Rivers and Mountains

By John Ashbery b. 1927 John Ashbery
On the secret map the assassins   
Cloistered, the Moon River was marked   
Near the eighteen peaks and the city
Of humiliation and defeat—wan ending   
Of the trail among dry, papery leaves   
Gray-brown quills like thoughts
In the melodious but vast mass of today’s   
Writing through fields and swamps
Marked, on the map, with little bunches of weeds.   
Certainly squirrels lived in the woods   
But devastation and dull sleep still   
Hung over the land, quelled
The rioters turned out of sleep in the peace of prisons   
Singing on marble factory walls   
Deaf consolation of minor tunes that pack   
The air with heavy invisible rods   
Pent in some sand valley from
Which only quiet walking ever instructs.   
The bird flew over and
Sat—there was nothing else to do.
Do not mistake its silence for pride or strength
Or the waterfall for a harbor
Full of light boats that is there
Performing for thousands of people   
In clothes some with places to go   
Or games. Sometimes over the pillar   
Of square stones its impact
Makes a light print.
So going around cities
To get to other places you found   
It all on paper but the land
Was made of paper processed   
To look like ferns, mud or other   
Whose sea unrolled its magic   
Distances and then rolled them up   
Its secret was only a pocket
After all but some corners are darker
Than these moonless nights spent as on a raft
In the seclusion of a melody heard   
As though through trees
And you can never ignite their touch   
Long but there were homes
Flung far out near the asperities   
Of a sharp, rocky pinnacle
And other collective places
Shadows of vineyards whose wine   
Tasted of the forest floor
Fisheries and oyster beds
Tides under the pole
Seminaries of instruction, public   
Places for electric light
And the major tax assessment area   
Wrinkled on the plan
Of election to public office
Sixty-two years old bath and breakfast   
The formal traffic, shadows
To make it not worth joining
After the ox had pulled away the cart.

Your plan was to separate the enemy into two groups   
With the razor-edged mountains between.
It worked well on paper
But their camp had grown
To be the mountains and the map   
Carefully peeled away and not torn   
Was the light, a tender but tough bark
On everything. Fortunately the war was solved   
In another way by isolating the two sections   
Of the enemy’s navy so that the mainland   
Warded away the big floating ships.   
Light bounced off the ends   
Of the small gray waves to tell   
Them in the observatory   
About the great drama that was being won
To turn off the machinery
And quietly move among the rustic landscape   
Scooping snow off the mountains rinsing
The coarser ones that love had   
Slowly risen in the night to overflow   
Wetting pillow and petal   
Determined to place the letter
On the unassassinated president’s desk
So that a stamp could reproduce all this
In detail, down to the last autumn leaf
And the affliction of June ride
Slowly out into the sun-blackened landscape.

John Ashbery, “Rivers and Mountains” from Rivers and Mountains. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by John Ashbery. Reprinted with the permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. on behalf of the author.

Source: The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry (Ecco Press, 1997)

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Poet John Ashbery b. 1927

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Subjects Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 John  Ashbery


John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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