“Korean Soap Opera”


In Memoriam


This week, in memory of our longtime contributor John Ashbery, we bring you a selection of his poems from our archive.

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.