“A Worldly Country” by John Ashbery

 A Worldly Country. — with that strange period in the title — is John Ashbery’s 24th book of poetry, published in 2007, when he was 79. It’s hard to pan a book by a poet of 79, plus this is quite a good one — or anyway, mostly it is. Do some of the poems "miss," or do I just miss them? It is the greatness of Ashbery that one is uncertain.

 

(Are we the readers Ashbery deserves? Or are his True Readers a race of highly evolved reptiles on the planet Kozlika?)

 

Just before writing this, I listened to a record: La Mer by Debussy. The puddling rhythms and sudden shifts of chromatic texture — just like Ashbery! La Mer sounds like it’s moving backwards, sometimes, like eddies in a cove. Ashbery also writes backward-sounding lines, such as:

 

All the reckoning is wrong.

 

(in "Promenade.")

 

Wrong is reckoning the all.

 

is its reversal. Let’s continue with the poem:

 

What the caliph’s calipers redeemed

isn’t meant for us, far out

at the edge of Saturn’s rings…

 

(Perhaps Ashbery’s subtlest readers live on Tethys — a moon of Saturn.)

 

And what is "a worldly country"? The book’s cover, from a precisionist painting by Jean Freilicher, "Afternoon in the City," suggests that the worldly country is New York City — or at least its rooftops.

 

One of the poems begins:

 

In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery

is the best part.

 

This is a poem called "Cliffhanger." It goes on:

 

Battlements, wintry thickets

forcing their edge on you, cough up their promise

as the verse goes starry.

 

In other words, while you’re watching Hamlet, you’re also gazing at the backdrops: a castle, a Danish moor. (Notice Ashbery suddenly addresses the reader in the second person: "forcing their edge on you.") For two hours, while seeing Hamlet, you’re staring at these pictures, until they "cough up their promise." Meanwhile, the verse — the language of Shakespeare — "goes starry." In other words, it becomes a little too flowery.

 

You will leave empty-handed,

others will know more than you.

 

You leave Hamlet feeling like an idiot, because you don’t "get" it.

 

Time’s aged frisson

gets to me more and more, like mice

in a pantomime.

 

This is a really bad line, I think. It means both: "I hate getting old" and "I’m sick of pretending to like Shakespeare."

 

And then the prompter

throws up his hands in dismay. You were mortal,

so why didn’t you say anything?

 

The prompter throwing his hands up in dismay means that Ashbery can’t think of the next line of the poem. "Why didn’t you say anything?" is one of those great quotations from Overheard Speech of 2006 that fills this book.

 

I had certainly begun to lose faith in "Cliffhanger" by the time I reached the end, which is:

 

Now even the farthest windows have gone dark. And the dark wants, needs us. Thank you for calling.

 

And unexpectedly — I doubt it’s conveyed here, merely quoting stray lines — this finale perfectly completed the mathematical necessities of the poem. The "equation" balanced! Ashbery is smarter than me! The "bad lines" were necessary, the way a twist of lemon embellishes a vodka martini. This is the titular "Cliffhanger"; you expect the actress to fall off the cliff, but at the last minute she’s saved.