a person’s words may live on
like the Not I Mouth,
a pensum in froth
on endless repeat.
But what is heard
depends on the auditor
and information relayed
may not resemble prior use.
What does this mean
but that all language acts return
to the ocean of discourse
from which they came?
The strongest voices are those
with chorus fantasia that
take the longest time
to get back to
the original question:
Did you know you can Chinese whisper yourself? “Chinese Whispers” is the name of an old parlour game. Google it. It’s the name of a poem and a book by John Ashbery, the name of my poem, and the subject of this post: Chinese whispering yourself. I’ve done it. Come to think of it, all Googling might be a form of it, and all poems might have it as their title. Anyway….
Some time around 2001 I was in a bookstore and I recall seeing a little book by John Ashbery entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain. I did not purchase the book when I saw it, thinking the price was steep for the package. I never saw the book again. More and more I began purchasing books online and over the years had made it my business to buy every new book of poetry Ashbery published. Whenever I had come across the title As Umbrellas Follow Rain I’d dismiss it. It was that mini book I had once seen, a thing, to paraphrase Jasper Johns, my mind already knew. In my mind it was that mini book containing a single poem (a poem to be found in a full length collection I already owned), a collector’s item, hence its hefty price (and I am not a collector). I must have repeated this process dozens of times over the years until one day a few weeks ago a photo of the book on eBay made me pause. This did not look like a mini book. The description did not designate it as one, but a standard sized book with enough pages for a whole collection. And now I’m hip to that fact. But I was positive I had seen a mini book all those years ago. How could I have made that mistake?
I thought about it and realized I had Chinese whispered myself. It’s the only explanation. It must have happened like this: later in the year of 2001 when Chinese Whispers came out I bought a copy and when I came across the poem entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain a little bell must have rung and I must have formulated my incorrect image of As Umbrellas Follow Rain the book at that time. The existence of a mini book with that title containing the single poem, a collector’s item (and I am not a collector), made more sense than that of a whole other collection coming out in the same year as Chinese Whispers—a collection, mind you, made up almost completely of poems to be found in Chinese Whispers, a collection, moreover, that only the most ardent collector would want a copy of, and which I am very fortunate to have found
or the title of every poem ever written.
Is that hubris, ignorance, or both?
If you have to ask….
But I can afford it, that’s
obvious. Though I try not to be.
That’s just me.
And you, you’re another story,
obvious to some, and
to others (always others)
it’s like a game of Chinese whispers
—or whiskers. The whiskers that came,
to paraphrase Schwitters. I always think of him
whittling on a dirt road
(well, not on a road, but in the road on a piece of wood),
or playing with a field mouse.
Thank God some of his works survive,
though the ones in porridge were doomed
from the start.
Right from the very start.
Someone should have warned him about this,
the decay, the various notions of degeneration.
But nobody knows anything
that can direct the course of a life
until it’s lived,