:: Article

Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

By Kent Johnson.

Sestina: Avantforte

O your perfect, vulgate, hairy sestina
–David Shapiro (correspondence with the author)

It’s interesting how no one has yet written a sestina about John Ashbery,
Joseph Ceravolo, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch.
After all, the New York poets wrote a bunch of sestinas, and Frank O’Hara,
of course, though he never wrote one himself, dropped the names of poets in his poems
    like crazy. James Schuyler
did too. He lived at the Chelsea amongst wackos of all kinds. Once, on the morning of
    this poem, when seven thousand saffron panels billowed in the park, on a day you could     take up the tattered shadows off the grass, Barbara Guest
knocked on his door with a flat shape under her arm. Joseph Ceravolo

answered the door. What are you doing here, she said. Maybe I should be asking you that
    question, said Joseph Ceravolo.
Well, I’ve got this painting, it’s by Joe Brainard, I wanted to show it to Jimmy, and it’s
    called “Tangerines.” John Ashbery
gave it to me after Frank O’Hara died, said Barbara Guest.
What do you mean Frank died, cried Joseph, I just saw Kenneth Koch
down at the San Remo, and he didn’t say anything about that! Ha ha hee hee, laughed
    James Schuyler,
arranging some jonquils in the kitchenette, you two are a stitch and a half! And they all
    laughed and laughed, like a happy rain, because the world was new, and irony was so     straightforward then, in the Kennedy era. And just then the phone rang.
    (It was Frank O’Hara!)

You’ll never guess what, Jimmy, said Frank. What, Mr. Frank O’Hara?
said Jimmy, with a mock ceremoniousness. Well, don’t tell Joe Ceravolo
because I want to tell him myself, and don’t tell Kenneth, either, because you know how
    he takes these things, but they are here from Holland to make a movie about me. Can you     believe it? Oh my God, Frank, squealed James Schuyler,
I can’t believe it, that is so fantastic, and even though I am a bit envious, I
    am happy, too, but please can’t I tell John Ashbery,
he’ll be thrilled, he loves everything Dutch, in fact he just won some prize, and he might
    go there, and I’ll tell him not to say a word to Kenneth Koch…
Joseph and Barbara exchanged quizzical looks. Jimmy, what the hell are you talking
    about, demanded Barbara Guest,

who was still standing there in the doorway holding her painting like some acoustic
    panel waiting for sound. Oh, Barbara, do be a good Guest
and come on in, said Jimmy, in his famous punning way, It’s Frank O’Hara,
and they’re making a movie about him, and it’s all in Dutch, O poor Kenneth Koch,
he’ll go mad like King George the Third, he’s always wanted to be translated into Dutch!
    Actually, interjected Joseph Ceravolo,
he’s just been translated into Swedish, by a countess from Minneapolis. A man shouldn’t
    complain… The sun went behind a small cloud. Barbara was absentmindedly running her     fingers across the inscription W.H. Auden had written for Jimmy in a first edition of     Some Trees, by John Ashbery,
it said: To my friend in Foetry and all other things, Mr. James Schuyler.

(signed) W.H. Auden. The sun came out again and gently burned the world.
    James Schuyler,
she said coyly, in a Katherine Hepburn kind of way, do you think he said Foetry on
    purpose, or is that just his handwriting? Barbara Guest,
said Jimmy, clearing his throat and replying in formal kind, I’ve tried to figure that one
    out myself, it seems almost like a pun, doesn’t it, and when I asked John Ashbery
himself, he got all distant and mysterious as a girl in a Vermeer, so I just don’t know. By
    this time, Frank O’Hara
was beginning to wonder what had happened to Jimmy, who had become so distracted by
    the conversation with Barbara he had simply forgotten about Frank, and because he was     on his lunch hour and had to meet Leroi Jones at the Automat, Frank decided to hang up.     Joseph Ceravolo
said, Um, Jimmy, you kind of left Frank hanging, didn’t you? Just then, Kenneth Koch,

