john ashbery’s “the handshake, the cough, the kiss”

We have no credit rating

any more. We must try to live without it,

and the unsuitable caresses of oldsters

gone to the gym or the country. One

wall features billboards offering a trip to the seashore

in forty-five minutes. With that, we

can pick up and get lost. Far into the night an argument

stitches its way. How long can we go on comprehending?

JANE FREILICHER, AFTERNOON IN THE CITY (DETAIL), 2001

John Ashbery, The Handshake, the Cough, the Kiss 

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,

The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,

The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,

There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.

—w. h. auden, “At Last the Secret Is Out”

 

When they passed through a city, it was others knew it first.

The man claimed no lift in his shoe but an advertisement for the dance

left over from the last street but one.

A spotty youth pointed toward the policeman.

Someone downstairs had called for a cab;

it had arrived, was blocking traffic. The driver

seemed lost, and there were already passengers inside.

Did I know where the Cinema Kriter was?

Oh yes, I said confidently, in French. We

climbed in next to the others, who were nice, disposed to receive us.

 

Every year at this time of day I get a feeling

of a pain, like thyme or dried figs.

Nobody needs to know what is ailing me,

which is sad, but telling them would be worse.

I say, would you mind if I light up in bars?

There’s no place left to smoke. I wonder about taxis.

I used to smoke in them, because it was forbidden in the subway.

That was before I gave up smoking,

watching the flies or files drift upward, thick in gray noon.

 

And if a child came over to play

it would be asked its name, then given a dose of brandy

so as not to play any more. We risked it anyway,

out on the ice where it darkens

and seems to whisper

from down below. Watch out, it’s the Snow Queen,

one said. She likes playing

as long as she’s not involved. That seemed to make sense,

but what was I to do, with no trains till morning,

and a good sense of humor, several ward heelers concurred?

 

Next day the hills were parchment,

good to look at from far away, which is

where we usually are anyway. I dressed hurriedly,

consumed a hasty breakfast. Now it seemed there were pairs

of people thronging, telling me what to do. Father in his little house

took a bath. It was almost time for the news.

We took a walk toward the cathedral.

It missed us twice. I think. The pavement

of white chocolate curves around,

a zebra crossing.

 

Did the islands ever get in touch with you?

Turns out the bill was sent

to the wrong address. We have no credit rating

any more. We must try to live without it,

and the unsuitable caresses of oldsters

gone to the gym or the country. One

wall features billboards offering a trip to the seashore

in forty-five minutes. With that, we

can pick up and get lost. Far into the night an argument

stitches its way. How long can we go on comprehending?

 

A lot, unfortunately. So get a life. It’s been real. I mean really real,

like you can’t imagine it. The city was leaving anyway,

closing its ranks behind him. Soon no one

would remember the boy in dross who used to come

and stare through the skateboards at the abandoned furniture warehouses.

Nor was this a reproach, not to him for coming

with his charts and other paraphernalia, for no one,

not even his mother, could figure out what to ask him,

or what outlandish reply he would come up with,

even if he answered, as indeed he never did.

So they got on well during the first semester.

 

The city and its pepperpot domes that day

were a good time to be in. Out from

lattices a pleasant breeze was wafting,

and in that breeze, mingled tones

of melody like adjusted spices. Then it was all over.

He felt well, who never said so. I don’t know,

it traveled under him, until he was going to be sick

in the pit of his stomach, where ailments dwell.

Nobody had to remind the boy

to hang up his shoes that day, he was already in them,

hobbling off to the cobbler’s to buy some new laces

of the kind worn in the port city of his birth, but never

noticed until this hour, of the flying kite, and the spitball

hanging down, trying to unlatch the year.

 

They all knew him in that ancient, wondrous and miserable town

as the local amateur historian and vendor

of a kind of chili only the houris knew about.

Then, turning his face away, he’d try

to guess the answers to their riddles. If correct,

a kiss would reward him. If not, a retreat

to a sheet of paper or promise to better himself

in huge academic halls some kilometers away, but they

didn’t tell him this. There was no formal inquiry

into his tousled penmanship, for all it led him

unto the doctorate of his dreams and

a cottage close to the bridge traffic where daily

the seams are let out at evening. It was a pretty

enough place if quiet. One has to endure

certain systems, then profit by them later,

 

and we reject these. Oh I am sure it was as serious then

to be struggling as it is now. We were children, which made it easier,

but harder as well because we didn’t know anything. Now we have survived,

you might say. New factors have entered the equation, but the surround

is as messy as ever and still limitless. The one district that accepts these

excuses is strange to us. Hanging out with Baptists,

drinking temperance beverages, is another kind of

education, to which one grows accustomed during the autumn nights.

It comes as no surprise to learn that winter is on the way,

with headlands and diamond aigrettes. And the lightness.

 

Still hungry? Read on.

A group of wilted children poured the tar

from where it looked out on a film

of ashes to the horizontal bars. Or

it was arranged to look like some other unknown hour,

a circumstance of such girth as to bemuse purple assailants.

Then he left the drum on. From the radiator to the city center,

it led to indecent bragging and imbroglios.

Perhaps it’s time to

change the frequency of what is seen

around us, leave the palace and go home.

A chariot waits beside the door.

The way in is blocked by the entrance, near it.

 

They called and said

I was supposed to be thinking

of a way to revise the program,

let in some light and air,

bring in some new people with new ideas.

I was speaking with Drusilla Link about it.

Turns out many of our shared concerns are identical.

But—and here she was emphatic—

None of us knows the extent of the other’s capacity.

 

Because of what ails the story

his dreamaround became more dangerous.

We went there.

 

Think that all is not as we left it.

And not dying for everything,

Karsavina paused, shrugged, got on

with it, got back on the bus,

north until a few weeks ago.

A collective European rhythm pierced the veil with sighs.

Out of the dust rose a new Ritz de la Riviera.

Why must it explode?

 

I don’t know—spring came and went so fast this year,

sex on the river—and one observes it.

By the way, only minors are allowed.

Finally I just went to him and said—look,

if that’s all you can bring to the table, why are we here?

We’ve got lots to do—more than our share. You can hear cars

revving up in the next valley, but there’s still not enough time.

Only doubt, and suspicion, subsist. Cut the week in half.

Stir the ice-cube tray. Bring a sketch pad, a child’s illustration,

a small investment, then more material as someoneoversees it,

a harmonic convergence viewed through a flawed window, on pain of death.

And better to be finding out this way than across rued reminiscence,

O songbird! You asked us to believe

in you but the way was short. Our quondam companions persist,

a small, muddy group, adhere to the rival shore, ravenous,

and expire.

 

Believe it, they feel the air.

The tunes here are overstuffed,

the lyrics threadbare. I don’t get out—I see them. Good my lord,

grapes and other oranges could eat people

once the drill had been proscribed, if we let them. Instead,

gamboling on rocks is the new theme nobody is interested in.

Maybe one day, old sweet reason, “the art of making truth prevail,” will

stimulate

hybrid initiatives. Meanwhile we, we only, take a back place to whatever / truth

is coming on like thunderheads, all along the horizon, an academy

where losers file past, and the present is unredeemed,

and all fruits are in season.


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