One of my findings this week, while unearthing treasures buried deep in the oceans of my ignorance, was a short poem of John Ashbery.
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
It is a beautiful short poem that exists on polyphonic levels and floats freely between them. The beauty is in its simplicity – the domestication of a dream. Yet the poem takes the reader to that deliciously fragile place, where “something shimmers, something is hashed up.” Some of the most defining moments, when life reveals itself as is, can only shimmer on the edge of consciousness. One can only glance at it sidelong, but never directly. You can’t stare at the sun; you can only squint through your half-closed fingers.
The first line connects to René Magritte’s thought provoking painting “La trahison des images” featuring a pipe with a sign “This is not a pipe”. The words only appear to contradict the image, but are, in fact, correct: the painting itself is not a pipe.
What is reality? What is an idea of reality? Where do dreams end?
All these feet on the sofa and the oval portrait of the artist as a young man, pardon me, as a dog, (my own life as a dog has been over-stimulated by the smell of that quail) – seduce the reader to smile inwardly.
Again this child-like unpretentious simplicity where time and generations melt. (Of course that portrait had to be oval! Don’t you just see it in its slightly ornate dark-wood frame? And the greenish old wallpaper on the wall on which it hangs?)
The passive voice in the line about the quail makes it sound like the quail gave permission to be served for lunch. The combination of the past tense and passive voice is a recipe for a disaster in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ashbery, with a mischievous smile, creates magic with it.
The most striking line is the last line of the poem. Just like the poet is missing from that dream of a room (yes, the dream goes on forever in some other realm, different from the one in which he is writing the poem), so is the reader, the “you” is missing from the reality-room-space of the poet. The ghost visit of a poet in this dream of a room is parallel to the ghost visit of a reader in the space of this poem. Yet both ghosts shimmer and can somehow sense each other’s presence (or absence). Similarly, the independent voices of a fugue can intervene and briefly cross each other’s horizontal paths while making perfect sense harmonically (thus vertically).
There are similar overtones in Mark Strand’s line from “Keeping Things Whole”.
Here is Strand:
“Wherever I am
I am what is missing”
“Why am I telling you this?
You are not even here.”
Maybe only that which is missing can belong fully to us and cannot be lost? Only you - who is not here - can truly hear and one is never fully alone?