A Worldly Country by John Ashbery (written with Martin Earl)
“If you want to get beyond the same old pipings about John Ashbery, ie. difficulty, maddeningly beautiful language, the stream of consciousness of the demotic mind, etc., etc.,” Martin Earl e-mailed me, “you need to point out that Ashbery — about whom so much has been written that almost any said about his work sounds like quotation — today is an entirely remade poet, a different creature altogether from the Ashbery of the three big prizes and the MacArthur Fellowship, different from the essentially French poet staring wistfully into a convex mirror and describing the world as it recedes dizzily back from his head into some far vanishing point. The Ashbery of today is as altered from his earlier work as the late hardened Yeats from the early bubbling myth-flecked Yeats.”
Martin Earl’s enthusiastic sally seemed to me, as Ashbery writes in his new book, A Worldly Country, “less warning than appraisal.” I was thinking, in peaceably argumentative response however, that there are certainly “classic Ashbery” moves in the new book. Whacky rhymes and clichés calling up the 1950’s — “Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens/ and geese, who squawked like the very dickens” — outrageous apostrophes — “Quick, the mustache cup” — non sequitur transitions — “Another time I was at your house” — self-cannibalizing analogies — “upsurging/ like a dog that’s starting to lie down” — a mix of odd (“quodlibits”), academic (“other directed”) and pop (“Tweety Bird,”) references along with quick-change typographical revisions — “gloriously understaffed.// Make that notoriously understaffed.” There are also achingly lovely lyrical passages as often as not “crosshatched ... ripe with despair.”
And certainly there are, as there have been since Girls on the Run (1994), frequent nods to mortality, ye olde encroaching darkness. In fact, half the poems in A Worldly Country mention clocks or time, and many of their speakers wonder “What had happened and why” or how it could be that “I went out on some pretext and stayed twenty years,” why “Time’s aged frisson gets to me more and more,” and how “The wraparound flux we intuit as time has other claims on our inventiveness.” Perhaps the most touching consideration of a life’s temporal exigence comes in “The Binomial Theorem” when Ashbery asks us to:
Imagine that you can have this time any way it comes
easily, that a doctor wrote you a prescription
for savage joy and they say they can fill it
if you’ll wait a moment. What springs to mind?
But Martin was right, all in all. Ashbery’s work is still flexing new muscles. I was struck by a sudden inclination — rather haphazard, I admit — to fly to Portugal to meet Martin Earl so we could talk about Ashbery’s new book. Three hours later, I found myself in the middle of the crosswalk between the parking garage and the Providence airport. There, a mounted policeman gestured for me to step close. He bent down to speak. “I only wanted to suggest,” he began softly, “that the dividing line is without a doubt A Wave, which Ashbery published in 1984.”
“What?” I asked, incredulously.
He went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “This book, you’ll recall, came out two years after Ashbery nearly died of a spinal infection and the title poem addresses his illness more directly than he’d ever addressed his own life before. It was written as he was convalescing and there’s always just behind the lyrical veil a sense of ‘before and after.’ In the penultimate stanza, he writes:
I feel at peace with the parts of myself
That questioned this other, easygoing side, chafed it
To the knotted rope of guesswork looming out of storms
And darkness and proceeding on its way to nowhere
“It almost seems that this ‘other, easy going side’ is some kind of lost innocence which no longer provides a plausible platform of self-governance after such a close call, the near death experience, the submersion and surfacing: darkness, nowhere, and pain (from the poem’s very first line) are constant undercurrents. A Wave is when something started shifting internally, but not yet in terms of language. For that we really have to wait until books like April Galleons and Hotel Lautremont or the absolutely over the top Flow Chart, all works of transition, books in which, in different ways, the poet is reinventing himself, relearning his trade and, in the final analysis, discovering something he never quite realized existed: an American demotic.”
“Well,” I said, taking a step back, “demotic, maybe, but certainly filtered through shifting tones and parsed into quick aleatory phrasings, if you know what I mean.”
