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The Democratic Eye

John Ashbery’s new volume, A Worldly Country, is another installment of the strange diaries regularly appearing from the poet over the last fifty years. (Ashbery will be eighty next July, and has had the good luck to retain the capacity to write his decades into poetry.) I think of Ashbery’s shorter poems as “diaries” because so many of them have the dailiness, the occasional inconsequentiality, the fragmentary quality, the confiding candor, and the obliquity we associate with the diary form. The diarist, careless of communication (since he already has all the information necessary for the decoding of his own private pages), may remain indifferent to explicitness, to “message,” to “statement,” to “meaning.” The diary has, at its off-the-cuff best, a kind of intriguing charm: its vicissitudes (digressions, interruptions, unexplained allusions) keep later annotators busy; the elliptical text can end up occupying less space than its commentaries.

Much as the historian must explore, by research, the brief entries of a diary (think of Laurel Ulrich’s expansion into a chronicle of the diary of a New England midwife), so the reader must intuit by association the psychic history implicit in Ashbery’s metaphors. And in spite of our attempts, much in Ashbery remains uncertain. I was once (not recognizing an allusion to the Finnish epic the Kalevala) dead wrong in these pages myself, in thinking that an Ashbery poem was about awaiting Death. Ashbery told me, with bemused sympathy for my misapprehension, that it was really about awaiting love. I suppose one could still say it was about awaiting, and that that was what mattered.

Not all of Ashbery’s poems are diary-like: his long poems (at least those that are extended autobiographies in abstract form) usually have an intermittent purposeful coherence, while the diary-lyrics allow a more whimsical, wayward, teasing progression that has been, to his readers, by turns annoying, provocative, and enchanting. Over the years, Ashbery has been claimed by many special-interest groups: the Francophiles (citing his formative years in Paris as a young man); the avant-garde (pointing to such experiments of his as the “cut-up” poem and the double-column poem); artists (finding in his work a corollary to abstract painting); and the young (delighting in his fondness for movies, cartoons, pop culture, and the transient lingo of the day). Followers of his career can admire his searching range of observation and his murmuring continuity with the entire tradition of Western poetry, from doggerel to divine poems, not to speak of his fondness for haiku. Ashbery himself is at pains to declare that he writes for everybody:

Bound and determined” one writes a letter
to the street, in demotic, hoping a friend
will find, keep it, and analyze it.

The letter is not always found; or if found, not kept; or if kept, not analyzed; and the poet reproaches himself for the failure to reach others, which “leav[es] you brackish, untried.” And so he compulsively starts up again, hoping for a more amiable effect, “peaceful, this time”:

…It’s as though a message
Remained to be harvested, paperwork from me to you.

(The turnover from the Romantic “harvest” to the bureaucratic “paperwork” is characteristic of Ashbery’s restlessly contemporary imagination.) Even when he writes his difficult long poems, Ashbery thinks of them not as esoteric investigations but as public spectacles, “long, loose-skeined parades” deploying themselves along ordinary “service routes.” And when he addresses his audience, in “Litanies,” it is to say, with a childish glee in mock-vengeance,

You ask me what I’m doing here.
Do you expect me to actually read this?
If so, I’ve got a surprise for you—
I’m going to read it to everybody.

Like all lyric poets, Ashbery is convinced that his musical invention can rescue, from the tinny clang of contemporary noise, those universally felt surges of emotion and flexings of language in which readers can recognize themselves.

A Worldly Country understandably concerns itself, in part, with emotions attendant on old age: the pangs of memory, the menace of boredom, the fear of impending catastrophe. (It should be added that all of these feelings have appeared in Ashbery before, and are not restricted to the old.) The new volume is satiric as well as elegiac, often funny, sometimes sardonic. And in spite of its lacunae and its opacities (points of continuity with the poet’s early work, points of honor, almost), it continually implies the existence of narratives retrievable from under its impressionistic surfaces. The captivating illusion of romance, for instance, the pastoral of “idle spring,” pervades Ashbery’s more nostalgic pages, even if spring’s romance is only a “poor excuse for summer”—that season of ideal warm love that disappoints even as it is pursued. Although summer has long been known to be impossible, one languishes even in age for its innocent harbinger, spring. The longing for romance forms a continuous background to thought—but Ashbery puts that truth more wittily; even when there is no romance in the air, when age has “mislaid” it, “it’s here even when it’s not here”:

Spring is the most important of the seasons.
It’s here even when it’s not here.
All the other seasons are an excuse for it.
Spring, idle spring,
you poor excuse for summer—
Did they tell you where they mislaid you,
on which arterial road piercing the city,
fast and faster like breath?

