Local Legend


Arriving late at the opera one night
I ran into Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum hastening down the marble stair,
swan-like. “I wouldn’t bother if I was you,” he confided.
“It’s a Verdi work written before he was born.
True, his version of the Faust legend is unique:
Faust tempts Mephistopheles to come up with something
besides the same old shit. Finally, at his wit’s end, the devil
urges Valentine to take his place, promising him big rewards
this side of Old Smoky. Then, wouldn’t you know, Gretchen gets involved.
They decide to make it into a harassment case. No sooner
does Faust hit the street than the breeze waffles his brow,
he can’t say where he came from, or if he ever had a youth
to be tempted back into.”
The bats arrived. It was their moment.
Twenty million bats fly out of an astonishingly low culvert
every night, in season. I kid you not. After a cursory swoop
or two, they all fly back in. It all happens in a matter of
minutes, seconds, almost. Which reminds me, have you chosen your second?
Mephisto wants you to use this foil. It works better.
No, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Hours later I stood with the good doctor
in a snow-encrusted orchard. He urged the value
of mustard plasters on me. “See, it makes sense.”
Yet we both knew they are poisonous in some climates,
though only if taken in minute quantities.

See you again, old thing.

from Chinese Whispers (Carcanet, 2002) © John Ashbery 2002, used by permission of the author.

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