"Where Shall I Wander"
Alice had been poorly, she was barely over it, and was thus feeling a little below the level of her usual calm happiness. So I gave her a snippet from a poem I had come across recently:
Your face is as white as linen on a board.
I pray that the skies will soak up your electricity,
the birds founder and come to heel,
the drive-by stabbings evaporate into friendly if noncommittal steam,
and tragedy draw his petticoat across your face
because it doesn’t happen enough.
I was delighted to see her face regain its colour and light up as if it had been lit up by something, something like a passing carriage lit on the inside with lanterns, and from the outside by moonlight. She smiled. “Drive-by stabbings”! she laughed. “That’s legend!” Alice uses phrases like “That’s legend!” So do her young friends.
Later, when I returned from my labours and put some flowers in a vase (or vase, as Americans say) she said she had been looking at that smidgeon of poetry over and over again. “I don’t know what it means,” she said, “but I can’t stop reading it, because it seems to be about me, and about you and me, and more than me, and more than me and you. Which I like. It makes me feel part of something great, and it’s okay to not know what it means.” (Perhaps it means exactly that.) “I mean, I know what it means, but I can’t say. I’ll make a cup of tea, I think.”
While she was saying this I had started cutting up some lovely root vegetables for the evening meal. Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas in a landscape etcetera. But I had a surprise for her. “Here’s another chunk to chew on,” I said. Inside me, bits of my existence were dancing with glee.
On the scrap of paper I gave her was this:
One might as well pick up the pieces.
What else are they for? And interrupt someone’s organ recital –
we are interruptions, aren’t we? I mean in the highest sense
of a target, welcoming all the dust and noise
as though we were the city’s apron.
Alice was very quiet and didn’t speak to me for ages. It must have been twenty minutes at least, because I had been out to get some eggs, and come back. I had forgotten I needed eggs if the meal was going to be edible.
“We are interruptions, aren’t we?” she eventually said, with a hint of a smile and also a hint of a new-found expression on her face. But I was in the middle of watching football highlights on TV while supper simmered on the stove, and didn’t wish to be interrupted. So she said it again, with a kick, and I was forced to acknowledge that Yes, you could certainly look at it that way.
“Who wrote these things?” she asked. “It sure as hell wasn’t you. You’re good, but not that good.” I kissed her, but I didn’t use my lips. You meant more than life to me. I lived through you not knowing, not knowing I was living.
Anyway, Alice (I think her name was Alice. It may have been Bethany, or perhaps Gertrude. But a brunette, for sure; Operators are waiting to take your call…) from that moment on, she was sold on this writer of those sprinklings, that poet of those brief beams of barn-light into the la-la of day times and night times. She twisted my arm until I told her who had written those chimes of freedom. She needn’t have twisted my arm, for godsake, and all that hurt, because I was going to tell her anyway. I was going to wrap the book from whence they had come up in pretty paper and tie it with a ribbon and give it to her instead of a bunch of grapes. Which I did, henceforth.
Over to Conchita, for she has the book now, and wants the review fee, such as it is, so she can buy some new clothes:
Hi. Conchita here. I am wrapped in linen, and stroking a cat. I am also holding a book in my little hands. It is called “Where Shall I Wander” and it’s by John Ashbery. My paramour Miguel gave it to me. He is such a sweetie. There are things I wish to tell you about this book of poems, apart from the fact that it has blown my fucking mind.
This is where my degree in English kicks in. Poems are weird things, and often they are boring. (If I sound like someone else while I say this stuff, so be it: we all, sometimes, sound like someone else. It’s all an art, and pretence or lack of it gets us through the difficult times. If someone rubs off on you, perhaps it’s because they like you. Or you them. Or something.)
I don’t like poems that tell me how to live. Nor do I like poems that tell me little bits of information I already know, or could get from a newspaper or off the TV. I’m not sure if, in theory, I should like poems that wake me up and alert me to what it’s like to be alive, and getting by. I’m not sure I should like poems like that, because I kind of feel I shouldn’t need that waking up. But I do. Maybe we all do.
But Miguel gave me this book. It made a change from underwear, that’s for sure. Perhaps he was going for the element of surprise.
(Please, do not try and explain what everything fucking means. Who cares what everything means? That’s half our problem, wanting meaning. How do you explain life, experience, that which moves your soul and your bones? Is it beyond words?)
Or, isn’t that Art? “If one could paraphrase the meaning of something it wouldn’t be art, would it?”
Anyway, I’ve slept on this book, and thought about it long and hard. Then I thought I didn’t want to think about it, as such, I more exactly wanted to be in it in the same way it’s in me. I kind of know that the guy who wrote it is pretty old, like 78 or something, and if you wanted to you could read lots of things into these poems because he’s old, like 78 or something. And I think you could do that if you wanted and it would be okay, although I think also you’d know while you were doing it there’s way more than that going on in here, way more than just an old guy being wistful and old, with intimations of mortality in the same lines as pure vitality. I hope when I get that old, if I get that old, I have the kind of wits about me this guy has. If we were all tapped into life the way this fella is, Jesus, that’d be something. Thing is, when you give yourself to these poems, they are so full of a brilliant world, so bursting with that notion, do you know what I mean? that notion how life is so rich, so bountiful, but yet so sad because it's finite, but you can’t be sad, even though you are, and it’s like, it’s like the guy doesn’t say this, it’s what you think while you’re reading, but also you think, Wow! and in some ways you’re not thinking at all because you don’t know what’s going on but in other ways you’re thinking in a way you didn’t know you could, because it’s a beautiful (yes, I mean beautiful) exhilarating – I mean, like, it’s not some clever shit poetry that makes you feel you have to work it out.
They said you’d be here sooner. It’s still early, but I can wait
no longer. It’s bed and the movies for me.
Tomorrow, exceptionally, there may be a flawed native pearl for breakfast,
and in October, lots of weather, much of it cruder.
Doesn’t that just make you know how life is full of ordinary and absolutely stupendous all at the same time? Which I guess I already knew, but I tend to forget, but even that isn’t it, not it, not really. Because actually what’s great about it is that you’re reading it, and engaging with it, so you’re alive and kicking, and it’s not some stodgy text, it’s actually buzzing with fucking life, excuse my Spanish. And isn’t it just great to actually, physically, simply read? Hold on, Miguel is saying something from the kitchen…
Oh, right. We need to get a new stove, I think…
All in all this has been a fairly active and satisfying year, and I’m looking forward to the next one. Where it will take me I do not know. I just hang on and try to enjoy the ride. Snow brings winter memories. There is a warning somewhere in this but I don’t know if it will be transmitted.
John Ashbery’s “Where Shall I Wander” is published by Carcanet, and costs £7.95. Everything above that is coloured blue was written or said by Mr. Ashbery. Anything in any other colour was not. As far as we know.