Robert Ashley, The Backyard

Transcription of the words from Robert Ashley’s ‘The Backyard’, side 2 of Private Parts, released on Lovely Music, 1978. The piece, with minor alterations, later became part of Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives. Lifted wholesale from MandrewB’s tumblr.

The Backyard by Robert Ashley

She makes a double life.
She makes two from one and one.
She makes a perfect system every day.
She makes it work.
She stands there in the doorway of her mother’s house
looking at the grass and sky and at where they meet,
never once thinking thoughts like
“It’s so like a line”,
or “the difference is so powerful”,
or “Which way shall I take to leave?”
My mind turns to my breath, one.
My mind watches my breath, two.
My mind turns and watches my breath, three.
My mind turns and faces my breath, four.
My mind faces my breath, five.
My mind studies my breath, six.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath, seven.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself, eight
My mind sees every part of my breath, nine.
My breath is not indifferent to itself, ten.
She never thinks of possibility
or of how probable it is that they have come together.
Those thoughts never enter her mind.
Nor do thoughts of sports.
She has no desire to improve her muscles.
For her, piano playing is the only mystery.
It’s so beautiful, and how they do it no-one knows.
She gets catalogues of every sort in the mail.
Everything imaginable is pictured.
She finds her way among the pictures without hesitation.
She is not afraid of happiness.
She is entirely without shame.
The numbers are made of rubber or something like that.
They stretch.
They never lose their shape.
They are ageless.
They don’t need repair.
They need attention and respect.
She thinks about two things that I know of.
One is elevation and that comes clothed in light, so to speak.
She loathes the dark.
She sleeps in light.
She likes highness.
Four thousand one hundred twenty-eight feet here.
Four thousand two hundred eighteen feet there.
And the body of the house itself.
Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents here.
Forty-eight dollars and twelve cents there.
The other is proportions.
Coincidence isn’t a mystery to her.
The margin’s always wide enough.
Forty-two or forty with twenty is always sixty-two or sixty.
And I mean forty-two with twenty can be sixty as well as sixty-two.
And the other way around.
Just as ten and twenty can be thirty-two or thirty
Or twelve and twenty can be thirty.
She stands there in the doorway of her mother’s house
and thinks these thoughts.
That fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more at attractive than fourteen dollars because of the twenty-eight.
No-one likes or dislikes zeros.
And that forty-two or forty is fixed in some way.
She thinks about her father’s age.
She does the calculation one more time.
She remembers sixty-two.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
She remembers forty-two.
“Remembers” is the wrong word.
She dwells on forty-two.
She turns and faces it.
She watches.
She studies it.
It is the key.
The mystery of the balances is there.
The Masonic secret lies there.
The church forbids its angels entry there.
The gypsies camp there.
Blood is exchanged there.
Mothers weep there.
It is night there.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
That number translates now to then.
That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.
That simple notion, a coincidence among coincidences is all one
needs to know.
My mind turns to my breath.
My mind watches my breath.
My mind turns and watches my breath.
My mind turns and faces my breath.
My mind faces my breath.
My mind studies my breath.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself.
My mind sees every part of my breath.
My breath is not indifferent to itself.
She waked at ten.
She remembers ten.
She left the dark at ten.
She waked in light.
So forty-two or forty or forty-four is fixed.
Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars.
It’s just that way.
The firmness of it is a consolation.

