Themes and Meanings

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“Darlene’s Hospital” blurs the distinction between lyric and narrative poetry. Although it tells a story, or at least flirts with narrative, it is more about shifting perceptions than about the narrative. Though the poem seems to center on an individual’s perception of a situation, it is not easy to identify either the individual or the situation. A simple statement of the poem’s thesis, its controlling emotion, or even a paraphrase of the sensuous content is tricky. Instead, the associations of the poem weave in and out, making as much sense as the phrases and images drifting in and out of anyone’s consciousness. Although the poem is divided into paragraphs, each ending with a period, the flow of imagination resists compartmentalization into paragraphs or neat stanzas. The constant shifting between past, present, and future suggests the volatility of consciousness.

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“Darlene’s Hospital” operates by association and disorientation rather than by the more traditional logic of assertions, evidence, and qualifications. Although the poem is ostensibly in Ashbery’s voice, it tells almost nothing personal about him. Rather, the poem is concerned with what comes to mind as he follows the image suggested by the poem’s title. At first the title may seem silly, deliberately whimsical—“Darlene’s Hospital” instead of, for example, “County General Hospital” or “The Darlene Smith Memorial Hospital.” The idea of an individual having his or her own hospital is foreign to the usual way of thinking.

Reading beyond the title, however, one finds in the poem evidence that in the mind’s shifting landscape, a hospital belongs as much to the individual’s perception of it as to some objective reality. In other words, Darlene’s experience of the hospital is subjective and internal. Similarly, Ashbery’s invention and evocation of Darlene creates a shifting subjectivity in which it is difficult to tell not only who Darlene is but also who the speaker is, let alone who John Ashbery is. Behind all this, like a palimpsest, lies “The Lady of Shallot.”

Ashbery challenges the idea of a unified and consistent self by “backing through the way many minds had been made up.” Instead of the Lady of Shallot, so easy for Victorian painters to visualize, in “Darlene’s Hospital” Ashbery offers a complex force field of consciousness in which evasive pronouns blur the distinction between characters, speaker, and audience, all of whom take the place of a single, clearly delineated heroine. Never mentioned by name in the poem, “Darlene” may be the “she” at the end of the poem who “glides backward through us,” effectively disrupting one’s settled notions about the poem—even the way readers’ “minds had been made up” about her identity.

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