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on John Ashbery

by Rod Mengham

John Ashbery, A Worldly Country (Carcanet, 2007) ISBN 978-1-857-54919-5, 82pp, £9.95 (pb)

The early work of John Ashbery often has a mood of lateness; the middle period enters an atmosphere of even-later-than-you-think; while the late books—including this one—turn the corner into much-too-late-altogether. However, the mood in some of the most recent poems sticks tenaciously to particular histories, political, cultural, personal, and less often to a general condition attributed sometimes vaguely to the first person plural:

My mind occupied by something,
I notice shoals of dry leaves
rattled by the wind, upsurging
like a dog that’s starting to lie down,
and a voice like that of my mother says,
“Then you’ll just have to learn
to do without it. The leaves are shells.”

As the rest of the poem makes clear (this is the first verse of ‘Promenade’) the first person singular in question has spent a lifetime not learning to do without, has persisted with the pursuit of dreams and desires, where even the dessicated remains of past performance can be stirred into new life, so that decline looks like revival, and nothing is simply one thing, but always has the potential for a double life; where a passing conceit has as much power to distract, and as much authority, as the memory of a mother’s inhibitions. ‘Promenade’ is actually about sitting still (“And how can I care if this broad chair / is made of monotony”) while the mind, like a restive dog, echoes Paul Klee in taking a line for a walk—one line after another—during “any day” when the smells and the “jabbering” are enough to divide the attention into the imagining of alternative lives:

though quiet will adhere
to the reverse side, make its prerogatives known
another day, same day.

The idea that every day is simultaneously another day, that every set of circumstances has both obverse and reverse sides, is projected over an entire career, predicated on “how a door holds sway / over one’s long life”.

This turns every poem into both ode and palinode, statement and recantation, a possibility that is spelled out in ‘America the Lovely’, a poem that parenthesises an entire writing career: “Believe the nights are bleak now, / though perhaps no more than our earliest attempts / at love poetry in a house across the street.” If poetry has travelled little further than in ‘Promenade’—just across the street—this does not prevent it from spanning the entire history of colonial American culture, in terms of the simultaneous pursuit and abandonment of its founding dreams. It seems that both the poet and his national culture share this janus-faced condition: “The glittering, the of-two-minds / pause to share a winter pear and notes on decomposition / glued to the door of the fridge.” A winter pear is something out of its time, a fruit whose state of maturity has been delayed, although the evading of decomposition does not always work, as the rather more permanent notice glued to the fridge reminds us. Holding on to certain ideas and values past their sell-by date can be to hide away their actual state of decomposition. The manipulation of the usual cycles of growth and decay has a denaturing effect on those who compose notes on decomposition, those whose “hearing” is charmed by palinodes. The speaker considers himself “denatured” in the third line of the poem, but anticipates the replacement of deviated conventions by “new strictures” at the end. The only problem with these is that they are arriving “betimes”: too early or too late, American cultural models are never seasonable. The whole poem has a palinodic structure: the first verse posits a creation myth, when a hissing black fairy awards loveliness to America as an act of spite; the second verse corrects this with an account of “the real thing”; while a final single line (“Then it too went away”) dismisses this reality as being no more valid than the fantasy, clearly implying the need for the constant re-imagining of the national destiny, a disjunctive history, a culture of real alternatives.

But the final poem in the collection, ‘Singalong’, has a palinodic structure that almost reverses the thrust of ‘America the Lovely.’ It starts tersely with a refusal to be unimaginative, declining to “accept the easy way, the one / that’s offered”, adding a caustic note to the effect that easiness is deceptive: “It has to be hard / to have brought us this far.” Just singing along to a familiar tune is like wearing an aural blindfold. But the second verse forfeits the direct address to the second person, reverting in singalong fashion to the complicities of the first person plural, which warms to the task of conforming to type:

Any time soon
we’ll manage to build barns,
paint, lock the padlocks, waive anything
dire. That way, we think, it will keep
for us and for a while. Other
than that we sleep, nod
like reeds at the edge of a pond.
Those places left unplanted will be cultivated
by another, by others. Looking back it
will seem good. The majestic verandah.
All the ships numbered.
The hedges grazed
like autumn, or a blight,
like fruit.

This is Ashbery at his most economical and subtle; the last few lines in particular are almost breathtakingly understated, although the whole verse achieves an extraordinary composure through the concealment of seismic shifts. It probes unerringly the American genius for reliving the founding myths in every small act of reclamation from the New England wilderness; every retired man who paints the old barn and keeps out the trespassers is renewing the spirit of the pioneers, while the amount of unused land guarantees the status quo for several generations. This personal contract with the dead is at the base of a self-satisfied culture—makes complacency come too easily—and seems to give its acts of creation a divine sanction (“Looking back it will seem good”). This makes the justification for military adventures almost irresistible, and even unremarkable-the poem’s quiet allusion to the Iliad’s catalogue of the ships turns imperialism into just another routine. But the coup de grace that converts all this husbandry into the cultivating of self-deception is the small, nagging qualification, almost an afterthought, that suspects autumn of harbouring blight. As with ‘America the Lovely’, it is the spectre of rotting fruit that haunts the garden of this “worldly” country whose particular variety of felix culpa affects the entire world.

The title poem is a very strange text, reminiscent of Auden with its urbane menace, its doggerel rhythms enfolded neatly by rhyming couplets, and its suspicion that peace can be more deadly than war. The only point in the poem where the pattern of couplets breaks down underlines the need for self-examination:

As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.

The catastrophe that has overtaken this “worldly country” has attributes both of disasters that have already taken place, and of those still anticipated, both rubble and inundation. Even to question what has happened and why is to be rebellious, in a poem whose form insists on orderliness even when this is to forfeit smoothness. ‘Hellishness’ is actually linked to order, to organization in ranks and, earlier in the poem, to a “great parade” that unites all social ranks and “floods” everything, identifying the source of this culture’s destruction in its own triumphalism. As in ‘Singalong’, what really guarantees peace is sleep, a narcotized willingness to be subdued that is needed to “offset the great ungluing”. Remembering how information about decomposition is glued to the fridge in another poem, we might consider how ungluing, or the reversing of composition, is implied by the unbalanced couplets and excessive syllable counts of this poem, whose awkward interrogative starts the process of unpicking its symmetries. The later it gets, the greater it seems is Ashbery’s willingness to rescind everything and imagine the alternatives, even perhaps “the chances / one wasn’t offered”: the oeuvre, the culture, the history that lie on the other side of retraction, making their prerogatives known.