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Monday 24 March 2014

John Ashbery: They Dream Only of America


water tower over tennis court: photo by Clayton Percy, 7 March 2014

They dream only of America 
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass: 
"This honey is delicious 
Though it burns the throat." 

And hiding from darkness in barns 
They can be grownups now 
And the murderer's ashtray is more easily -- 
The lake a lilac cube. 

He holds a key in his right hand.
"Please," he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.  
That was before 

We could drive hundreds of miles 
At night through dandelions. 
When his headache grew worse we 
Stopped at a wire filling station. 

Now he cared only about signs. 
Was the cigar a sign? 
And what about the key? 
He went slowly into the bedroom. 

"I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen 
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do 
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it. 

And I am lost without you."

John Ashbery: They Dream Only of America, from The Partisan Review, Summer 1959; reprinted in The Tennis Court Oath, 1962


foot of the water tower night: photo by Clayton Percy, 7 March 2014

  base of the tower, no parking. a quieter view true to the nature of the place: photo by Clayton Percy, 7 March 2014


TC said...

In case anyone was wondering (?), the lettering on the water tower reads: "SME Lancers", and refers (?) to the Lancers of Shawnee Mission East High School, Prairie Village, Kansas (part of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area).

Hazen said...

Water tower? That’s what they want us to believe. These creatures, these so-called water towers, are from outer space; they stalk the land on giant metal legs; they lurk silently outside restrooms at night, make futile attempts to hide behind real American trees, waiting, sucking up all the water in Kansas, in the world. I saw the movie.

TC said...

Hazen, don't look now but you've just gone and reinforced a Primal Fear.

I remain subject to odd memories of certain doomy, mysterious water tower legends remembered from early childhood -- when every two-bit burg was precariously hovered over by one of those fat bulbous structures from another dimension.

A lot of them are still around.

One water tower I find somewhat ominous, for example, is that of the Victor Balata Belting Company in Easton, Pa., a supplier to the aerospace industry of tapes and nets for "aircraft arresting systems".

Victor Balata Water Tower

Mose23 said...

There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

True enough.

There's a grand looking water tower near us. Though they could be a hiding place for one of Hazen's aliens.

ACravan said...

This is a remarkably effective and memorable presentation. I think I will always associate this poem and this sequence and arrangement of photographs. I have to say that I really admire your water tower scholarship; Easton, PA (located in my telephone area code and not far from here; my college roommate teaches there) is rarely mentioned, even in our local weather reports. That's a nice spooky water tower. Curtis

Hazen said...

Cue the Theremin. And get me Ed Wood on the phone.
I notice they've slapped a lot of cell phone transmitter thingies on WBs tower. The horror of it indeed.

TC said...

Joseph Conrad never knew.

Illusions of liberty (we're still waiting for the real thing) must inform 99% of public architectural iconography in the "Land of the Free".

As the republic grows ever more enchained to the all-purpose corporate marketing-model of indiscriminate positivity ("Have a nice day, and buy now!!"), the thin veneer of deception must be applied in ever brighter, simpler colours, much as with children's toys, to maintain the underlying illusion. So we have the phenomenon of the painted-over water tower, dressed up in happy rainbow colours to resemble, say, a hot air balloon -- yay, fun!!

These may be found in some of the most desolate of locations -- take, for example, the York, Nebraska water tower, viewed out the window of a long-haul trucker during a blizzard, in the penultimate shot here.

But that impressive Warley water tower of WB's, now, suggests a more sophisticated form of camouflage. A multi-purpose installation, perhaps, with slots in the battlements for heroic Brum bowmen to conduct a stalwart defence against those always tiresome Norse invaders; though that thick cluster of anachronistic add-ons (mobile phone antennae was my guess, too) somewhat detracts from the effect... giving rise to unfortunate considerations re. the potential bother for the archers on the parapets in having to shoot around such awkward obstacles, or worse -- perish the thought! -- take the chance of launching an arrow straight into the tender quick of an important message before the spook monitor net has been able to capture the full metadata.

But oh, the theremin! Greatest of Russian inventions (after only television, of course). Spooky instrument extraordinaire! Untouchable! Even by spooks!

The contemporary master:

Pamelia Kurstin: The untouchable music of the theremin.

Ed Wood (or for that matter a woodchuck) would have got a spine-shiver or two if he'd been here in the haunted house back in the epoch of the legendary recording sessions for a totally sub-radar project involving performance of passages from a text I had composed about a curious hillbilly savant. The engineer brought along his theremin, and played it (no hands, of course), and that was a mysteriously brilliant moment in the long night of some other century.

This is the guy -- like Pamelia Kurstin a genius of innovative sound design -- pictured with one of his peculiar musical inventions.

Sound designer Shawn Jimmerson with his Tiptop Audio Modular.

Be the BQE said...

"Now he cared only about signs." I find that line startling. Reading the poem in light of the tower photographs reinforces the feeling of disorientation. No parking any time, indeed. Powerful post!

Nin Andrews said...

Is it just my mood, too many dark days and headaches, or is this really creepy? I feel as if every light is an illusion, and every shadow is well, more than just a shadow.

TC said...


I am always cautious about reading signs. Perhaps it's just superstition.

E.g. Is my broken leg, which caused me to post this poem -- all other home therapies found wanting -- a sign for "Ouch!"?

John Ashbery reads They Dream Only of America, 1994

Was the yellow flower in the video a sign for a silent "Ouch!"?

Is the broken leg a sign?

Is the cigar a Freudian symbol?

Is there water in Lake Ontario?

Is there a watertower in the little town on Lake Ontario where JA grew up?


Is there a lighthouse?


Sodus Outer Light (built 1901), Sodus Point, New York

But... is there parking near the lighthouse?

TC said...

Well, I see that our friend David has pulled up at the water tower in search of the one thing he will be denied, a parking space. Now I call that hard, given what those bossy movie types have been putting him through back at his native precinct..


"Is it just my mood, too many dark days and headaches, or is this really creepy? I feel as if every light is an illusion, and every shadow is well, more than just a shadow."

Nin, I was afraid somebody was going to detect the comprehensive, all-encompassing creepiness of every iota of this post.

We appear to be in the same sort of mood.

One can only ask, with Brenton Wood, who, unlike some of us, is stiil on his feet somehow --

Gimme a Little Sign

Dalriada said...

I listened to the 1973 rendition of the poem on PennSound two days ago

Now I can't get the memories of Saturday mornings out of my head ... the windows open and a vacuum cleaner running drowning all else out with the illusion that cleanliness is some kind of guarantee of wholeness (because I live in a godless universe?)

As if all the water in those towers would ever wash our hands clean .....

I'm just a permanent legal alien though What do I know?