There was an adjustment in the appearance of the mounted policeman, as if an electrical charge rippled through him, and then he leaned down a bit closer. “This is the rub, really,” he went on, speaking faster and lower now, “if you compare the language of, say, ‘The Handshake, the Cough, the Kiss’ in the new book with some of the language in earlier classics like ‘The Skaters’ or ‘Litany,’ you’ll see that these are two different poets at work. The real question is what happened. If ‘A Wave,’ the poem itself, is Ashbery’s swan song to his earlier poetic identity, what kind of change was actually taking place? The way the book was framed is telling. It ends with ‘A Wave,’ which I think will be seen as the last great discursive lyric of his early meditative mode. And it starts with that heartrending sonnet ‘At North Farm’ which, besides being gorgeous, is a kind of homage, an imitation really, of the early Auden, the English Auden, and even the very early stuff of the English Auden — which is one of Ashbery’s first and, over the years, most executive sources of pure poetic joy. So the book almost represents a rounding out of his initial poetic manifestation, starting with Auden and ending with the French Ashbery, the Ashbery of Proust, Roussel, and de Chirico in his novel Hebdomeros. For me, Auden and France bracket A Wave and really say goodbye ‘to all that.’”
Cars were approaching, and I had to hurry to the other side of the crosswalk. When I glanced back, I saw that my interlocutor had not been a mounted policeman at all. By some reductive, metaphoric, and blanket error, I had mistaken a cloud of dust, whisked up by the May wind, for a man on horse. Even as I watched, baffled, and the apparition began to dissipate, a kind of twitch went through it again and the face of the policeman reappeared, eerily familiar — was it Martin Earl? — before it was blown apart forever by a herd of passing Toyotas.
At least, I thought to myself, quoting Ashbery from A Worldly Country, “I am in the thick/ of what I would rather be doing....” I caught the flight to Lisbon and as the plane took off, I was remembering my astonishment at how the final lines in some of Ashbery’s new poems utterly revised my readings of the poems. For instance, “One Evening, a Train” ends with the disjunctive, italicized couplet “I don’t know what her name is./ I don’t know her well.” The unanticipated implication of a character (“her”) sent me back into the poem, trying (impossibly) to recast it to accommodate the conclusion. Then I read forward and backward through the book, noticing how frequently the word “dream” appeared.
Next thing I knew, I could hear a voice behind me speaking excitedly as though to the person seated next to him. I couldn’t catch all of the words, but some of it made sense. “The existentialism of Self-Portrait, the Proustian cadences and constructivist attitude of earlier poems like ‘Into the Dusk-Charged Air,’ the pillared abstractions of ‘Litany’ with its almost perversely lucid antiphonal deliberations, all this belongs to the first half of Ashbery and it’s a poetry of exile, a poetry meant to mirror an idea of mind and a particular attitude towards sense-making. It’s as though Ashbery, in the first part of his life as a poet, which happened for the most part abroad, away from English, created a fusion between the philosophical voice of Coleridge and the discursive lyricism of Wordsworth of ‘The Prelude.’ Three Poems and then much later Flow Chart are actually the kinds of books — you only need to read a few pages of Biographica Literaria to see this — that Coleridge would have written if he had been Ashbery’s contemporary. This strain in Ashbery continued — the exiled voice, the wistful philosophical poet — for several years after he’d returned to the U.S. at the end of the sixties, another fifteen years to be precise, before it morphed into something entirely different. I think that the voice Ashbery created abroad, and the poetic identities which went along with it, stood him well for only so long, and that it took time and the inevitable disasters of life to undo his earlier self. But it was also because he was back in the states after a decade abroad. And a decade abroad would need, according to Thomas Jefferson, who had a theory about exile, at least a decade and a half to undo itself, for the exile to become once again American. That happens to Ashbery, but gradually. In poetic terms, it means that he substitutes his philosophical and speculative (and European) line with a new, and now in his latest book, absolutely abiding attention to American English as it is spoken and to story telling, another great American tradition. Add to that the concern for early twentieth century domestic art, the trawl through politics and high and low-brow culture, the love of B-films, the recycling of an American vulgate going back to the thirties and forties, and the influence of younger American poets, and you get a new language based in pastiche and popular culture. It took him a lifetime, really, to be able to appreciate the language of the American teenager, for instance.”