still in his twenties (or so he claimed), came bounding up the stairs, crying out the names
    of northern European cities, the energy in and around him so electric, it looked like he     could take it off and put it back on, like clothes. It’s Kenneth Koch!
said Joseph. Hi Kenneth! said Barbara, it’s so nice to see you! Hello? Hello? Frank?
    Frank? said James Schuyler.
From my window I dropped a nickel by mistake, said Kenneth, looking fixedly at the
    floor and nearly shouting, so I raced down and found there on the street, instead, a     good friend, who says to me, in Dutch, Kenneth, do you have a minute? And I say,     Yes! I am in my twenties! I have plenty of time! And so he tells me he’s been     translating my poetry, and it’s going to be published! In Holland! Jimmy quickly     hung up the receiver and a look of absolute panic came down over his face. Joseph     Ceravolo
(for this was a gift he had as a person and as a poet) radically changed the subject with
    the swift and elegant authority of a guillotine: Well, Kenneth, that is so fantastic, and     even though we are a bit envious, we are happy, too. But look at this wonderful painting     Barbara Guest
has brought to show us… Kenneth looked up. You have TANGERINES in it, said
    Kenneth. And hey, by the way, he literally yelled, as he started to do jumping jacks at a     great velocity, What’s up with Frank O’Hara?
Wait until he hears about Holland! Last time I saw him he said he felt like he’d
    never write again! I’m writing a lot, though! So where’s he been? Huh?
Uh,
    said Jimmy, he’s, uh, been editing a new, um, sestina… full of, you know, cartoon     characters… by John Ashbery…

Kenneth Koch’s eyes got big as pool balls. A sestina? A sestina by the poet of “The
    Tennis Court Oath,” John Ashbery?

Yes, said James Schuyler, nervously lighting a Gaulois, uh, W.H. Auden suggested he try
    one… I think… Just then, the phone rang again. Joseph Ceravolo, who was nearest the     death-black machine, answered. Hi Joseph, the pleasant voice said. Was that Kenneth I     heard shouting right before I hung up? (It was Frank O’Hara!)
Ah, hi, uh, no, no, there is no, ah, Olivia Oyl who lives here. Sorry. Goodbye. Click.
    The backs of all the chairs were turned towards the sun, and then Kenneth, past his     seventieth jumping jack, started to get this feeling of exaltation. And! But!
    he yelled. He yelled so loud, it was as if the conjunctions could couple, like in the form of      a centaur, the living to the dead. Now wait a second, they asked for Olivia Oyl? I mean,     you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, said Barbara Guest.

Into the Heat-Forged Air

Far from the Rappahannock, the silent Danube moves along toward the sea.
–John Ashbery

