Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Dolors of Columbine" by John Ashbery

Feeling dolorous today on Columbine Street, I found this Ashbery poem:


In intervals of night's destruction, sometimes
When the silence arrests its hammers over
Daytime's stupefied corpse, I lie apart
From being Columbine. When love jackknifes
The roaring bed, I can feel her
Pleasure and pain, yet am not harmed.
Nor fired with her enjoyment. And this is good,
Like knowing the real Columbine, myself,
At a great distance, living, a brilliant puppet.
But the night's machinery, forever pressing
Its senseless questions of identity, wakens
Me, stranger in a stranger's arms, and I cry
Seeing the real Columbine, at a too great distance
Outwit the guiding wires, escape her name. 
In these lost interludes, many-colored dolors
Appear like toys lighting a child's night.
Though space seem empty, they are real
As a child's imagined playmates, to fear and disobey.
And doubt is never a fixed state
But a dancing mimic, teasing the actual
Premises of arms and legs and terrible
Hungering eyes into tearful denials.
On branches, in the dark, they droop their paper wings,
No longer lovely, shreds of a forgotten dress.
There, uncertain delights put on the solid
Reluctance of the living. Night's cruellest magic
Renders its metaphors possible; myself, an improbable phantom.

Here, in the daytime, everything's in a mess.
I sit in the flat, I scrub, I vacuum.
Nobody minds if I lean at the window
watching for a new face at the opposite houses
Whose panes may catch my face or the falling sun
But never what's unexpected. But often
The wind, or a huge unseen audience
Catches its breath, and I step forth
All glitter, and trailing colored patches
And I dance forth, modest and assured
That I love, am loved, that I am
Columbine for myself and the applauding world. 
Or, in winter, in the snows' hushed languors---
Or summer, in the close-leafed twilight---
In the car cheek to cheek, rain at the windshield---
Death hums its destructive lullaby, and love
Is almost real, in the traffic, though half-seen,
Is the shape of a giant moth or swaying flower.
These are my moments of sharpest knowing,
When, faintly dolorous though still advancing,
I join him in a marvel of well-wishing. When sleep,
Like a firm hand at base of skull, at last
Comes. And I lie most surely, my thoughts folded,
Myself the implement of his delight, of the delight
Of audiences, and read in their gaze my fame. 

Such beautiful tension between the sentence and the line. (Doesn't the first phrase remind you of Poe?) (Jessica Smith and I were just chatting about the senselessness of the "Kill your darlings" mentality in writing: Why plunder your poems toward mediocrity? Why not fill your poems with darlings only?)


  1. among his other gifts, he's pretty much the master of the *sentence* in poetry, I M H O

    1. I love the two sentences that constitute "Nobody" through "world" in the third stanza.

  2. What book is it from? I think it's the first I've seen it.

    1. It's from the "Uncollected Poems" section at the back of the Library of America edition of collected poems. It was written in 1947.

    2. Wow! That man has been alive a long time.

  3. I was like an hour ago thinking how I think it makes sense to liken J A to Karl Lagerfeld: both had their debuts in '54, so both are totally not young, and yet both are also very much in fashion/developers of fashion. They're both "Classics" which are, simultaneously, contemporary/tres now.

    1. Interesting!! Someone recently took pictures of Karl Lagerfeld's bathroom and I was trying to ID the perfume bottles.

      Remember when Amber Tamblyn called Ashbery classic?

  4. I friggin' adore KL: any dude who waves a fan all the time has got to be awesome. Although I feel like he dropped the fan act now that I think more. As may be clear: I'm addicted to runway show clips on youtube!

    1. Yes, fans are a sign that you've arrived. He probably also drinks really expensive tea.

  5. But does he even carry the fan these days? It wld make sense if he didn't: he cld easily have arthritis etc. I find it amazing how Chanel shows are now not even held on runways, but actual mega stages with props like icebergs! Frankly, I prefer the old-hat format. The bigness diffuses energy I think, and makes for a remoteness and lack of sensuality/sexified excitement. That said, a recent Mumbai Chanel show/dinner banquet is rather interesting to me.


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