Someone You Have Seen Before

by John Ashbery



It was a night for listening to Corelli, Geminiani
Or Manfredini. The tables had been set with beautiful white cloths
And bouquets of flowers. Outside the big glass windows
The rain drilled mercilessly into the rock garden, which made light
Of the whole thing. Both business and entertainment waited
With parted lips, because so much new way of being
With one’s emotion and keeping track of it at the same time
Had been silently expressed. Even the waiters were happy.

It was an example of how much one can grow lustily
Without fracturing the shell of coziness that surrounds us,
And all things as well. “We spend so much time
Trying to convince ourselves we’re happy that we don’t recognize
The real thing when it comes along,” the Disney official said.
He’s got a point, you must admit. If we followed nature
More closely we’d realize that, I mean really getting your face pressed
Into the muck and indecision of it. Then it’s as if
We grew out of our happiness, not the other way round, as is
Commonly supposed. We’re the characters in its novel,
And anybody who doubts that need only look out of the window
Past his or her own reflection, to the bright, patterned,
Timeless unofficial truth hanging around out there,
Waiting for the signal to be galvanized into a crowd scene,
Joyful or threatening, it doesn’t matter, so long as we know
It’s inside, here with us.

But people do change in life,
As well as in fiction. And what happens then? Is it because we think nobody’s
Listening that one day it comes, the urge to delete yourself,
“Take yourself out,” as they say? As though this could matter
Even to the concerned ones who crowd around,
Expressions of lightness and peace on their faces,
In which you play no part perhaps, but even so
Their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday, and even
When the balloons and fudge get tangled with extraneous
Good wishes from everywhere, it is, I believe, made to order
For your questioning stance and that impression
Left on the inside of your pleasure by some bivalve
With which you have been identified. Sure,
Nothing is ever perfect enough, but that’s part of how it fits
The mixed bag
Of leftover character traits that used to be part of you
Before the change was performed
And of all those acquaintances bursting with vigor and
Humor, as though they wanted to call you down
Into closeness, not for being close, or snug, or whatever,
But because they believe you were made to fit this unique
And valuable situation whose lid is rising, totally
Into the morning-glory-colored future. Remember, don’t throw away
The quadrant of unused situations just because they’re here:
They may not always be, and you haven’t finished looking
Through them all yet. So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

Notes on the Poem

Mystifying and even cheerfully impenetrable at first glance, John Ashbery's poems reward richly if you look again, perhaps by coming at them from different angles. As we considered previously, Ashbery often leaves discernible clues to guide us. Let's venture in again, this time to make our way through "Someone You Have Seen Before", from his 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Notes from the Air. As we learned with Ashbery's poem "Token Resistance" from the same collection, simply going with the flow of the poem invited interesting discoveries and connections, rather than struggling to ruminate over and parse out every single reference. In tandem with this approach, we can consider another aspect of Ashbery's artistry to assist us in absorbing what he does with his poetry? Did you know that he is also known for his work in the visual art of collage, discussed most recently in The Paris Review? The authoritative Tate definition of this art form is: "Collage describes both the technique and the resulting work of art in which pieces of paper, photographs, fabric and other ephemera are arranged and stuck down onto a supporting surface." What if the supporting surface here is the page (or screen), and the words, phrases and images that tumble by are the "arranged and stuck down" elements? Baroque music, fine dining, nature versus artificial rock gardens, a birthday party complete with balloons and fudge, the ocean, grasses, a lighthouse on a hill ... It's a mix ranging from the sublime to, as The Paris Review observes, the kitschy, encapsulated best when wisdom is spoken by someone who could be considered a purveyor of kitsch: "We spend so much time Trying to convince ourselves we're happy that we don't recognize The real thing when it comes along," the Disney official said. Again, hiding his advice in plain sight, Ashbery lets us take the collage pieces at whimsical face value or knit them together into deeper messages as we see fit: "the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will"

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