IGNORANCE OF THE LAW IS NO EXCUSE
We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places—
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?
In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we had made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.
We mourned that meritocracy which, wildly vibrant,
had kept food on the table and milk in the glass.
In skid-row, slapdash style
we walked back to the original rock crystal he had become,
all concern, all fears for us.
We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring.
Only beware the bears and wolves that frequent it
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.
Ashbery has spent his life mastering the English sentence as a vehicle for poetry. His verse relies not on meter but on syntax and diction, and he has reached the point where he can do whatever he wants with them. What he wants is no longer to amuse and perplex but to communicate a mature sense of lacrima rerum. Not that he avoided serious topics before, but consider an early poem like “Our Youth”:
The dead puppies turn us back on love.
Where we are. Sometimes
The brick arches led to a room like a bubble, that broke when you entered it
And sometimes to a fallen leaf.
We got crazy with emotion, showing how much we knew.
The Arabs took us. We knew
The dead horses. We were discovering coffee,
How it is to be drunk hot, with bare feet
In Canada. And the immortal music of Chopin
Which we had been discovering for several months
Since we were fourteen years old. And coffee grounds,
And the wonder of hands, and the wonder of the day
When the child discovers her first dead hand…
This is confident in its sleight of hand, now you see it now you see something entirely different, like Art Tatum at the piano. It dazzles, but it does not move. Now he deploys his arsenal with a quiet majesty that reminds me more of, say, John Lewis in his later years. Listen to the sixth line:
In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony
At first, it has a comfortable air of age-old familiarity: the monotonous hum of the bees among the vines. But wait, it’s not the hum of the bee but its hymn, and it drowns the monotony. Our expectations are upended with subtlety and economy rather than fireworks. Later on we get the expected word in a different context: the hum of wires overhead. And what has brought about this change? He tells us himself: the weight of the present. That’s what gets to us all, if we have any feel for the world outside ourselves. It drives our comics to unwonted seriousness (Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, even Woody Allen, unable quite to extricate himself from his Upper East Side solipsism but somehow aware that Ingmar Bergman had access to something he would like to have for himself), and it’s driven Ashbery to communicate with a directness he once might have raised an eyebrow at, appropriating the gravity of a Sophocles to his own ends. No one else now writing in English could produce the chill of that descent down the steps to the spring, the possible wolves, and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.