1 Orpheus liked the glad personal quality 2 Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part 3 Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends 4 Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks 5 Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon 6 To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness. 7 Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth. 8 Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to 9 Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather, 10 Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not? 11 All other things must change too. 12 The seasons are no longer what they once were, 13 But it is the nature of things to be seen only once, 14 As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along 15 Somehow. That’s where Orpheus made his mistakes. 16 Of course Eurydice wanted to vanish into the shade; 17 She would have even if he hadn’t turned around. 18 No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel 19 Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent 20 Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train. 21 Only love stays on the brain, and something these people, 22 These other ones, call life. Singing accurately 23 So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of 24 Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers 25 Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulates 26 The different weights of the things. 27 But it isn’t enough 28 To just go on singing. Orpheus realized this 29 And didn’t mind so much about his reward being in heaven 30 After the Bacchantes had torn him apart, driven 31 Half out of their minds by his music, what it was doing to them. 32 Some say it was for his treatment of Eurydice. 33 But probably the music had more to do with it, and 34 The way music passes, emblematic 35 Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it 36 And say it is good or bad. You must 37 Wait till it’s over. “The end crowns all,” 38 Meaning also that the “tableau” 39 Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example, 40 That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting; 41 It is a picture of flowing scenery, though living, mortal, 42 Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt, 43 Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this 44 Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow, 45 Powerful stream, the trailing grasses 46 Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action 47 No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky 48 Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth 49 Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses 50 Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks, 51 “I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me, 52 Though I can understand the language of birds, and 53 The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me. 54 Their jousting ends in the music much 55 As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm 56 And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.
(This poem gave me great joy yesterday, and I will simply underline a few lines below)
57 But how late to be regretting all this, even 58 Bearing in mind that regrets are always late, too late! 59 To which Orpheus, a bluish cloud with white contours, 60 Replies that these are of course not regrets at all, 61 Merely a careful, scholarly setting down of 62 Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way. 63 And no matter how all this disappeared, 64 Or got where it was going, it is no longer 65 Material for a poem. Its subject 66 Matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly 67 While the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad 68 Comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward 69 That the meaning, good or other, can never 70 Become known. The singer thinks 71 Constructively, builds up his chant in progressive stages 72 Like a skyscraper, but at the last minute turns away. 73 The song is engulfed in an instant in blackness 74 Which must in turn flood the whole continent 75 With blackness, for it cannot see. The singer 76 Must then pass out of sight, not even relieved 77 Of the evil burthen of the words. Stellification 78 Is for the few, and comes about much later 79 When all record of these people and their lives 80 Has disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm. 81 And few are still interested in them. “But what about 82 So-and-so?” is still asked on occasion. But they lie 83 Frozen and out of touch until an arbitrary chorus 84 Speaks of a totally different incidents with a similar name 85 In those tale are hidden syllables 86 Of what happened so long before that 87 In some small town, one indifferent summer.
Houseboat Days (1977). The book following Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Ashbery is a poet I generally can’t scan visually; I need to read slow and clear, and then it is all quiet brilliance. This one was grabbed me off the bat, however—perhaps because I had been reading Rilke’s Sonnets of Orpheus. It makes me want to read more poems with Orpheus in them, do some comprehensive study of Orpheus, the character Orpheus in Poetry. Syringa is the genus of lilacs. Syrinx is a nymph. Hollow branches, hollow reeds (44-47). There’s a James Merrill poem called “Syrinx,” from 1972. See Pascal’s Pensées, on man as “thinking reed”…