John Ashbery’s “Poem at the New Year”

A year ago today, I posted James Schuyler’s “Empathy and New Year.”  I thought I’d keep up the tradition with another New Year poem.  Here’s John Ashbery’s “Poem at the New Year,” which appeared in Hotel Lautréamont in 1992.  It begins with an impossible wish — one that many of us can relate to especially well this time of year, perhaps — for “time to suspend its flight,” but ends up reckoning with the fact that everything “has its own way of slipping past.”  It may be rather “glum” and melancholy in its tallying of loss at the turning of the year —

O I was so bright about you,
my song bird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off center.
At least that’s how it feels to me.

— but the image of that “great ashen bird” at the poem’s end seems to at least hint at the promise of a new start, where we have “another chance,” an opportunity to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes and begin again.

Wishing everyone a happy new year and a wonderful 2015.

POEM AT THE NEW YEAR

Once, out on the water in the clear, early nineteenth-century twilight,
you asked time to suspend its flight. If wishes could beget more than sobs,
that would be my wish for you, my darling, my angel. But other
principles prevail in this glum haven, don’t they? If that’s what it is.

Then the wind fell of its own accord.
We went out and saw that it had actually happened.
The season stood motionless, alert. How still the drop was
on the burr I know not. I come all
packaged and serene, yet I keep losing things,

I wonder about Australia. Is it anything like Canada?
Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete
the one in me? Or must I relearn my filing system?
Can we trust others to indict us
who see us only in the evening rush hour
and never stop to think? O I was so bright about you,
my song bird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off-center.
At least that’s how it feels to me.

I know it as well as all the streets in the map of my imagined
industrial city. But it has its own way of slipping past.
There was never any fullness that was going to be;
you stood in line for things, and the soiled light was
impenitent.  Spiky was one adjective that came to mind,

yet for all its raised or lower levels I approach this canal.
Its time was right in winter. There was pipe smoke
in cafés and outside the great ashen bird
streamed from lettered display-windows, and waited
a little way off. Another chance. It never became a gesture.

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