The opening of John Ashbery’s “Rivers and Mountains” (“On the secret map the assassins/ Cloistered,”) very well might cause the apprehensive reader to declare, “The map is not the territory.” Indeed, that is part of the point, and the reader attempting to comprehend “Rivers and Mountains” from the preconception that it will be either a coherent whole or a representation equivalent solely to the sum of its parts will find the work daunting, if not ultimately frustrating.
“Rivers and Mountains,” without self-promotion or celebration, presents a subtle, nuanced perspective on the human consequences of war, both victory and defeat. As the opening image develops, the reader is reminded that this is a poem. Even as the assassins cloister in “the city/ Of humiliation and defeat,” Ashbery defines the material used to create the work: “wan ending/ Of the trail among dry, papery leaves” almost lacks subtlety, the dual meaning of “leaves” having been emphasized by the early “Gray-brown quills.”
These lines appear initially not to be so much making something as searching for profundity. While a lesser poet might have presented a less ostentatious phrasing, expecting to be praised for subtlety, Ashbery rises to his self-wrought challenge, merging poem and subject into a territory that maps poem-writing to map-reading: “like thoughts/ In the melodious but vast mass of today’s/ Writing fields and swamps.”
The first verse is notable for its lack of human activity: Even the “rioters”—ostensibly but not definitively human—have been “quelled.” Ashbery develops the aura of devastation more from musical imagery than direct description of the landscape. The phrases “Deaf consolation of minor tunes” and “Singing on marble factory walls” evoke sadness or despair even more clearly than “fields and swamps” as “little bunches of weeds.” Ashbery uses musical referents to transform the territory into a representation of the map, even as the references to writing tools cause the description of the landscape and the...
(The entire section is 856 words.)