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The Ecclesiast -- John Ashbery

Guest poem sent in by Matthew Brooks
(Poem #1425) The Ecclesiast
 "Worse than the sunflower," she had said.
 But the new dimension of truth had only recently
 Burst in on us. Now it was to be condemned.
 And in vagrant shadow her mothball truth is eaten.
 In cool, like-it-or-not shadow the humdrum is consumed.
 Tired housewives begat it some decades ago,
 A small piece of truth that is it was honey to the lips
 Was also millions of miles from filling the place reserved for it.
 You see how honey crumbles your universe
 Which seems like an institution – how many walls?

 Then everything, in her belief, was to be submerged
 And soon. There was no life you could live out to its end
 And no attitude which, in the end, would save you.
 The monkish and the frivolous alike were to be trapped
             in death's capacious claw
 But listen while I tell you about the wallpaper –
 There was a key to everything in that oak forest
 But a sad one. Ever since childhood there
 Has been this special meaning to everything.
 You smile at your friend's joke, but only later, through tears.

 For the shoe pinches, even though it fits perfectly.
 Apples were made to be gathered, also the whole host of the
             world’s ailments and troubles.
 There is no time like the present for giving in to this temptation.
 Once the harvest is in and the animals put away for the winter
 To stand at the uncomprehending window cultivating the desert
 With salt tears which will never do anyone any good.
 My dearest I am as a galleon on salt billows.
 Perfume my head with forgetting all around me.

 For some day these projects will return.
 The funereal voyage over ice-strewn seas is ended.
 You wake up forgetting. Already
 Daylight shakes you in the yard.
 The hands remain empty. They are constructing an osier basket
 Just now, and across the sunlight darkness is taking root anew
 In intense activity. You shall never have seen it just this way
 And that is to be your one reward.

 Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living.
 The night is cold and delicate and full of angels
 Pounding down the living. The factories are all lit up,
 The chime goes unheard.
 We are together at last, though far apart.
-- John Ashbery
While I have known of John Ashbery for some time (I love "The Instruction
Manual"), I confess that I sought out this poem because the last stanza is
quoted in Philip Pullman's novel "The Amber Spyglass," the last book in the
trilogy "His Dark Materials."

I had to read this poem a few times before I started to grasp its
self-contained reality - a quality I both like and resist. I like the shift
in narration - at first it is addressed to a generic reader and later to an
intimate "you," the "my dearest" of the poem. More than that, I like the
epic scale of this poem; it focuses on solitary, subtle emotional changes
and moments against a landscape of seas, years, voyages, angels, dreams, and
death. I still struggle with some of what must be Ashbery's private
meanings, but I find new things in this poem whenever I read it. I am not
sure if I love it, but I love the journey it takes me on -- it is chastening
in the best, most sacred sense, and the last line reconciles so much.


69 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you, and found this because as I'm reading The Amber Spyglass for the hundredth time, I figured I may as well finally look up the beautiful poetry he quotes (I've been meaning to do so for a long time ;D). Nice to see someone else has the same idea.. although a very long time ago. Your analysis of Ashbery's poem is.. resonating, I suppose. So thanks (:

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Anonymous said...

I too came to it from His Dark Materials. A little disappointing to be honest, this is not my sort of poetry, yet the final stanza is still haunting.

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