Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

A Story In Memory of John Ashbery

A US Serviceman reading the Armed Forces Edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

A Story In Memory of John Ashbery

Geoffrey O’Brien
All life
Is as a tale told to one in a dream
In tones never totally audible
Or understandable, and one wakes
Wishing to hear more,

– John Ashbery, Litany

I don’t remember where I heard this story.
After the cessation of hostilities
in the Second World War
an American soldier
waiting with so many others to go home
sat cross-legged on the hot deck of a troop ship
reading a paperbound mystery novel—
it might have been The Camera Clue
or The Fatal Kiss or The X-Ray Murders
and as he came to the end of every second page
he tore that leaf from the book
and passed it to the soldier on his left,
each leaf in turn passed thus
from hand to hand around the deck
until the whole book was read
by hundreds of soldiers with nothing else to do
but measure the time as it leaked away,
so that the cheap little paperback—
it might have been Reno Rendezvous
or Holiday Homicide or The Doctor Died at Dusk
acquired precious value as one soldier at a time
found a temporary home in some random wad
of narrative padding or incidental description,
some flirty come-on or slangy comeback,
freezing it in place as if by the hypnotic ray
in a comic book, even as the soldier on his left
nudged him to read faster, the way, after all,
the author must have intended, since mysteries are designed
to make time pass as quickly and imperceptibly
as possible, to obliterate time and replace it
with what is experienced as endless and endlessly
pleasurable, even while despite the impulse
to slow down and savour the lovely stillness
of an immobilised sentence the soldier felt driven
to get to the end of it, and if the light held
the last reader on deck would have been left
with a now useless pile of unbound pages,
to be tossed away without thought
just as the details of the story itself—
it might have been The Fall Guy
or Four Frightened Women or Weekend with Death
were quickly forgotten by each of the soldiers
who had clung to those words as to the side of a life raft
but afterwards didn’t even need to make an effort
not to forget what was already being erased,
in the diminishing light the elements of the story
popped and went out, it could have been the one
about the missing will or the missing person,
the blackmailed movie star, the body
in the locked room, the wronged convict
looking for payback from the man who sent him up,
the voice rasping threats in the dark after midnight,
the rattling of the bolted storm window,
the redhead with a yen for trombone players,
the tennis pro hiding more than one disgraceful secret,
the Scotch and soda that didn’t taste quite right,
what the hat check girl from Club Esquire
whispered to the owner’s bullnecked chauffeur,
the fallen hairnet, the half-smoked cigarette,
the galoshes still dry after the rainstorm,
the bent key slipped into the green handbag,
the silk nightgown tossed in the hamper
the way no woman ever would,
but the killer didn’t know that—
and by then the exhausted soldier has dropped
into a place where not even a Scotch and soda
can help him keep the tell-tale trace
from melting in his hands
while the mind struggles to reassemble
a story with the same name but a different plot—
and by now even the name has changed,
maybe it has become Ghost of the Shower Handle
or Green Horses or The Tangled Beans
but it hits a skid from the get-go, spins out
into a different century with freakish weather,
where a body with anomalous biological traits
inhabits a zone of methane baths,
in swift eely leaps transmuting the story of anybody
to the story of nobody or more strictly no body,
the dream becoming a commemorative album
on the death of the dreamer
just as he crashes into the brittle wall of light
coughing and flicking shards away
and wondering whether dreams
are failed attempts at storytelling,
what with their all too familiar technique
of digression within digression
yanking always further from a main thread
not to be found again, lost
beyond naming, or on the other hand
are stories inadequate attempts
to approximate the dream experience,
imposing a wide-awake logic that will always
remain alien to what it most wanted to capture?
The dreams of the dead have left no trace
but how their stories have piled up, stories of legacies
and massacres and rudely interrupted house calls,
it might have been The Tale of the Mistaken Twins
or The Chastised Wife or The Fate of the Orphan,
judges compiling death sentences for a secret court,
rustled cattle, talking fish, luminescent blossoms,
nothing finally but ordinances and omens,
vows and curses, challenges and predictions,
messages carried by wind across water
to the far shore where they are broadcast like thunder,
louder than any sound in any dream—
the dream in a story about a dream
being more elegant than any ever actually dreamt,
the twin dreams for example in the Arabian Nights tale
of the impoverished Bagdad merchant
to whom in sleep a messenger appeared
saying “go to Cairo to find a great treasure”
and who arriving without resources
fell asleep in a mosque where a robbery took place
and being mistaken for a robber was beaten and abused
until the police chief asked him why he came to Cairo
and he related his dream and the police chief uproariously amused
by the gullibility of anyone who would put faith in a dream
told him how he once had more or less the same dream
instructing him urgently to go to Bagdad
to a house described in meticulous detail which the merchant
silently recognised as being none other than his own
and on returning to his homeland obeyed the instruction
to excavate the fountain at the end of the garden
thereby uncovering the predicted treasure,
no story could be neater, its crisscross pattern
even cancels itself out leaving no mess behind
as if it were literally the story to end all stories,
as if finally there had been enough stories—
except that this evidently cannot be the case
since when that moment threatens to arrive
it only generates a further story,
a story about precisely the end of all stories
and that turns out to be merely the overture
to the multivolume saga The End of All Things