Far from the Pirin, the pointy Appenines plummet toward the sea.
The grey and mauve Virungas undulate pleasantly, much like
The Darlings in their slumber. Chuckling nomads make lean-tos
Within the Schwatka. Troop carriers rust their wheels
On the Taurus, and jackals roam
The Toba Kakar. The Sentinel Range is white with
Dust, as are the peaks of the Ahaggar, covered in
Dust. The Tibetsi are grey and dry as bone.
The Sierra Madre is neither sentient nor unsentient.
Whilst the Titiwangsa appear to walk in the sky, the Verkhoyansk
Splash about in the sea. The Mackenzies are phlegmatic,
Almost diffident beneath their weathers.
Eons have crosshatched the Silvretta Alps,
Pure porphyry. Ophitic basalt predominates
In the Aberdare; its radiating crystals of feldspar recall
Dandelions in seed. Not so the Hafner Group, whose pure
Slate is uniform and dark. Slowly, the Koryak
Crash into the Kurai. The grave and dry Drakensbergs
Couldn’t give a darn what anyone thinks, but
The Glarus crackle companionably in the sun. Bombers draw
Vapor circles over the Lesser Khingan. People die of thirst,
Fleeing over the unforgiving Rockies.
The Pegunungan have never been climbed,
Sheer and crumbly their needle peaks.
The Bergamo Alps are sheathed in mist. The Massif Central
Is imposing from afar, but palm-fringed are its valleys.
The Kunlun are huge. The Glockner Group tilts
Forward and laughs, like a girl at an angle, held up
By a gale, while the Rieserferner Group is one of
The shortest ranges of the world,
Likewise the tiny Angokel.
Still, the Sistema Penibetico goes on forever.
The Rhaetian Alps eat climbers like candy,
Yet the Cherangany are mild. In the Brooks Range, ferns
And cairns become abundant; giant sloths are joyous on the
Plessur. The Ratikon is all hollow, a carapace of slate.
The Wetterstein has a ruined tavern half-way up. If there is a
Geological example of neurosis it is the Brenta Group. Not so
Its neighbor, the Karawanken, serene and languorous in its smooth
Rock skin. Strangely, the Dolomites are made of limestone,
As are the Ortlers. Migrants trek down the Cottians, carrying
Torches. The Mont Blanc Group is famous; the Cairngorms are
Covered in primeval pine. The Caucasus are stern and dark.
The Carpathians span five countries, all once members of the
Warsaw Pact, but the Juna are smothered in crows and the roaring of
Caws. The Pyrenees are sullen, aloof, though this
Is all part of their insouciant charm. Even as the Altay turn to mud,
Night envelops the Nulatos. Chinamen jump with a thump
On the Jotunheimen, while the Sierra Morena blushes
In the evening, powdering its breasts with cloud. The Svecoffenides
Are lugubrious, a lure for poets. The Table Mountains are flat,
Awash in runic trash. No one can believe the Golden Mountains.
But the Stone Mountains are airy, made of chalk, tunneled and
Hollowed out like Swiss cheese. The Bystrzyckie Mountains are
Unknown, devoid of life, while the Urals are vast and crisscrossed
By capillaries of gold. The Vosges, avant-garde of ranges, has not
Much changed since the invention of photography. The Appalachians
Are growing smaller by the day. The Wicklow Mountains were once
A redoubt of the IRA; now they are mottled with ocotillo and
Mesquite. The Endless Mountains end abruptly on the outskirts
Of Harrisburg. Meth labs crumble like sandcastles in the Green
Mountains. Adult stores are buried under strata in the Smoky
Mountains. The White Mountains are full of wind. The East
Catches the light; the Rubies have knife-like ridges.
The Shoshone Range loves to whisper its name on the wind, and
True to its name, the Snake Range is full of them. The Toiyabe Range
Bakes its rocks under the superheated sun. The Endicott Mountains
Release their small snows, teasing the streams. More children are lost
In the Black Hills than any other range; at least half are found years
Later, in the shadows of the Punamints, mendicants with no
Memory of their pasts. The Anti-Lebanon is covered with checkpoints,
But not so the Otztals. The Tian Shan are so trodden, whole areas
Are like sponge; still, the Tatras are slick and hard. Deer bed down
In the Elburz with the lion. From above, the Hindu Kush look like
Sutures, raised and purple, along a thigh. Snowcranes turn to ice
On the Hida, blown upward by massive drafts; they fall like toys,
On the hot stones. Sunnis squat in caves in the Safed Koh; in every cave
A little cage, and in every cage a sparrow from the Alleghenies. Prayer
Wheels make clacking sounds in the Western Ghats. Strange concussions
Are heard deep inside the Zangezurs, though no one knows why.
The Vindhya Range is mute, intractable, along the spine of India:
How does consciousness arise? The Cordillera Darwin swarms
With thistles and ferns. Black helicopters fly over the Cordillera Negra,
Never to be seen again. The Cordillera de Lipez is hollow, its rock
Thin as eggshell. The Cordillera de Sarmiento is a block of stone.
The Sierra Ventana is covered in dust; it blinds those who would seek
Meaning in form. The Cordillera Pelada is covered in blue dust.
The Parcell Mountains are taut as a bass string, even when covered in dust.
UFO’s hover over the Sandias. The Sierra Nevada is sprinkled with corpses,
Turned to quartz, while the Torngats have Sasquatch, otherwise known
As Bigfoot. The Superstitions are dotted with radio dishes, but tiny elk
Rut in the Kigluaiks. The Eje Transversal has nothing to say. The Anvil
Range smells like wild cabbage or fennel, and the Glenyon Range does
Too, though more subtly. The Bitterroot puckers its lips
In the rain, and the Cabinets hold many wonders. The Gallatin Range
Is lousy with moles; the Garnet, its sister, is 90% iron. The mountains
Are indifferent to our yearnings, our joys, and our sorrows.
The John Long Mountains look like a boy praying toward Mecca;
Bats prowl their starry skies. The Castle Mountains have
Been reduced to conglomerate clods of granite and chert,
A hilarious hulk of hubris. The Klamaths are retiring
And diffident, but no less noble for that. Great howling
Armies clash in the Ouachitas, but the Nadaleen Range
Is encased in dust. The Ozarks are conflicted between
Tradition and modernity, though the Chilkat Range
Is a lizard’s dream. People climb the ten thousand paths
Of the Himalaya, seeking who knows what. On the Schober Group,
Lava flows upward and downward. The Niedere Tauern
Just sits there; no one knows its true nature. Amazingly,
The Lepontine Alps run upward and downward and in all directions.
After entering the Sumava, it is said not a single person meets another,
For there is only the activity of the Sumava.
Hands are pressed to cave walls deep inside the Anti-Atlas.
The Granatspitz are puny next to the Thurnwalds.
The Montes Rook, towering and hermetic,
Form the smiling mouth of the frozen Moon.

[Kent Johnson, La Paz, Bolivia, photo by Forrest Gander]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kent Johnson is author, translator, or editor of more than 20 books in some relation to poetry, including his most recent, A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara, Starcherone/Dzanc Books (2nd Ed.) He lives in Freeport, Illinois.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012.