foliage plummeted

from above, his light body rested stationary and immovable

 

III.

three has a hobbling gait

he is buckled under with the weight of fear

cursed with a sizable slowness

one of his wings is shorter than the other

and when he looks up he sees the sky in shades

of gray and beige a place populated with gears and

gigantic wheels which crush cripples who venture out

the world is ripe with wildness and no one knows this

like he does when the auras of everything are tinged with foreboding

when he shuts his eyes and nestles deep tuning into his brain waves

the vision of his body streaking jets of scarlet arrives ringing in his ears

until the sun unfolds itself from the ground and throughout the day

as he tidies up the nest one can only wonder if he is part of this world

or some other one or what he imagines effortlessly on his mind’s moving reels

camper’s koan

Picture writing prompt.

camper’s koan

who am i?

am i the wind’s

caress upon

a tired chin,

a blood vessel’s

thumping

or something therein?

i am not i

i am no

body,

no shirt

no underwear

no jacket

no sneakers

no gloves

no hands

no hair

no fingernalis

no eyeballs

no earlobe

no pretzels

no shelter

no trees

no ground

no earth

no mind

no self

no past

no yesterday

no tomorrow

no ice cream

no pleasure

no pain

no bracelet

no compass

no home

no north

no howling

no yellow eyes gazing

no claws

no broken branches

no pawprints

no fear

no water

no blood

no body

nobody

only.