"The Cloud of Unknowing," which Christopher Edgar has chosen as the title of the first in his group of poems, is the title of a fourteenth-century English mystical treatise. The "cloud," as I recall, is an unfortunate but necessary mediating blur through which God calls to the faithful and which they must ultimately transcend in order to know Him. Here the cloud is full of known earthly places like the Sahara, "Old Russia," and Heathrow Airport, jumbled together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle map of the world. Yet there is a secret order to this confusion, as we learn especially in the poem "Wing," which takes us on a journey along an Egyptian frieze and then out into other museum exhibits, finally ending in Cezanne’s Provence, where a "lily-white model" gazes over a landscape that ends back among the frieze’s "Kilted men, some carrying birds." Despite the intervening complications, we are still part of the odd but orderly Egyptian cortege. Art, artifacts, things, and people partake of each other’s humanity and objecthood: "Just about anything / Looks good under glass," the speaker remarks dryly. Yet there is nothing of the dispassionate butterfly-pinner about: these objects are sympathetically alive, parts of an encompassing order, like Marianne Moore’s "Nine Nectarines" or her "Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish." Though Moore and also Elizabeth Bishop’s "Questions of Travel" and "The Map" are probably secondary influences here, these poems are unlike any I’ve ever read: deep, beautiful, and laugh-out-loud funny.


–John Ashbery


The Cloud of Unknowing


Is not a cloud at all

But a wall colored so efficiently

It seems to be an alley of trees

Some believe this cul de sac

Can be approached from every angle

While others consider it merely a frontage road

To the remnants of summer, the disused

Anchorage inside the spiral jetty. But we

Have seen this cloud, you and I have,

Just before we set out to martinize the infidel

It was there, somewhere in the Sahara,

Hovering above an Italian restaurant

Perched on the edge of a depression. White-tunicked

Waiters with jet-black hair served us cannelloni

And Chianti yet at the same time did not

Serve us cannelloni and Chianti–but then

We were at sea as we always were in those times

On a ferry yes the Dover ferry

Everyone was heaving

Patches of sawdust everywhere on deck

Always followed by the cloud

The sun came out but it was still raining

North of Leningrad the tramline ends

We trudge through acres of mud between

Grim apartment blocks in a colorless landscape

Day for night whistling in the sleet

The mud becomes woods, beyond the woods

We finally reach the little wooden village on the far side of a hill–

Bent-bark roofs as in the poem–with a little

Orthodox church, a bit like St.-Cloud

From a distance this is Old Russia I think

We meet the priest whom I like

Immediately we parted as old friends–

Never saw him again. Funny, like the

Facial expressions of the father and son

Pickpocket team in the Mexico City subway

June rush hour you all of a sudden turn to

Shake their hands "¡Que pasa?!" They looked

As if they had seen a ghost

Probably like my own face when I lost my passport

In a dream. I was in Heathrow and hung my coat

On the convenient too convenient rack outside the duty-free shops

The Pakistani woman at the gate was very helpful

But could not help me. For some reason

I was interested only in which languages she spoke

The truth was all I wanted was for her

To say Urdu, which she did.




     for Simon Kilmurry


Among cool recesses of tombs,

Scale models of funeral barges,

Ebony birds and mummified dogs,

A wall of tiny, broken frescos

Depicting cows in high relief,

A recumbent calf, legs in low relief,

A bull followed by a man,

Men walking left, three animals walking right,

A bearded Nubian with rope, men roping cattle,

Men with baboons, three men carrying animals,

Nubians hunting in the desert below,

Hunting with dogs, trapping birds,

Women walking left and right, women

Kneeling, with pink skin,

Crocodiles in the reeds,

Slaves cutting hops, scythes

Bent to the sun, graining

With the eye of Horus, watching

Representations of Mekutra and wife make

Offerings–figs, ducks, cucumbers, a wig,

Necklaces, unguents, a kilt, a foot–

Henenu holds the beer jar to his lips, his sons

To the right, knaves in jars, go to besiege a fortress,

Men climb scaffolding, the festival of Mia,

Porter and archer slaughter bulls,

Bows on stands as in the tomb of Neferu,

An official, the goddess Nekhet,

Symbol of Abydos and janus-type cows,

Acacia tree with vessels below it,

On the cornice above, related to the Osiris cult,

Cattle walk left with women attendants,

Carrying sunshades and menat necklaces, the queen

Faces them, her name written nearby,

Looking on while three

Priests recite spells,

Three men in kilts carrying birds

March silently forward

Through a false door with blue frame,

A false door with yellow frame,

A false door with red frame,

As the Festival escapes

Through alcoves, mezzanines, and porticos,

Sculpture galleries and rooms of armor,

Through teahouses of Old Japan,

Across Attic capitals and vases,

Kilted men watch Nebuchadnezzar eating grass

Like oxen, Magi bear birds by the Eastern Star,

Tempt Saint Anthony in the desert,

The Lion of Nemea, Job on his dunghill,

The Masters of Osservanza and the Griggs Crucifixion,

Kachina dolls and wood totems from Malindi,

All to become bearded warriors

Rushing to battle in Assyrian chariots with

Oriflammes of dreams foretold by angels,

Flagellations, annunciations, and ascensions,

Racing headlong through French woods, hounds baying,

Centurions offering birds to peasants sleeping


In the fields at noon, through the afternoon,

The lily-white model gazes hand under chin

Toward the slope of Montagne Sainte-Victoire,

An earthenware jar shattering, browns and greens

Spilling into the valley below–

Vineyards, farmhouses, olive trees, and viaducts–

Over the tops of trees and the horizon line,

From L’Estaque, clear but distant,

As far as the eye can see she sees


Kilted men, some carrying birds




This book of hours is piebald

Each two alike only insofar as they are unalike

Just as winter unites enemies of spring,

Grass grows on the banks

As the waterways lie frozen. Piers

The Ploughman should be in the field

Sleeping with the other peasants,

But no, he is fickle and has gone to town.

