The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

All Issues
SEPT 2017 Issue

from The Ashbery Riff-Offs


—where each poem begins with 1 or 1–2 lines from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery




Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Vision

In the climate of sighs flung across our world
a cloth over a birdcage may be premature
Better to stuff afternoons with muscular horses
galloping at paces as easy as sunlight. An
education also surfaces with the scent of
grass: it’s most pleasing when freshly-cut, thus
revealing something about the effect of time
as dilution, and how suffering might be borne
willingly, if not welcomed. When the path of
grass-cutting blades interrupt the somnolence
of ducks, enjoy glimpses into someone’s Heaven
with the sheen of rainbow-colored jewels revealed
by opened wings as they take flight, perhaps
an experience to encourage: as regards doom
do believe alternatives exist if one opts for sight




Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: 1.6 × 10^-35 Meters

To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate
its mapped space to enactments, island it—
so the artist concluded after a prolonged
analysis through a microscope. Yet
it was not the microscopic focus that
flared “Ah ha!” over her head capped
by hair flattened from the oily sweat of her
toil. Light flared after she pulled back
from peering at nano viruses, rolled her
head to ease the tightness of her neck
and caught her reflection on a wall mirror
to conclude, “This is not the life I dreamt
of when I was a girl tickling the whiskers
of catfish after waters receded in the
Mississippi.” Thus, she went fishing
As she sat on the riverbank waiting for
a tug on her line, she anticipated her
future paintings to be the opposite of
realism. Later, while fish fried over
her campsite fire, she meticulously
put small bullets of paint upon the top
edge of a small canvas propped up
on a portable easel. As she ate her fish
simply fried with olive oil, sliced onions
salt and pepper, she watched gravity
elongate the paint balls down into
lines of fragmented marks on canvas
She was moved to transcend color
to recall white pages on red scrolls:
Hello Bai Ju Yi, Du Fu, Fang Zhong
Yan, He Zhi, Li Bai, Su Shi, Qang Lin
Yong Wan Li, Zhao Yi, Zhu Ge Liang

The artist nodded at her conclusion as
she savored her meal, thinking of
the “Planck length—” the line before
things cease becoming measurable
In such a space, she thinks, Poetry
becomes the logical conclusion—
considering her meal, she also thought
the fish’s legacy would have benefited
from thyme. In her future, she would
stumble across a Food Network
recipe positing, “For catfish, there
can never be too much thyme.”




Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Aura

But as the principle of each individual thing is
hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
we find it difficult to write a new poem after
inscribing the calendar with “FRIDAY, 8 a.m.—
Pump out the septic tank.” We don’t want to
open the window overlooking beds of roses
and sniff sewage. But neither did we want to
write a poem compelling you to wrinkle your nose
because to be human is to poop. It was by trying
to avoid this poem that my research led me
to discover a type of epileptic seizure—called
“Aura,” it begins with the scent of rotten eggs
Ah: so swiftly does the moon slip behind a cloud!




Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Earned Caviar

In the present we are always escaping from
and falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
might sputter but continues to roll, continues…
The dogs are grateful for the salmon trapped
by your fishwheel still circling itself on the Yukon
—they know you cannot feed them otherwise
which is to say, one of love’s advantages is
empowering us to behave larger than we are
so that, unexpectedly by not just our childhood
abusers but by ourselves, we can go outside
our inheritance and actually feed someone
else. Thus, it is right for those fishing to cut
into the pink flesh and see a basket of eggs—
labor deserves more than its own reward
As for the gleaming pink pearls, they need
nothing else but their welcome brine exploding
against your tongue, causing you to raise your
face against a light suddenly so bright it paints
gold leaf against sky’s blue ceiling. You are
forgiven for actually expecting God to appear




Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Euphemisms For Mortality

And swerving easily away, as though to protect
what it advertises, the gaze bypasses the age
of beams and leaded panes—no one wishes
to look at the old unless they can be elevated
by euphemisms. Say, “antique.” Say, “powerful.”
Say, “billionaire.” Say, “convex” for widening
the gaze when focus means the revelation of
mortality. You wake up one morning and, unlike
yesterday, the hand is spotted with dark spots
the jowls hang, the breath catches on the third
step, and the prodigal child is at the door
with hand stretched for any inheritance. From
that point onward, everything you muster on
the piano shall be nostalgic and poignant. For
novels, you return to the Russians—at least
they live again when your trembling fingers
open their books. But you suspect no one will
read you, and you professed your entire life
that you are a poet. Damnation: I am a poet




Eileen Tabios

Eileen R. Tabios practices transnational poetics by, in 2017, releasing a poetry collection each in the U.S., England, Romania and France. More information is available at


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

All Issues