The Poem I Think I’m Afraid To Understand.

Read it and see what you make of it first I guess. I won’t say anything about it until you’ve at least had a look for yourself.



Crossroads In The Past

That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes,
but it was a wrong one, blowing in the wrong direction.
“That’s silly. How can there be a wrong direction?
‘It bloweth where it listeth,’ as you know, just as we do
when we make love or do something else there are no rules for.”
I tell you, something went wrong there a while back.
Just don’t ask me what it was. Pretend I’ve dropped the subject.
No, now you’ve got me interested, I want to know
exactly what seems wrong to you, how something could
seem wrong to you. In what way do things get to be wrong?
I’m sitting here dialing my cellphone
with one hand, digging at some obscure pebbles with my shovel
with the other. And then something like braids will stand out,
on horsehair cushions. That armchair is really too lugubrious.
We’ve got to change all the furniture, fumigate the house,
talk our relationship back to its beginnings. Say, you know
that’s probably what’s wrong—the beginnings concept, I mean.
I aver there are no beginnings, though there were perhaps some
sometime. We’d stopped, to look at the poster the movie theater
had placed freestanding on the sidewalk. The lobby cards
drew us in. It was afternoon, we found ourselves
sitting at the end of a row in the balcony; the theater was unexpectedly
crowded. That was the day we first realized we didn’t fully
know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly
amid the gray snow falling. Twilight had already set in.
As a teacher, English graduate and postgraduate I could pick that poem apart if I so wished. However, the very act of going to university and all the poem dissection that I have both witnessed and being involved in over the years means that now I refuse to do any more of it.
Poetry has become something which I read when I happen upon it and which I react to emotionally. I can appreciate something if it is well-written but my emotional connection – even if I don’t fully understand my own feelings – has eclipsed the intellectual act of reading poetry.
There is a certain point when analysing poetry becomes as fruitless as sitting down to analyse a kiss.
This is one of the poems that was sent to me by a friend and which, even as I read it, I knew was going to stick around in my head. And it has. From month to month I will find myself opening it up and when I was back at home with my parents I found myself writing it out and sticking it onto their fridge. Here I am now, sharing it.
It’s had a strong impact on me, that is certain.
What is odd is that I don’t quite know why. Without picking the poem apart I can understand it and I think I understand what Ashbery is getting at. But every time I read it I am left with a sinking feeling and the idea that what I am reading goes beyond my capacity to understand, there is something lying just out of reach that I can’t seem to connect to.
It unnerves me.
What I read into that poem – without reading into it, if you know what I mean – is contained in the last stanza: the idea that we end up with people who don’t ever fully understand us, nor us them. We’re alone basically, even in the moments we believe we are beginning something together. That knowledge, once you’ve had your eyes opened to it, will always be there no matter the things you do to stay abreast of it.
Of course that unnerves me.
What we all want is to feel understood and to feel capable of understanding someone too. Yet Ashbery’s poem sticks in my throat. I struggle to tell you exactly why.
I tell you, something went wrong there a while back.
Just don’t ask me what it was. Pretend I’ve dropped the subject.
I have used those lines as my WhatsApp status – yes I am that kind of person – on several occasions. They upset something that feels like it should be far more secure in my life than it is. I can’t say that this poem makes me question my relationship in particular but perhaps all relationships but even that assessment doesn’t do it justice.
And then there is the last line which on some days I think I find menacing.
Twilight had already set in.
Things have ended even as they begin. The point of the poem is to give voice to that eeriness; the melancholy we try to smuggle away in the doing of otherwise very mundane activities.
I might not want to understand what feeling this poem is tugging at; I may even be frightened that I have already unconsciously worked out something I would much rather avoid.
Feel free not to analyse the poem or to do so but also feel equally free to tell me if it gets to you in the way that it gets to me. Because it does, it really does get to me.
Props to you, John Ashbery.
See you 🙂

5 thoughts on “The Poem I Think I’m Afraid To Understand.

  1. I think poetry is like visual art in that, unlike most forms of the written word, expression is more important than communication. It is not really important that the message received is the same as what the writer sent. But that’s just my opinion. I might feel differently if I wrote poetry.

    Liked by 3 people

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