Two Poems

John Ashbery

Korean Soap Opera 

My sister and I don’t seem to get along too well anymore. 
She always has to have everything new in her house. Cherished ideals 
don’t suit her teal, rust and eggshell color scheme. 
Of course, I was a buyer when she was still on the street 
peddling the Communist youth weekly. I have a degree 
in marketing. Her boyfriend thinks I’m old-fashioned. 
Well, I guess I do have an old-fashioned mentality.

What kind of a mentality 
causes men to commit suicide in their air-conditioned glass boxes? 
It has been a life of adjustments. I adjusted to the postwar boom 
though it broke up my family. Some took their honor to the mountains, 
to live on wood and water. But the investment years 
wrought havoc with the landscape. Everything is modular now, even the trees. 

Under the dizzying parabolas of the railroad bridge, where the thud 
of laundry mallets used to resound, the swiftly flowing 
current is like green cream, like baize unfit for fulling. 
So old are the ways, 
for lunch one might select a large smelly radish. 
In the streets, as always, there is a smell of frying fish 
no one notices. The rain cannot make up its mind. 
Other people like it other ways. 

I need to interact with postal employees, civil servants, that sort of thing. 
Just being asleep isn’t enough. 
I must cry out against injustice in whatever position 
sleep overtakes me. Only then will I have understood what the world 
and servants mean by self-abolishment, the key, it is said, 
to success. To stand and contemplate the sea 
is to comprehend part of the package. What we need, therefore, 
is market gardens bringing a sense of time with them, 
of this time, honed to razor-sharpness. Yet the whole 
scheme is invisible to any shareholder, and so the feeling 
lessens, the idea that a composite portrait 
may not be so important after all takes over like the shoulder 
of a mill-wheel, slogging patiently under water, then back 
to the zenith, where the watchword presumably is. 
In schools they teach things like plus and minus 
but not in the gorge, not in boiling mud. 
Area residents were jolted to find what in essence 
was a large swamp, pythons and all, in their communal front yard. 
To me, this is insensate. I cannot stand the wind at my back 
making of me nothing, to be handed 
over, in turn, to this 
man, this man. For though he weathered patiently 
the name, the one that occurs to all of us, he went out 
and came in, not in the best interests of abundance; 
not, it seems, being anything but about to fall. 

Here’s a paradox for you: if the men are segregated 
then why are the women not? 
If the rich can survive dust-storms thanks to their red-and-gold liveried 
postilions, then you are playing with an alphabet here: nothing 
you invent can be a plenipotentiary, 
turn itself inside-out, radiate 
iron spokes at the mini-landscape, and so side with a population 
of bears, who knows? Who knows how much there can be 
of any one thing if another one stops existing? And the word you give to this 
man, this man, is cold, 
fossil fuel. 

One snorts in the laundry, another 
is broken beside the bed. A third is suspended 
in a baobab for all the sins 
no one ever knew, for sins of omission are like pearls 
next to the sin of not knowing, and being excused 
for it. So it all comes round 
to individual responsibility and awareness, 
that circus of dusty dramas, denuded forests and car dealerships, a place 
where anything can and does happen, and hours and hours go by. 

Of Linnets and Dull Times 

You said you don’t want to know any more 
than you do now, of every thing that might be 
a person. It would be cheating. That is urgent. 
If we are going to mean in so many ways 
let them all be lopped off. 
That way we’ll know you’re getting older.

I feel sorry for anyone that has to die. 
The lines of what’s expected 
fan out like beaters. That’s all, 
I think. But I lose things, now. 
The beautiful shape of the toilet interposed 
a viability as the air-raid drill ended. 
We’ve got to do something. 
He may be up there now, trying to find us. 
If you let me, I’ll drive you back to the fairgrounds. 

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