Eileen R. Tabios

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: The Optimist’s Ciphertext

The diagram still sketched on the wind
haunts, refuses evaporation so that
the world might be seen with more
clarity. Clarity, as lives of quiet
desperation imply, is untrustworthy: we
all know a hit-and-run driver who melted
into a suburb which has never shivered
from a siren. What we have is a friend-of
-a-friend professing a plan for a master
-piece “so eloquent the Vatican’s gnomes
will come knocking”—yet its rationale
relies on an acquaintance-of-an-acquaint
-ance dutifully memorizing Berlin “for
sympathizers” then Tahiti “for deliberate
dissonance” then Miami for “enforced
hermitry among those still faithful to high
heels.” All are required to open a steel vault
without releasing phosgene gas to reveal
the masterpiece that’s elevated all
encountered critics into collectors, so
seduced were they by the painting’s
denial of primary colors. I admit I can’t
fathom or perhaps picture, the charisma
of absent reds, yellows, and blues until
I realize they are the colors found
rippling across the flag of your birth
land that’s lapsed to a paltry figment
of imagination. How ironic, indeed, that
you dared to plan after embracing
orphanhood—an ambition that refuses
to be dispelled by wind, memory, or
scarlet lips fashioning a moue. You say
any diaspora teaches the futility of
skepticism. You emphasize, flags fall
down their steel poles everyday yet
they continue to lead spies into lost
evenings with shot glasses. I get it: to
second-guess the blueprints that
created this safe house is pointless—
it provides, for now, the only roof under
which we can safely open, heat, and eat
from cans of stewed beef well before
their expiration dates. Before continuing
to plot, we need fuel. Shall we dine?

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