I had three hours to kill in Paris. It was summer. I was going to Père Lachaise. Before Bastille Day and before a party for a friend who’s book had just come out. I wandered silent and a little buzzed. Not speaking because my Rs weren’t perfect so I smiled. I smiled at everyone. Something I rarely do in America and the French thought I was rattled. They didn’t get it. I loved them for that. I love people who smile only when moved to.
On this trip I had brought my first edition of Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath. It was a gift from a friend. I was always scared to lose it. Scared to rip some page in some careless way or worse, forget it at a café I wouldn’t return to. For a long time that was the only poetry book I could stand. The poems never read the same way twice. They appeared then disappeared. I could only guess at what they meant.
Inside Père Lachaise there’s a stillness unlike anywhere else. It’s too beautiful. “If there’s an ad for death,” I told my friend. And she looked at me like I was rattled, too. “Stop,” she said. “We’re at a party.” And we were. I went to the bathroom and scrolled through my phone in the gold mirror. This is a thing I do at parties. I take my drink in there and I text.
On this late Sunday no one texted back. In the cemetery I had tried to kill time by memorizing “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…” The poem is twenty-three stanzas. I had memorized two. The party was beginning to feel like a party and I could hear guests coming in. I love that moment. The moment right before people soften into themselves with a drink.
The French are so polite, I marveled at the warm inflections of their voices. They always come with wine or some smart gift. I was a rude American. Hiding in the bathroom, trying to memorize poetry and text because I tire of people easily. On the contrary, I’m very good at gifts. And I had brought a nice rosé. Which is my signature at parties, regardless of the season. My grandmother once told me you should always bring flowers. That they’re classier somehow. But I wasn’t speaking because of my pronunciation and had avoided the flower shops altogether.
There’s a moment toward the end of the poem when Ashbery writes, “Because what does anything mean, / The Ivy and the sand? That boat / Pulled up on the shore?” His poems are like guests coming in for a party. I’m always in the other room. Trying to feel out the mood by the way their voices carry and drift. The sound of someone’s shoes. A glass breaking. Someone else now opening a door.
“And we say goodbye / Shaking hands in front of the crashing of the waves / That give our words lonesomeness.” Who ever wants to leave a party really? I say I do but then I’m lying, hiding in the bathroom, waiting for the perfect time to return. Because you have to let people miss you a little. You have to make them wonder. Which is what Ashbery does in this poem, one I never did memorize. But I know about seven or eight stanzas now. Here it is, if you need it.
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How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…
How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher
Of life, my great love? Do dolphins plunge bottomward
To find the light? Or is it rock
That is searched? Unrelentingly? Huh. And if some day
Men with orange shovels come to break open the rock
Which encases me, what about the light that comes in then?
What about the smell of the light?
What about the moss?
In pilgrim times he wounded me
Since then I only lie
My bed of light is a furnace choking me
With hell (and sometimes I hear salt water dripping).
I mean it—because I'm one of the few
To have held my breath under the house. I'll trade
One red sucker for two blue ones. I'm
Named Tom. The
Light bounces off mossy rocks down to me
In this glen (the neat villa! which
When he'd had he would not had he of
And jests under the smarting of privet
Which on hot spring nights perfumes the empty rooms
With the smell of sperm flushed down toilets
On hot summer afternoons within sight of the sea.
If you knew why then professor) reads
To his friends: Drink to me only with
And the reader is carried away
By a great shadow under the sea.
Behind the steering wheel
The boy took out his own forehead.
His girlfriend's head was a green bag
Of narcissus stems. "OK you win
But meet me anyway at Cohen's Drug Store
In 22 minutes." What a marvel is ancient man!
Under the tulip roots he has figured out a way to be a religious animal
And would be a mathematician. But where in unsuitable heaven
Can he get the heat that will make him grow?
For he needs something or will forever remain a dwarf,
Though a perfect one, and possessing a normal-sized brain
But he has got to be released by giants from things.
And as the plant grows older it realizes it will never be a tree,
Will probably always be haunted by a bee
And cultivates stupid impressions
So as not to become part of the dirt. The dirt
Is mounting like a sea. And we say goodbye
Shaking hands in front of the crashing of the waves
That give our words lonesomeness, and make these flabby hands seem ours—
Hands that are always writing things
On mirrors for people to see later—
Do you want them to water
Plant, tear listlessly among the exchangeable ivy—
Carrying food to mouth, touching genitals—
But no doubt you have understood
It all now and I am a fool. It remains
For me to get better, and to understand you so
Like a chair-sized man. Boots
Were heard on the floor above. In the garden the sunlight was still purple
But what buzzed in it had changed slightly
But not forever . . . but casting its shadow
On sticks, and looking around for an opening in the air, was quite as if it had never refused to exist differently. Guys
In the yard handled the belt he had made
Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs . . . his bones were stays . . .
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Like you, my love, and light.
For what is obedience but the air around us
To the house? For which the federal men came
In a minute after the sidewalk
Had taken you home? ("Latin . . . blossom . . .")
After which you led me to water
And bade me drink, which I did, owing to your kindness.
You would not let me out for two days and three nights,
Bringing me books bound in wild thyme and scented wild grasses
As if reading had any interest for me, you . . .
Now you are laughing.
Darkness interrupts my story.
Turn on the light.
Meanwhile what am I going to do?
I am growing up again, in school, the crisis will be very soon.
And you twist the darkness in your fingers, you
Who are slightly older . . .
Who are you, anyway?
And it is the color of sand,
The darkness, as it sifts through your hand
Because what does anything mean,
The ivy and the sand? That boat
Pulled up on the shore? Am I wonder,
Strategically, and in the light
Of the long sepulcher that hid death and hides me?