I woke with a start and sprinted off the plane... in Munich. Somehow I must have slept right through the stop in Lisbon. In the men’s room at the Munich airport, the image of an anatomically precise fly is printed into the white porcelain of each urinal, down by the pink deodorizer puck. Presumably it gives men who, bored with peeing, tend to look around distractedly and then pee outside the urinal — hence the puddles we so often have to straddle — something on which to focus. Despite missing my stop, I felt at ease. I was thinking that despite all Martin had said about Ashbery’s new demotic voice, there were a number of poems in A Worldly Country that closed in meditative propositions that were only partially, if at all, derailed by irony or lampoon. “God will find the pattern and break it,” ends one poem. Another: “There comes a time when the fleece/ fills your mouth, but there was so much left to say.” And “The Handshake, the Cough, and the Kiss” finishes with a Keatsian flourish: “the past is unredeemed,/ and all fruits are in season.” Then there is the book’s first poem, the title poem, which closes with the curious: “And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea/ we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.” I was thinking how eager I was to point out these poignant assertions of mortality to Martin Earl. Then the man standing at the urinal beside me began to mumble. I didn’t dare look over at him. I kept my eyes on the fly in the bowl.
He was saying, “And I think you should point to this kind of thing in a review, the beginning of the sixth stanza in ‘The Handshake, the Cough, and the Kiss’ for instance: ‘A lot, unfortunately. So get a life. It’s been real. I mean really real,/ like you can’t imagine it.’ That’s the new Ashbery right there, a poet who’s doing the essential job of making the clichés of everyday English sing. But there’s also, and this is part of the pastiche as well, a fiddling with the syntax, with the DNA of English, as though he were attempting to be absolutely modern in his attention to the American grain (a kind of latter day Williams — another poet he admires intensely), but also wanting to throw us back, to allow us to see the continuum. In some of his locutions, he gets a sort of sepia tone or early Technicolor effect. Here for instance, in the same poem: ‘Father in his little house/ took a bath’. It’s as though he’s putting an oddball spin on contemporary English to get us to hear it. There’s also a new element of self-parody, almost a dressing gown, I mean down, of his earlier surrealist metaphysician self. Still on the same page he asks, ‘Did the islands ever get in touch with you” which seems like it’s out of Rivers and Mountains but now such gestures are nipped in the bud, countermanded by a kind of sitcom jab: “Turns out the bill was sent/ to the wrong address. We have no credit rating....”
“Martin,” I tried to interrupt, “is that you?”
“All I’m saying,” he answered, quickly turning aside his face, “is that these new elements, the camp in Sontag’s sense of ‘culture in quotation marks,’ the use of syntactic reversals to create an ersatz antiquated tone, the unwillingness to stretch out speculatively without a serious dose of self-parody undercutting the voice before it gets too far into ‘itself,’ and, in the end, the disappearance of that wise and consecrated, nearly monolithic and bardish identity behind the big early works, in favor of a more delicate, subverted, and understated voice and in favor of a poem in which the living language itself is given precedence and is the real subject — these seem to me the traits that mark Ashbery’s poetry since Girls on the Run. I think this is what we should be talking about when we speak of Ashbery alongside Whitman or Stevens as a poet who has seized on a living language and given us new ways to use it.”
“Right, right,” I blubbered with gusto, “but just the same, there are still passages of sustained beauty. Like do you remember these lines from ‘Streakiness’:
lullaby fits all. There is no clause in hearing,
only nimble perspective-gulping giants
or loneliness asserts itself, featureless
though picked out in pills of light.
I had plucked that quote out of nowhere, didn’t even realize I’d memorized it until I recited it, and it was the perfect riposte. I felt enormously pleased with myself. But no one responded to my quotation. I turned my head right and left. As always, I was alone with Ashbery’s lines riffling through me. I felt a vague happiness even as another question from A Worldly Country dropped into my consciousness like a dice throw. I heard myself quote out loud, “What had happened and why?” It looked like I might be stranded in the airport for a while. I felt a little like Ricardo Reis in Saramago’s novel. At least I had a great book to read in the terminal, Ashbery’s new one, A Worldly Country. What a gorgeous cover, a painting of the city by Jane Freilicher! I wondered, vaguely, if I would ever get to Portugal. Martin Earl, Martin Earl, why was that name so familiar? Who was he, anyway?