The speeding up of arterial time—“fast and faster like breath”—is felt throughout A Worldly Country in the form of clicking clocks and hovering dooms. In the title poem, Ashbery waves aside the uncertain epistemological status of autobiography—“If it occurred/in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel/that was OK too”—so that the metaphors of his stream of consciousness can proceed unbothered by any demands for consistency: “The directorate/had other, hidden goals. To proclaim logic/a casualty of truth was one.” As the poet proceeds on his “Via Negativa,” he admits that language, in tracking the contour of life, reaches at best an approximation, but he is compelled nonetheless (in the poem “Feverfew”) to art’s self-frustrating pursuit:

…Road rage had burst its flanks;
all was uncertain on the Via Negativa
except the certainly of return, return
to the approximate.

As “Feverfew” continues its narrative of the past, we are told of a horn, sounding at night and at morning, that introduces beginnings, sexual discovery, romance, uncertainty, threat. (In the horn’s contrastive summons to prayer or pleasure, Ashbery may be recalling Baudelaire’s “Recueillement,” in which night brings diverse gifts, “Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci“). Those seeking pleasure exhale not sighs (as in Eliot) but jests, take up the midnight song and turn it to Edenic dream, transform the river of hellish woe to a pastoral heaven:

Night and morning a horn sounded,
summoning the faithful to prayer, the unfaithful to pleasure.
In that unseemly alley I first exhaled
a jest to your comic, crumb-crusted lips:
What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us,
the song starting up at midnight,
the dream later, of lamb’s lettuce and moss
near where Acheron used to flow?

The intrusion of universal doubt—“What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us?”—is a recurrent feature in A Worldly Country as in Ashbery’s other collections, and motivates a reexamination of the past that ceaselessly generates narratives describing once again something already written about. It is no accident that one of the best poems in the book is entitled, punningly, “Lacrimae Rerun”: the tears of things, a second showing. Its account (of a couple’s life) used to be, says Ashbery, a novel, a nursery rhyme, even music (a catch, a glee), but it has now descended into a grim sermon, while its characters are reduced to beggars asking for scraps:

We had our season together.
Operatic in the city, we shifted mightily
the stress to other fulcra as they became available.
We never knew what prompted us to smile
or to embrace. That was part of the city’s dynamic,
deep under the pavements. We dreamed of philosophy sometimes
in restaurants or beside a chattering brook.
All our resources are being trained
on this critical juncture in our fates’ history.
It’s no longer a novel or nursery rhyme,
a catch or glee, but a sermon grinding on continuously.
They come to the back door these days,
asking for a piece of meat, anything.

The sudden brutality here of “a piece of meat, anything,” is repeated elsewhere in Ashbery’s “cool” narratives, justifying the conclusion of “Lacrimae Rerun”: “Was ever anything/crosshatched so ripe with despair?”

Not all of Ashbery’s narratives are so transparent, but generally somewhere in their unfolding a recognizable crisis breaks out. Here are some such revelations:

…Now when ribald toasts
Sail round a table too fair laid out, why the consequences
are only dust, disease and old age….
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?
Do you turn and walk out of the drugstore…?
Oh hell everything is that way,
this way, that way, twisted in the sun
of endurance—

Reading an Ashbery narrative, centering it around one or the other of its crises, entails some unsupported guessing: the reader’s imagination is lit up by its own energy of interpretation, as the Möbius strip constructed by the words of the poem exhibits its delusive twist. “Still hungry?” says the poet chattily in the midst of his longest narrative: “Read on.” Seeking out poetry is a distinct hunger, one that famishes as it satisfies: Ashbery-Sheherazade never really winds up his skein of tales, merely suspending us from night to night, from page to turning page.

In reclaiming the centrality of narrative moments within short poems (while avoiding “stories” such as those of Crabbe, Browning, or Frost) Ashbery enlarges the purview of the lyric (more usually given to meditation). He continues the efforts of those American writers—from Whitman to Pound to Crane to Ginsberg to Merrill to Ammons—who have given importance in lyric to the narrative vignette. (But he also retains the abstraction learned in part from painting, in part from Gertrude Stein, in part from Auden.)

The most moving and elaborate narrative of the ecstasies and desolations of the inner life in twentieth-century America was given us by Ashbery in his 1972 Three Poems, but this sort of expansive narrative does not appear in the new volume. Rather, the recent lyrics insist on the brevity of narrative glimpses, as a life unfolds in time. “I see by glimpses now;” Wordsworth said, “when age comes on,/May scarcely see at all.” Ashbery’s coarser “glimpses” of life among the implacable routines of old age forcibly revise the Wordsworthian lament. “The Inchcape Rock” (named after the dangerous rock off the coast of Scotland that sank the ship of the pirate who had destroyed its warning bell) begins its glimpse of the day’s duties with derisive self-irony, followed by desperation:

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