that will generate spinoffs and prequels
and heavily promoted follow-ups
of which Part Twelve: Beyond Nothing
will serve as teaser for My End Is My Beginning
This had been going on longer
than anyone was in a position to remember,
there was not even a name for the tribe of humans
who over a period of seventeen thousand years
had inhabited continuously a cave
fifty feet wide and five hundred feet long
yet you might be permitted to imagine
that in all that time nobody dropped the ball
as they practiced in the dark rearranging plot points
deleting kinks and dead spots along the way
like a story conference lasting millennia
while the elders muttered
“same old same old, get me rewrite”
and when having emerged to the light
they invented theatre
the principals went into their dance
dressed up as lovers who hyperbolise and are forgiven
as lovers who are not forgiven and are slaughtered
as lecherous servants who always
in some sideways fashion speak truth
skinflints who rage and are mocked
bandits who triumph through disguise
brothel keepers who smuggle messages
clowns who stagger through alleyways
knocking over buckets and fruit stands
householders who tremble for fear of thieves
girls too beautiful to be hidden
warriors turned monstrous from lust
crones who explicate lost bloodlines
a procession of stick figures
and their living shadows
each both itself and
the opposite of the other
unsolvable mixtures
ghosts who sing
animals who prophesy
chasms that open in the ground
to show where the wealth was hidden
long before the story began
just so there would be something or other to restore—
millennia of disconnected anecdotes
like my uncle told about a drunken brawl
at Coney Island or a three-day blizzard
or a school chum dying of sepsis
from a dirty jackknife, figments of a gone world
for which the story is no substitute—
the story is nothing
or not more than the length of thick celluloid
by which a professional burglar pries his way
into the closet where the stash is, not more
than the weather they moved around in
all the while they were telling it,
not more than what hangs on it,
props, perfumes, backtalk, smoke,
the crinkling sound from the adjacent room
reachable by no other method
and not even then—
as the child found who, trying to decide
which Classic Comic to read when he had read them all,
hoping to find one that would still—
still and always—seem new even after
it was more familiar than his hand turning the pages—
it might have been Lorna Doone or The Talisman
or Tom Brown’s School Days—told himself
“I want a story that is not like a trap”—
as he started to fear that every story
is a trap that lures past the greenery of the entryway
into aisles ever narrowing,
whether of barracks or churchyard or schoolroom,
without hope of a reverse manoeuvre—
and so went poking along the seams of the stories
for the empty space,
the green and dripping glistening light
of the place where the story stands still—
Deerslayer’s Glimmerglass or the endless Siberia
of Michael Strogoff—the zone of unending interlude
where the travellers have lunch and savour guitar music
and because the story has stopped
they never in the end resume their journey
and consequently are spared
the drought-ridden badlands
plagues slag heaps corrupt marauders
tax collectors torturers slavedrivers
blighted orphanages airless chapels
the confusions and betrayals
waiting for all who manage to reach the city—
I don’t remember where I heard that story
and certainly it has changed beyond recognition
I remember hearing about a person
who sat down once a year
to write down the details of the particularly
disturbing incident that had haunted a lifetime
choosing to write them down without ever consulting
the earlier drafts and at the end of many decades
laid them side by side to find
a suite of unrecognisably different stories,
nothing remaining but arbitrary narratives
so blatantly concocted as to be beyond belief
yet no less true since there they are,
they never go away—
by their very survival
they confirm there are no untrue stories,
there is nothing but truth,
it occupies every point of space,
seals the exits, the wallpaper is made of it,
the accumulation of foxed and partly shredded
childhood storybooks is made of it, the orange sun
going down out on the street is made of it,
even for the bystander perched outside it
the outsideness is made of it, what doesn’t
fit into it is tangled in its main works,
while meanwhile—back at the ranch
as my uncle would have said—
even as the story was being ironed out
the thing that actually happened went off
on its own tangent, it did happen,
it did, there was a sun in the street
but once only, such being the monstrous condition
imposed on the living who find relief only
in the story that can be taken as needed
even though each telling alters it,
yet after all the freedom to alter it
is what makes it a story, it wouldn’t
amount to much without the malleability
that comes close to the heart of ecstatic delight,
while the event—the jackknife
or the brutal happening at Coney Island—
stays locked up in its truth, warehouse beyond access,
it would not be truth if it were not inaccessible,
if they could touch it they would change it,
they do change it and it is no more,
and spend the remainder of their time
wondering where it went, that incident
which was purity itself and since purity
is beyond them it bedevils them
until they make or stumble upon
a story to be a stand-in
like a puppet or a candle
a splash of indigo
a stain a mere splinter
a signal going off in the air
a signal going off the air—
you want to hear it
you’re afraid to hear it
you’re tired of hearing it
you tell it to yourself
you imagine others telling it to themselves
you want to hear it again over and over
you’ve never heard it
it has been deliberately kept from you
you would pay to hear it
you wish you hadn’t heard it
you would pay to forget it
you heard it but you can’t remember it
no one ever heard it
it has never been told
it tells itself
it will be telling itself with no one left to hear

Geoffrey O’Brien is an American poet, editor, book and film critic, and cultural historian. He writes regularly for the NYRB. He retired as Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America in 2018.