Every so often, an Ashbery poem lands like a revelation. “Sleeping in the Corners of Our Lives,” from As We Know, is one such poem. Here it is:
So the days went by and the nickname caught on.
It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious.
Afternoon leaves blew against the stale brick
Surface. Just an old castle. Enjoy it
While you’re here. And in looking for a more convenient way
To save one’s soul, one is led up to it like a season,
And in looking all around, and about, its tome
Becomes legible in the interstices. A great biography
That is also a good autobiography, at the station;
A honeycomb of pages with listings
Of the tried and true, that radiates
Out into what is there, that averages up as wind,
And settles back into a tepid, modest
Chamber with its mouse-gray furniture, its redundant pictures.
This is tall sleeping
To prepare you for the soup and the ruins
In giving the very special songs of the first meaning,
The ones incorporating the changes.
It is a poem about biography and autobiography, the sense we make of our lives. It is dominated by a contradiction and a pun. The contradiction is that the unnamed “you” of the poem is simultaneously sleeping (“This is tall sleeping”) and quite actively visiting a castle and reading. The pun is that the leaves blowing against the “stale brick / Surface” become the “leaves” of a “tome”—the tome that is one’s (auto)biography.
In the first line, I read “nickname” as referring to the addressee’s name—the suggestion is that it is not their true name, that there is no essential connection between the name and the person. “It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious”—after all, it’s just a name. We all have one. And yet it matters to us. Ashbery’s trademark grammatical shiftiness plays a key role here: the name becomes the old castle, and the old castle becomes the addressee’s soul, to be both enjoyed and saved. The name is somehow extrinsic, a mere “nickname”, yet also the addressee’s deepest reality. There is truth there.
There is something defeated about the end of the second stanza, where the biography becomes wind that “settles back into a tepid, modest / Chamber” with drab furniture and “redundant” decoration. But the poem undergoes a crucial shift in tone in the last stanza. It is the last two lines that make the revelation: “the very special songs of the first meaning, / The ones incorporating the changes.” It is that last word, “changes”, that gets me. Go back and re-read the rest of the poem in light of it. It is a sequence of dazzling changes, name–>castle–>soul–>leaves–>pages–>wind–>residence. But where the biography may be drab, there is life in the songs that incorporate the changes—Ashbery’s poem being one of those songs.