Three men had loved her.
One a decade on the average.
Uncertainties are wrong.
In this scene there is one shot.
Giordano Bruno comes to mind, whoever he is.
She is in the doorway of her mother’s house.
She faces south.
We see it two ways.
First is the house behind her and the great Northern constellations.
She looks away from difference and discrepancy.
Magnetic north, true north, the north star path…
It’s too like the calculations.
Except that ten and forty-two are fixed together.
We are looking west.
She is on the right edge of the shot.
She is Earth.
We are the sun.
People are gathered in the backyard.
This is the celebration of the changing of the light.
They do it as often as they can in summer.
They come to talk.
They pass the time.
They sooth their thoughts with lemonade.
They say things like:
“She never had a stitch that she could call her own, poor thing”.
And, “Carl’s still president over at the bank, ain’t he?”
And, “Now if I was doing it…”
And, “She didn’t cook much, never really had the time, you know”.
And, “I wouldn’t say that, not at all”.
They are the planets in this scheme of things.
Giordano Bruno’s shot.
The problem is the arc.
The changing angle of the shot.
It defies geometry.
The drawings of a geocentric solar system, when we meet them in the books, make us avert our eyes.
Heresy is heresy.
We make one great, weird curve from the east edge of the backyard,
looking west –
She is on the right edge of the shot –
across, following the equator of the backyard, to the west edge,
looking east.
Now she is on the left edge.
At some point, midway, we face,
both looking at the center.
The center is between us.
Except that for the purpose of the shot, or in the interests of economy,
she doesn’t move.
She is standing in the doorway of her mother’s house.
The doorway to the back porch.
The backyard is the south.
Behind her the great northern constellation rises in the majesty
of its architecture.
Well, maybe that’s a little too much.
Let’s just say that contradictions are behind her.
And in the backyard, god, this set of circumstances
that is indescribable with our geometry.
A picnic of sorts.
A celebration of the changing of the light.
And we glide through that chaos, facing her,
watching her,
studying her.
Not circling her, remember.
Circling, but not circling her.
She is circling.
We are circling.
Now she is on the left edge.
Caught still in her accounting of those three decades silently.
She is so beautiful.
A pre-industrial equation.
God, this is sentimental.
This is the hour of the mystery of the barn swallows.
One, where do they go in daytime?
Two, do they never rest?
Three, when you buy them in the store, made in China, on the end of strings
they do exactly what they do alive.
Four, how is that possible?
The idea of the changing center is not in anything we make.
Our toys run down.
On the other hand, of course, the Chinese are said to not take pictures.
At least not of the outside.
Six of one, two times three of one, five plus one of one,
nine minus three of one, half a dozen of another.
It would be perfect if, as we made the great curve
through the heavens of the backyard,
providentially or accidentally, depending on
your point of view, each of the planets would move exactly
in the path and at the speed and with the purpose
of the expression of the other idea.
Maybe that’s too much to wish.

Giordano Bruno.
I think they burned him.
He was too positive.
Fight fire with fire.
In this shot he is wrong about the larger order, whatever that means.
There is just the sun and earth and some center that they share.
All other facts in this heaven,
One has climbed a tree,
Two are eating watermelon,
One always says it’s getting late,
One succeeded at the plant,
One works at the bank,
The specialists.
They are just straight lines seen wrong.
Sundown, one, the time it disappears.
Gloaming, two, the twilight, dusk.
Crepuscule, the twilight, three, the half-light.
Twilight, four, pale purplish blue to pale violet, lighter than dusk blue.
Civil twilight, until the sun is up to six degrees below horizon
enough light on clear days for ordinary occupations.
Nautical twilight, until the sun is up to twelve degrees below horizon.
Astronomical twilight, until the sun is eighteen degrees down,
more or less.
Clair de lune, five, greener and paler than dusk.
Dusk, six, redder and darker than clair de lune.
Dear George,
What’s going on?
I’m not the same person that I used to be.

Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

During the last set he became doubly alive because the saxophone player, who had been way out all night, took off on a terrific solo. He was a kid of about the same age as Rufus, from some insane place like Jersey City or Syracuse, but somewhere along the line he had discovered he could say it with a saxophone. He had a lot to say. He stood there, wide-legged, humping the air, filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And, again, Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? This, anyway, was the question Rufus heard, the same phrase, unbearably, endlessly, and variously repeated, with all of the force the boy had. The silence of the listeners became strict with abruptly focused attention, cigarettes were unlit, and drinks stayed on tables; and in all of the faces, even the most ruined and most dull, a curious, wary light appeared. They were being assaulted by the saxophonist who perhaps no longer wanted their love and merely hurled his outrage at them with the same contemptuous, pagan pride with which he humped the air. And yet the question was terrible and real; the boy was blowing with his lungs and guts out of his own short past; somewhere in that past, in the gutters or gang fights or gang shags; in the acrid room, on the sperm-stiffened blanket, behind marijuana or the needle, under the smell of piss in the precinct basement, he had received the blow from which he would never recover and this no one wanted to believe. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? The men on the stand stayed with him, cool and at a little distance, adding and questioning and corroborating, holding it down as well as they could with an ironical self-mockery; but each man knew that the boy was blowing for every one of them.

James Baldwin, Another Country