A Worldly Country

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The fifty-eight lyric poems in John Ashbery’s A Worldly Country are consistent with his twenty-five earlier volumes of verse. Written when he was almost eighty years old, the poems continue to focus on the limits of language and the difficulty of expressing meaning, but the poems also concern aging and impending death. They progress not logically but by associative leaps that are almost impossible for readers to follow. Mixed with arcane language and philosophical ideas are chatty asides, interruptions (“Wait!”), and flippant comments.

Time is the subject of “A Worldly Country,” the title poem of the volume. At the end of the poem, “the time we turn around in/ soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.” The skiff, not a ship, is life fated to run aground, to fail to reach its goal; and it is time, the repetition of events, that destroys life and meaning. Earlier in the poem the speaker states, “In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon,” but “By evening all was calm again.” The afternoon is “wide” because it is long-lasting and replete with negative images like “insane clocks,” “the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,” and “the scent of manure.” The images are not powerful but banal and pathetic, and those of the evening are equally trivial and pedestrian. Nevertheless, the circle continues, for tomorrow produces “the great ungluing,” when things are not destroyed, but merely fall apart. As the speaker gazes at the “quiet rubble,” he wonders “What had happened, and why?” The “rebelliousness” and “hellishness” was replaced by peace, but that peace is far from pleasant and life-affirming; it is more like quietude, inertia, and stagnancy. It is “worldly” in the worst sense of that word; the speaker’s world is more likely to end with a “whimper” than a “bang.”

In “Old-Style Plentiful,” the speaker describes lost love from the perspective of several years. “It’s so long ago/ now, yet some of it makes sense, like/ why were we screwing around in the first place?” Now only some of it makes sense, and the speaker is uncertain about why the affair ever happened. Regardless of the lack of connection between the past and the present, “something” matters, even though there were many indications that the relationship was far from perfect. The flood of time obliterates where they sat, and the breeze and the light ignore the “unkindness” and pretend that “it was all going to be OK some day.” Of course, it never was “OK,” and only being “drunk on love” enabled them to ignore the problems. The last line, “That sure was some summer,” is vintage Ashbery, an enigmatic comment more suggestive of ennui than wistfulness.

Unlike John Donne’s romantic poem of the same name, Ashbery’s “The Ecstasy” provides a cynical view of a relationship. During the winter, the speaker and his mate go skiing, but their vision of the future is incomplete; they see just to the “margin” but no more. His statement, “I want out now” comes as an abrupt switch in mood, which he goes on to explain in detail as having traveled in this country (or relationship) too long. He desires “a little sweetness” to balance his “hunger” for the winter when “friendships come unknotted/ like tie-dyed scarves.” Then there is another switch to describe their attendance at a boring reception; then another switch, the revelation that when he went out the next morning on some pretext, he stayed away for twenty years. Asked if he had forgotten something when he returned, he said “no, only the milk.” If this were not uncaring enough, he adds, “Which was the truth,” reiterating not only his distance but also his unwillingness to soften the blow.

“Forwarded” involves another leave-taking. The “consequences” (an even more negative word than “result”) of his having fallen in love with her include “bright lights, lit sea,/ buttered roofs, dandelion breath,” largely positive descriptors, albeit a bit unusual. The speaker states, however, that “Next year let’s live in harm’s way,” suggesting a more daring, less conventional relationship; but this relationship will be “under the big top,” a circus reference that implies repetitive performances and negates the idea of “harm’s way.” The antithetical “blue”...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)

A Worldly Country Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

American Book Review 29, no. 1 (November/December, 2007): 19-20.

Booklist 103, no. 12 (February 15, 2007): 25.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 96.

New Criterion 25, no. 10 (June, 2007): 61-68.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 5 (March 29, 2007): 20-22.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 50 (December 18, 2006): 43.

World Literature Today 81, no. 6 (November, 2007): 68-69.