Rivers and Mountains
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From one of our most important modern poets comes an essential early collection, including the famous long poems "The Skaters" and "Clepsydra"
When Rivers and Mountains was published in 1966, American poetry was in a state of radical redefinition, with John Ashbery recognized as one of the leading voices in the New York School of poets. Ashbery himself had just returned to America from ten years abroad working as an art critic in France, and Rivers and Mountains, his third published collection of poems, is now considered by many critics to represent a pivotal transition point in his artistic career. The poet who would gain widespread acclaim with his multiple-award-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) is, in this collection, still very much engaged in the intimate, personal project of taking his poetry apart and putting it back together again, interrogating not just the act of writing but poetry itself—its purpose, its composition, its fundamental parts.
Nominated for a National Book Award by a panel of judges that included W. H. Auden and James Dickey, Rivers and Mountains includes two of Ashbery's most studied and admired works. "Clepsydra," which takes its name from an ancient device for measuring the passage of time, echoes both the physical form and the philosophical weight of a water clock in its contemplation of the experience of time as it passes. "The Skaters," the long poem that closes the collection, was immediately praised as a masterpiece of modern American poetry, and is the work that perhaps most clearly introduces the voice for which Ashbery is now well known and loved: generous, restless, wide-ranging, and human.
Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it; These are the range of the poet’s experience. He can hide in trees Like a hamadryad, but wisely prefers not to, letting the balloons Idle him out of existence, as a car idles. Traveling faster And more furiously across unknown horizons, belted into the night Wishing more and more to be unlike someone, getting the whole thing (So he believes) out of his system. Inventing systems. We are a part of some system, thinks he, just as
These sails are life itself to me. I heard a girl say this once, and cried, and brought her fresh fruit and fishes, Olives and golden baked loaves. She dried her tears and thanked me. Now we are both setting sail into the purplish evening. I love it! This cruise can never last long enough for me. But once more, office desks, radiators—No! That is behind me. No more dullness, only movies and love and laughter, sex and fun. The ticket seller is blowing his little horn—hurry before the window
luminous silver-gray. Yet rain, like silver porcupine quills, has begun to be thrown down. All the lightning is still contained in the big black cloud however. Now thunder claps belch forth from it, Causing the startled vultures to fly forth from their nests. I really had better be getting back down, I suppose. Still it is rather fun to linger on in the wet, Letting your clothes get soaked. What difference does it make? No one will scold me for it, Or look askance. Supposing I catch cold?
Ecclesiast “Worse than the sunflower,” she had said. But the new dimension of truth had only recently Burst in on us. Now it was to be condemned. And in vagrant shadow her mothball truth is eaten. In cool, like-it-or-not shadow the humdrum is consumed. Tired housewives begat it some decades ago, A small piece of truth that if it was honey to the lips Was also millions of miles from filling the place reserved for it. You see how honey crumbles your universe Which seems like an
conclusion, its premises Undertaken before any formal agreement had been reached, hence A writ that was the shadow of the colossal reason behind all this Like a second, rigid body behind the one you know is yours. And it was in vain that tears blotted the contract now, because It had been freely drawn up and consented to as insurance Against the very condition it was now so efficiently Seeking to establish. It had reduced that other world, The round one of the telescope, to a kind of very