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The Instruction Manual -- John Ashbery

Guest poem sent in by Seema Ramanarayanan
(Poem #1150) The Instruction Manual
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them--they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning
    out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose- and lemon-colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and
    yellow fruit.
The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood.
First, leading the parade, is a dapper fellow
Clothed in deep blue. On his head sits a white hat
And he wears a mustache, which has been trimmed for the occasion.
His dear one, his wife, is young and pretty; her shawl is rose, pink, and
Her slippers are patent leather, in the American fashion,
And she carries a fan, for she is modest, and does not want the crowd to see
    her face too often.
But everybody is so busy with his wife or loved one
I doubt they would notice the mustacioed man's wife.
Here come the boys! They are skipping and throwing little things on the
Which is made of gray tile. One of them, a little older, has a toothpick in his
He is silenter than the rest, and affects not to notice the pretty young girls
    in white.
But his friends notice them, and shout their jeers at the laughing girls.
Yet soon this all will cease, with the deepening of their years,
And love bring each to the parade grounds for another reason.
But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick.
Wait--there he is--on the other side of the bandstand.
Secluded from his friends, in earnest talk with a young girl
Of fourteen or fifteen. I try to hear what they are saying
But it seems they are just mumbling something--shy words of love, probably.
She is slightly taller than he, and looks quietly down into his sincere eyes.
She is wearing white. The breeze ruffles her long fine black hair against her
    olive cheek.
Obviously she is in love. The boy, the young boy with the toothpick, he is in
    love too;
His eyes show it. Turning from this couple,
I see there is an intermission in the concert.
The paraders are resting and sipping drinks through straws
(The drinks are dispensed from a large glass crock by a lady in dark blue),
And the musicians mingle among them, in their creamy white uniforms, and talk
About the weather, perhaps, or how their kids are doing at school.

Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets.
Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim
That are so popular here. Look--I told you!
It is cool and dim inside, but the patio is sunny.
An old woman in gray sits there, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan.
She welcomes us to her patio, and offers us a cooling drink.
"My son is in Mexico City," she says. "He would welcome you too
If he were here. But his job is with a bank there.
Look, here is a photograph of him."
And a dark-skinned lad with pearly teeth grins out at us from the worn leather
We thank her for her hospitality, for it is getting late
And we must catch a view of the city, before we leave, from a good high place.
That church tower will do--the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of
the sky. Slowly we enter.
The caretaker, an old man dressed in brown and gray, asks us how long we have
    been in the city, and how we like it here.
His daughter is scrubbing the steps--she nods to us as we pass into the tower.
Soon we have reached the top, and the whole network of the city extends
    before us.
there is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and its
    crumbling, leafy terraces.
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and
Look! There is the square we just came from, with the promenaders.
There are fewer of them, now that the heat of the day has increased.
But the young boy and girl still lurk in the shadows of the bandstand.
And there is the home of the little old lady--
She is still sitting in the patio, fanning herself.
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.
-- John Ashbery

This poem is from Ashbery's first book of poems. I consider it Ashbery's ode
to the power of imagination.  It immediately evokes an image of someone
staring outside the window lost in a world of their own - a situation i
frequently find myself in except not producing anything quite as beautiful
as this poem.

Am pasting an excerpt from David Lehman's book on the New York School of
Poetry, 'The Last Avant-Garde':

  "In the end, the New York School of poetry has less to do with the city
  than with a state of mind to which the poet would like to travel. "The
  Instruction Manual," the most admired poem in Ashbery's first book, Some
  Trees, tells of this state of mind. The poem records a daydream about
  escaping from a boring office in New York City, where the task of writing
  a manual "on the uses of a new metal" faces the dreamer, a professional
  writer, who succeeds in willing himself-- temporarily-- to sunny

  The dreamer beholds a storybook spectacle whose charms are all on the
  surface....  The poem is not really about Guadaljara at all. It is rather
  a parable of the imagination with its power to fulfil desire and supply
  any lack. The imagination provides a vehicle of escape into a Guadaljara
  better than the real thing if only because the metal traveler is spared
  the inconveniences of packing bags, booking rooms, exchanging currency,
  and suffering from indigestion. But the vision also has a tragic
  propensity for vanishing. "What else is there to do but stay, and that we
  cannot do," Ashbery writes in a modern restatement of the pathos at the
  end of the departed vision in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" ("Adieu! The
  fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do, deceiving elf")....
  Ashbery... is at heart a Romantic poet, who conceives of the Imagination
  as a realm apart from experience, or reality, or time, to which it lends
  the redemptive enchantment that we seek in art and that may come closer to
  fulfilling the promise of happiness than any form of human activity. "

        -- [broken link]



 Here's a link to a biography:

 Here are links to other poems by Ashbery:
 [broken link]

[Martin adds]

I was strongly reminded of Gibson's "The Ice Cart" [Poem #622].

And, speaking of Guadalajara and dreams thereof, don't miss Lehrer's "Old

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