Continuing (deuxième fois) the New York School tradition of recouping the fugitive—for use—I’m thinking of Ted Berrigan’s reprinting of John Ashbery’s Semi-Colon-printed “Hoboken” in C: A Magazine of Poetry No. 10 (1965) and Peter Schjeldahl’s reprinting of Ashbery’s play “The Coconut Milk”—it, too, originally seeing print in the ephemeral Semi-Colon—in Mother: A Journal of New Literature No. 7 (1966).* “Copy of a Copy” (1963) work, what Ashbery himself called “a kind of activity that leaves / No room for anything but whispers . . .” Schjeldahl’s note regarding the source of “The Coconut Milk” reads: “two 1955 issues of Semi-Colon”—David Kermani’s, in John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1976), with its “([1956?]),” points to the difficulty of dating with certainty any of the John Bernard Myers-edited Semi-Colon sheets. Here’s the Ashbery piece (copied out of Mother):
The Coconut MilkA few notes. Some kind of “bottom” surely provided by wry surrealist antics (“all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them”), what surely ought to be “amenable” after nearly six decades of Ashbery & Co.’s use of such. What, though, remains, refreshingly, somewhat intractable: “And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach.” So we note echoes, preambles, moot assailable pertinences, what any reading delivers. Is there a tiny cockeyed mocking of Eliot, a likely target (“All day I have swung. / Is it an armored pantheon? / Is it for good? No, I am old.”)? Is there a little quasi-existentialist gibbering (in lieu of) profundity (“The days do not fit around the space they were intended for.”)? (Or something of a campy Huis Clos atmosphere to the recklessness of the proceedings, borne along with syntactical malarkey, logic’s trapdoors sprung open—or shut: “Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.”?) Too, there’s Ashbery’s tremendous ear for the demotic, the way we humans must needs Hoover up the idiomatic against the ineffable void (I must be thinking here of the O’Hara lines: “To be idiomatic in a vacuum, / it is a shining thing!”), so: “some other bug will bite you” or “now to bottle my speech and sell it.” (Isn’t Cora’s remark, “We spoke with our ears,” ref and testimonial to one of Ashbery’s own modi operandi?) “Coconut milk”—at once a kind of MacGuffin (“You have heard of the coconut milk and / How it induces those who live near it.”) and somehow reminiscent of somebody like “Little Buttercup” out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore: “I’m called Little Buttercup, dear Little Buttercup, / Though I could never tell why . . . I’ve treacle and toffee, I’ve tea and I’ve coffee, / Soft tommy and succulent chops . . .” &c. Coconut Milk, too, sings and implores: “Often you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.” Years and fun. If the clouds in the mock-allegorical talking landscape (that, too, of a silent film—the only place one encounters “Mounties”) of “The Coconut Milk” announce “We’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes”—a poem called “Viewers Will Recall” in Ashbery’s Quick Question (2012) begins, “We gathered the threads into an equation.” And ends with a warning: “Stop it, you’re listening to me.” (So the sly defiance of anything beyond its own constructedness: Rockshaw: “Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page. / I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten.”)
Scene I. Mountie headquarters. Lieutenant Roger Scott and Cora, a beautiful spy, are kissing and feeling each other. Captain Rockshaw is seated at a desk.
ScottAre string beans tasteless?
CoraNot one to save ivy, are you?
ScottWhy not? Let’s dance.
CoraWe’ll not get far in this glow.
ScottI’m all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them. I’d like to fly too, but I can’t. Besides, this isn’t a hostile hospital. Look at that wallpaper.
RockshawYou must find out who last had the coconut milk,
Save these moments till next year.
ScottHey! Don’t scream. I could radish you but these whiskers would kinda get in the way. Be careful of the Big Wig. And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach. Don’t asterisk him to nozzle before the lipstick comes off on the coconut ice cream tray. You know the ways these traitors stand in need of your five library books. The cautious desert rats. Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.
RockshawYou have heard of the coconut milk and
How it induces those who live near it.
ScottThere’s no use imagining things are always as wonderful as they are right now. They are always hammering. They are always hammering at us.
RockshawPlease go. Take whatever you need and get out of my sight.
(A storm demolishes the building. They are outside in the snow.)
ScottI guess my nickel-plated didacticism didn’t do too badly, eh?
CoraDarling, you’re too eager. You’ve got to leave these politicians time for lunch. Some day you may be better off than they, though out in the cold. Promise me to quit next time.
ScottTheir droppings are shit. I’ll eat it.
RockshawDoors are banging inside me.
All day I have swung.
Is it an armored pantheon?
Is it for good? No, I am old. Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page.
I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten. I would like a bag of plums.
Manhattan extra. A job on the rococo porch. The heart that eats dead nuts.
See, here it comes withering. Extraordinary for a taxman. And I thought him so
The sky light, the Hollywood sails wither like an arm.
Another finicky notion dispossessed.
Well, now to bottle my speech and sell it.
CoraOh, dear! I can’t pay either!
ScottI cared for you, carrot. Why has he turned over?
Scene II. A tulip bed in Holland, Michigan.
LouiseI’ll douse these warblers with galoshes and then—it’s off to the ferns!