The miller hoists another bag of grain

As his wife churns the butter.

Tiring, she opens a window and looks outside.

Trees sway gently in unison,

Stick-figures conferring on various topics of blue.

They are only doing what she asked them to,

Slowly, without prevarication, swaying gently in unison.

Centuries later, a woman

Turns her head and looks away.

A man, who loves her, becomes foreshortened

Out of sorts, short of breath, and lost for words.

She thinks him too serious–

He must remember

That when the dog barks at midnight

It is only saying hello.

The woman is thinking of saints under water.

The man is thinking of lives under glass,

Of how we are ourselves only when we are alone,

And of how we can sometimes be alone together.

The star above them looks down on them

And laughs, cruelly.

(Legend has it that there were two stars,

So the star, too, is not alone.)

The woman dreams of multicolored pylons,

Of woolen buildings, and people who are like

Woolen buildings, a raft of woolen buildings

Cast adrift on an empty sea.

In a dream the man attends a concert

Given by a Peruvian dwarf, who sings

Of vast Peruvian deserts by the sea.

Between the two lies a kaleidoscope,

A list pages long

Of things that could lie between them,

Amalgams of possibilities,

Patchworks of angry basilisks

In an empty landscape,

Endless tundra, a large country

Where there are Mounties

Because there are Nazis in the Rockies.

This nightmare of his is a film

From which he must now awake.

It is stiflingly hot. He opens a window

And breathes the cool night air flooding in

From the zoological garden. He decides to write

An opus, a treatise on how we are all trapped,

Animals in a zoo without love, from which

We will soon escape, sometime in a later chapter.

The next morning she leaves the house without

A list, because it was in her head, just as

She went swimming in the Baleares, without

A suit. He had been envious of her, naked

In the Mediterranean, as we all wish to be,

As in a bath, she bathed as he read to her–

Renard the Fox, or something similar.

She wasn’t listening, it seemed to him,

She was watching little surges of past jet past

Like bats flushed from a cave.

In fact she was remembering seeing

Not a martyr’s feet, but

A hair from the beard of the Prophet,

In the Topkapi, years ago, thinking

Just about anything

Looks good under glass.


Stone-deaf Albert Leaves the Concertina


All things being equal in this reservoir

Stone-deaf Albert left the concertina

With a wave vanishing into the arcane

He embraced the hoi-polloi with relish

Watching them, too, embrace him back, for no reason

Simply because it was a rainy summer

Everyone was happy only at night

When the light at the end of the proverb

Was a house afire

And imperial garb bore

No resemblance to the throne

Sparks of revolution kindled in the garderobe

Altering the popular mood and irrigating it

Soon stylish coups became common among the populus

Incubi and succubi turned politicos

And rain washed the empty street


Fly-by shootings were everyday affairs

Especially near the rotunda

From which Albert left each dawn

June saw many fall victim needlessly

Headlines of the dailies read





Sooner than later, pay he did

In the swill of the motorcade

A dozen parties formed

In the small capitol of our vast archipelago

The garderobe became a thermidor

Of seething hates towards the poor figure

Who embraced his assassins

Knowing his time had come

The pimpled archduke, something of a cliché,

Leapt aboard the running boards

Of the Hispano-Suiza and drew his Browning

And with one shot to the head

The great man was gone


In the dénouement, as if on cue

We moved forward in the century

Beginning to read again

We invented new forms of opera

As well as radio plays. Some summer nights

Those of us now older recalled the great man

A vestige of youth, always dressed immaculately

Slightly jaded, something of a ham, but

A man of state nonetheless, of many liaisons


Town and Country


Enormous shadow, be gone

Or reveal

The seen and unseen

Largesse of thirty years ago,

The Flatiron Building,

Bust of Rita Hayworth,

Grand Army Plaza,

Crass waste places of Astoria,

On first sight a group of nature studies,

Shadows from commercial signs,

People walking on the street below

Have a Coke

From the thirties and forties–

Pine needles, a moth on leaves,

A pine trunk, a birch tree–

Escapees from an Ansel Adams show–

Pictures of July afternoons

Outside the little zoo,

An elderly woman eating ice cream

With the finesse of thirty years ago,

The Flatiron Building,

The Sheep Meadow,

Sailors in Times Square,

Signs in Times Square,

Sailors in Bethesda Fountain,

Figures in the piazza

All casting shadows

Through the long green

Tunnel of the Taconic–

Birches, pines,

Needles, moths, leaves–

Bull moose in a Maine lake,

Summer 1971.