As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat (Ashbery)

Poem: As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
Poet: John Ashbery

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the Sun yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn’t.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.


For some time now, the Library of America volume of Ashbery’s poetry (1956-1987) has lan­guished on my shelf. Now that he is dead, I suppose it is time at last to crack it open. I am beginning in the obvious place, with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and with the first poem within it, which you can read above. With the exception of two forgettable poems in a recent-ish issue of the Denver Quarterly, this is my first encounter with Ashbery.

It is an appropriate poem for the occasion: the entire final stanza might be read as a commentary on his death, not least that fourth line: “And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth…” But, rich as that reading is, I will lay it aside, and try to enter the poem as it was written—by one still alive. We may yet circle back to death.

The poem’s characters have no names, only pronouns: “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “her.” I often find this frustrating, little more than perverse obscurantism, but here it enriches the poem. This poem plays, deliberately, with the opaque nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” that together form the poem’s “we.” At several points, they appear to be blended together. Consider these lines:

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?

The shift from “you” to “I” here makes sense in context. The narrator (“I”) tells us that a look of glass stops “you.” At this point, the narrator imagines what is in “your” head—thus the shift to the first person. But it is still “you” he is talking about, not himself. Later in the stanza, however, the “I” is carried through:

Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated…

 Though we have left “your” thoughts by this point, this feels—at least to me—like the same “I” as before. And so I start to get the sense that the “you” and the “I” of this poem are the same person, seen from different vantage points, which we might call the self-identifying (“I”) and the self-estranged (“you”). This fits with the theme of perception and objectivity that the opening lines of the third stanza raise.

The sense is only heightened in the next stanza. “You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx,” we learn. But, almost immediately after this, we encounter the “her,” who has “come to ask once more / If I was coming in.” This is just the question one might put to someone who has slept for too long in the sun—but it is “you,” not “I,” who has done that. Once again, “you” and “I” seem to merge into a single person.

One possibility is that “you” is just “I” addressed from “her” perspective, as suggested by these lines:

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in.

The final “Come in” suggests this is in “her” voice, since a few lines later we find that it is “her” who asks “If I was coming in.” This move doesn’t seem to work for the lines quoted above from the third stanza, however: there it does seem to be a self-estranged perspective, not the perspective of some other.

In the poem’s final stanza, all of these personalities drop out, and we are left only with night, and with things. The lushness of summer makes demands, creates the uneasiness that characterizes so much of this poem, but at least the summer night, when this lushness is shrouded and quieted, and the “small things” are able at last to speak out, “gives more than it takes.” And here the brief respite of night forebodes the longer respite of winter. At this point we may, once again, think of death, which, does, after all, eliminate the selves behind all pronouns, in the end.

 

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Parry

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