Johnny AppleseedDo you have a kind song for a near tidbit like me, Master Old Lady?
LouiseI recognize you, Appleseed. Tell me, Johnny, what are you doing in this territory? I thought apple roaming was more your specialty.
AppleseedFor decades I roved the central and Oscar states exploding the apple. Gray twigs at times seemed to me a dark background. Twilit bears and stylish silhouettes of wolves posed personal problems. It was hard to outwit the shit. Often ants would come seeking my advice. I became known as The Grasshopper. Then it was winter, and I had no store to live in. For some reason there were apples on the trees, but these danced on the dark boughs far above me and would not come down. I, who had done so much with my lowly contraptions, slept between two rocks, relegated among the pigs, prigs, dried-up leaves, and other malcontents of the ground. Sometimes I would walk far into November in my bare feet. I was the first snowplow. My toes left bloody marks on the snow, redder than the apples I used to tease people with.
LouiseI remember you, Appleseed! You thought it a crime to kill any living thing. As a consequence, the birds devoured most of your seedlings. Even grafting was somehow wrong to you, thus your orchards yielded an inferior fruit, hard and pithy, poor in color, shape and size. It is doubtful whether any of them is still under cultivation.
AppleseedThen I take another path. Old factories, old toilets couldn’t buy my damp awareness. I look forward in joy and translucence.
LouisePerhaps some other bug will bite you.
AppleseedIt is madonnas of Japan.
(Coconut Milk enters.)
Coconut MilkSkiing past I noticed this station.
Is this the deserted entrance? For why
Have adults shorn the ground so low?
Oh well. I'll look back, and my thanks.
(She goes. They gaze after her.)
Scene III. A dark street. Scott and Lieutenant Raven enter.
ScottOver the billows of the North Sea
I have limped ably to near your hand.
RavenYou have no ticket but perhaps I do not care.
Three StarsWe are optimists!
RockshawYou must free the executioner.
(on a cloud)
RavenShunted we know not where.
ScottAre you a living English girl?
RavenThe days do not fit around the space they were intended for.
ScottWhy do you sit and moon?
RavenSurely no other has given so visibly of himself. I am like you, that’s why. Did your mother ever ask you where you’d gone?
ScottSo cool in the grove. (aloud) Hey you, remember the quizzical tents?
RavenSnarl it. I'm leaving. (He goes.)
ScottAlone in cool filth.
CloudsWe’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes.
ScottBetter to be asked back than to go corking, hat in hand, across the sandy ball. Or are they men? She’s asking for it. I’ll unleash every ounce of phantom and maybe by the time the barmaids get done chanting everything will be loose and I’ll be able to balk the Norman modes.
Still, I wonder will I ever be trampled? A disc flung clear of the sun, it smiles and is behind me. There’s no chance to be clean.
I’ll average and in some existing way take over the real, bad fun.
Scene IV. Bar at the Folies Bergère. There is deafening conversation.
First ManQuiet! Summer
On this wall painted with fox heads.
Second ManHas the Coconut Milk arrived yet?
Second ManFur heads! Who will do that act?
First ManShe may be the last one in, sir.
Second ManI don’t care for that. Get me the ship in the sea.
CoraWhew! Let me put down my bag on this stool. It’s been a gala day, a rag day. Goodness knew what bargains blew in the back stair when we sat tumbling. I thought of you. I thought you were a colored shape, only the color kept running away from the edges. I remembered a thing you said. It doesn’t matter since we’re all here. What does matter is that we are unlike ourselves.
RavenIt’s been a day of specialties. I campaigned against the honor of a can from two until three o’clock.
CoraThe odor! We must do something expensive. Like really sitting. I had planned a surprise.
RavenYour color couldn’t be faster.
CoraI meant as a kind of heaven.
RavenIt’s been a thirsty day, hasn’t it? But all troubles come to an end or some kind of difficulty. So you may turn out to be something, something hard to find. Am I your traitor? Kindly saw away from Father Time there. (Rockshaw walks by.)
RockshawI’m glad you are part of my table.
CoraI’d like something liquid and transparent.
RavenIn a moment the camera will be here.
Coconut MilkOften you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.
We spoke with our ears. “It’s the yearning, the unsure steps which tie us in knots.” The steps return. They make a lake of us. Someday men will come to untie the knots. Meantime we swoon on.
I’m serious, and I’m very angry. The fragile words, they creep out from the void, and they too have words leaner and more like men. Night has many stones to roll over the O’s. The time is ripe for ridiculous peaks.
Someday I will say this. Now I’m lying on my plateau. Morning to night photographers come. Hardy perennials have me off to Cythera to bathe in the light. I relax in my great lateness.
Exciting? Sure. But that not the only unlikely treat. Someday the hair will come . . . the ice . . . the rise . . . the great funny beast . . . (the light swings off). Let me explain!
AnnouncerSweet dream-people, that is all.
LouiseWas it all?
ScottWe’ll never know. Oh, have the artists asked you?
LouiseOh no. You see, I was to have been a bride-to-be.
CoraHave you thought of leaving? I have your gun. The tulips are about to fall anyway.