Stations of the Cross: A Prosaic Response to John Ashbery’s Poem “The Ecclesiast”
The man left oilslick footprints, bright, then dark, mottled sometimes, variegated and unexpected. He was homeless certainly, under his burden of layered clothing and multiple grocery bags, followed by the rank decay of life. And yet, every step forward made a new color on the pavement. He gave the impression of someone from an earlier time, a medieval peddler or Christ under the cross, no Simon to bear his burden.
He walked with a staggering gait, as if the unevenly distributed grocery bags pulled him constantly off balance. He passed a building full of children, and they were outside, drawing on the pavement. They tittered at his footprints and pointed. He crouched low in front of one of them, and nearly at once an adult swooped down to take her away.
She dropped her chalk. He took that and, working on all fours, began his own picture, just the tips of his toes leaving rainbow trails almost indistinguishable from the children’s art. The group fled from him, crowded around the teachers, and he took all the ways of writing for himself. They should have left, then, but they watched the man.
He crawled around and drew a giant sunflower, using whatever color he had on hand, without regard for appropriate proportions. And when he had finished, he said, “This is my manikin,” to no one at all, because the teachers and children had finally gone back inside, “My œcumenic and my truttaceous.” And then he ate the chalk he had used to write out his intentions. White powder and blue crusted down his matted beard while he went on consuming the meaning of his life.
A little boy came out of the building with his mother. They walked past the chalk-eating man towards the subway. They did not notice when the man crumbled and blew away in the breeze, like so much crushed stone. Or that his footprints got up and walked on without him, zigzagging just as before, as if, having been once sent in motion, they could not then be stopped. The custodian came and hosed down the sunflower and the children’s art, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not make the footprints fade. The water ran down to the street, chasing those colorful aberrations, chastising them for their trespasses.
“And what to you am I?” the dead man cries. “Monsignor, will answer thee to me?”
Tired, the voice answers “You are as honey to the air.”
Then both of them blow away on the wind, the wind, the wind.
Somewhere, hear the jackhammer cackle. It is learning how to pray, how to speak a rosary of beaten exclamation points into the street. Steel on cement, it stamps out damnation, perdition on the guilty road that has watched the innocents bleed and the guilty run, that holds in all its secrets, refusing to tell, to tell.
A little girl sat on the steps with her mother. “I see the moon,” she said, “in the middle of the day.”
“That happens sometimes,” her mother agreed.
“It’s pale,” said the child, “like it forgot to paint itself into the sky.”
The mother added, “Or like it couldn’t be bothered.”
“Lazy moon,” the girl teased.
Then she got out her jump rope and went down to the sidewalk to skip and chant. A family came out of the building behind her mother, pouring down the steps together in white dresses, shirts, and ties, like they meant to climb up and color the moon. One pale child in this group wore blue, and she joined the jumproper, leaping easily into the first girl’s rhythm. They sang
Sixteen bluebirds sitting on a fence
Flapped their wings and started to dance
Upward, downward, All along the line
Flapping their wings and looking fine
Count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Don’t miss a beat to stay alive.
Blue bells cockle shells
Evie, Ivy, Over,
I like coffe, I like tea,
I like boys, and boys like me,
Yes, no maybe so
Dance with me before you go.
Their patter travelled up the building, setting in motion a flight of pigeons, which beat the air with wings of dirty gray and white. As the birds settled back, the blue girl’s mother called to her from the curb, where the bus was approaching. The child danced out of the rope as easily as she had bounded in, but then the first girl stopped twirling to wave.
“Well, there’s that,” said the first mother, waving, too, and beckoning her child to come inside for dinner as the noise set the pigeons aloft once more.
They cackle their catechism down the darkening alley, “Feed me, will you feed me? Will you feed me?” And “Gone, I am gone, I am gone.”
Now come see the station, hear the train, the metal on metal crushing down of souls. Do you feel the brakes squeal and hiss, see the wheels creak and roll. Of steam stacks we have none, but smoke aplenty. For the engine is the driver, is the man, is the woman, is the child, is the cradle. And bouncing and swaying, it ever goes faster, faster now, faster, carrying upward like wisps of hope, the passengers’ prayers. Bearing downwards, ever downward towards the tunnel, where the dark popcorns over, turns inside out with a drop of water and some heat. And the train that darkness spits out on the other side of light is never the one that entered it in the first place.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Crosshavenharpist challenged me with “‘Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living.
The night is cold and delicate and full of angels
Pounding down the living.’~ from ‘the Ecclesiast’ by John Ashbery” and I challenged Allyson with “I’m certain you’re an honest young man. Nonetheless, I need concrete proof before I can make an accusation of that nature”
Here is John Ashbery reading “The Ecclesiast”. It’s an mp3 file, and depending on your speed, it will take a minute to run, but poems are meant to be heard and best heard spoken by their poets. It is worth it.
1) The tense shifts are deliberate
2) ‘Popcorn’ is a verb in the last paragraph.
3) I have chosen to ignore the fact that Phillip Pullman used this last stanza in the final book of His Dark Materials. I love the series. I loathe the conclusion and haven’t forgiven Pullman for shoehorning Lyra and Will into a form with contrived reasoning for the sake of literary convention.
This was a challenge that required a little research, so what follows is a bibliography. Sorry. I’m an academic. And damn it, Madame Syntax made me do it. I doubt this is relevant to the IndieInk challenge, but Madame is still pissed off at The Jester Queen and The Bitch for offering to flush her head over her fondness for long words, and I’m giving her the win here.
Inspired and informed by the following works
Ashbery, John. “The Ecclesiast”. Verbal Armor. Haidi 1966; 17 June 2006. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://verbalarmor.blogspot.com/2006/06/ecclesiast.html >
—. “The Ecclesiast”. From Rivers and Mountains. Pennsound at the University of Pennsylvania. Web. [1966?], n.d. 3 March 2012. < http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Ashbery/Living-Theatre-1963/Ashbery-John_03_The-Ecclesiast_The-Living-Theatre_9-16-63.mp3 >
Kiernan, Peter. “Anatomy of Poem – John Ashbery”. Peter Kiernan: Trainee Philosopher. 22 Jan 2012. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://peterkiernan.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/anatomy-of-a-poem-john-ashbery/ >
Lochman, Daniel. “Divus Dionysius: Authority, Self, and Society in John Colet’s Reading of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”. Journal of the History of Ideas. (Jan 2007): 1-34. Web. 3 March, 2012.
Stevens, Wallace. “Gray Room”. Paying Attention To the Sky. 1917; 3 May 2011. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2011/05/03/gray-room-1917-by-wallace-stevens/ >
Suárez-Toste, Ernesto. “The Tension Is in the Concept”: John Ashbery’s Surrealism
Style38. 1 (Spring 2004): 1-15,143,146. Web. 3 March, 2003.
[“Wallace Stevens “A Figure like Ecclesiast”] Paying Attention To the Sky. 3 May 2011. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2011/05/03/gray-room-1917-by-wallace-stevens/ >
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.