A Worldly Country by John Ashbery
At an athletics meet in Salamanca in 1993, Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor began his run up with a customary sprint that mellowed into half-a-dozen languid, bouncy strides. His best leap that afternoon was an improbable 2.45 metres bettering his own world record for the second time in six years. After almost a decade and a half, the record remains unbroken. Sotomayor's dominance of the event saw him clear 2.40 metres more often than anybody in the history of the sport. He remains the only person to ever clear eight feet. Throughout the nineties he regularly outclassed his opponents and even won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics, but never again would he match the giddy heights of that Spanish afternoon.
If poetry were an athletic discipline, American poet John Ashbery would have set his world records decades ago. W.H. Auden selected his second collection, the award winning Some Trees, for publication in 1956. More than twenty collections have followed, scooping just about every major poetry prize in the process. Ashbery retired from his day job as an art critic in the mid-1990's and, despite turning eighty this year, his prolificacy has but grown. A Worldly Country, his latest collection of fifty-eight lyrics, is his fifth of the century and while it may not be groundbreaking as his earlier landmark works (Some Trees, Houseboat Days and Self-Portrait in the Convex Mirror which alone scooped the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award), the poems in the new volume continue to fulfil. Just as sports fans revelled in Sotomayor's amazing leaps without mourning his inability to set a new world record, Ashbery's readers have been given more opportunities to be perplexed, serenaded and comforted anew.
Ashbery has always challenged readers and his critics have often used the apparent obscurity of his work to attack him. First readings can be exhilarating affairs, sweeping the reader up with their mastery of poetic conventions, flair for melopoeia and his always-surprising narrative turns. The speed of the poems, coupled with their apparent dissonance often makes for a bewildering read. Consider the opening stanza of 'The Black Prince':
It might be a footfall in the forest
or an outdated dispatch from the Mouse King,
saying, come back to the frontier, all is forgotten.
The reader must ponder, what is 'It'? A footfall, an outdated dispatch or something else entirely? Who is the Mouse King and what has been forgotten? And who, if anyone, is being implored to come back? But the questions are unanswerable. Mystery is crucial to Ashbery. This certainly pushes, what could be described as, the sensory aspect of Ashbery's work, the sound and the look of the poems, to the fore: 'His gestures made perfect sense/ when taken together.' 'Image Problem' describes the tension between a sensory reading and a close reading thus:
Some experts believe we return twice to what intrigued or
scared us, that to stay longer is to invite the egg
of deceit back to the nest. Still others aver
we are in it for what we get out of it, that it is wrong
not to play even when the stakes are spectacularly boring,
as they surely are today.
Ashbery doesn't align himself with either approach leaving us to conclude that while close reading makes a vital contribution to the discussion of poetics it may be futile as his work often seems indecipherable, and even attempting to do so may tarnish the sensory response to the poems.
This is not to say that A Worldly Country is entirely opaque. The most cursory flick through the collection reveals a number of recurrent themes. Befitting a poet in his eighties, there is a reflective tone that runs through many of the poems with several taking place in autumn, dry leaves often appearing and old friends are frequently remembered. That this reflection takes place against a background of accelerated change, where this month's social networking phenomenon is next month's cyber history, makes this collection unique.
Surprisingly, at least according to a widely held misconception of Ashbery, much of the collection is political. The cynically titled 'America the Lovely' enacts a mocking reversal of the Mayflower legend: “Was it for this we journeyed so far/ By prairie schooner from reassuring Pennsylvania?” While the title poem, perhaps the most overtly political, examines the gap between a public expectation of warfare and the reality of the contemporary asymmetric conflicts. Recasting the current Commander-in-Chief as 'Tweety Bird' the poem plays straight from the Pentagon's absurd playbook describing, 'the fresh troops that needed freshening up'. But this isn't a war where:
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
Instead it is a hyperreal war mimicking Baudrillard's famous assertion that the first Gulf War did not happen: 'If it occurred/ in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel/ that was OK too.' Asymmetric warfare, unlike its conventional counterpart, is characterised by the illusion of peace punctuated by random acts of violence: 'In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon/ By evening all was calm again.' The poet struggles to understand how the seductive certainties that marked the end of the Cold War have evaporated so quickly: 'As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing/ puzzled me: what had happened, and why?' Whatever has happened has been of our making:
So often it happens that the time we turn around in
Soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.
As with much of the collection, the final stanza offers a possibility of hope. If we can reach the shallow waters, then perhaps we can overcome our travails. This genuine sense of hope gives the collection a soothing quality. As 'On Seeing an Old Copy of Vogue on a Chair' reminds: 'Everything has a silver lining; it's a matter/ of turning it over and scrubbing some sense into it.'
It is also worth raising attention to the poetic vocabulary that has always been important to Ashbery. His work filters the contemporary patois producing an argot that thrives on the oddities of slang, slogans and jargon. Despite his advancing years this alchemical quality appears undimmed. A Worldly Country is a collection where Ovid appears in infomercials, celebs from Celebes (the Portugese name for Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia) put things right in the world and boy stare through skateboards at abandoned factories. His marriage of the contemporary to the poetics that have given him such exemplary service for more than half a century is remarkable.
All in all, it is not surprising that A Worldy Country appears so effortless, nor that it provides such an adroit commentary on our times. Ashbery is a peerless poet and his continued virtuosity can only reinforce the respect and status he won over half a century ago. It is this status that has made reviewing A Worldly Country such a perilous task. How is one to compare, or not compare, this collection to those that have preceded it? In 'Opposition to a Memorial' he wonders: 'Is this the time to tackle a major oeuvre?' Given the body of work behind him I might be inclined to say no. There are poems in the collection, 'The Handshake, the Kiss, the Cough', 'Imperfect Sympathies' and 'Of the 'East' Rivers Charms' for instance, that are amongst the best I have read this century even if they are not amongst Ashbery's very best. It is simply a measure of how high he has set his bar. We are just privileged to be sitting in the stands as he continues to leap for the heavens.