John Ashbery, “Pleasure Boats”

What does it mean to understand “Pleasure Boats?” Typically, the words of a poem allow reconstruction of a speaker and scenario, I derive a meaning from their interaction, and then I posit an interpretation.

Ashbery leaves me grasping at a scenario, so much so that I’m forming primitive theories of interpretation while digging through my own experience, all to simply understand what the words could mean. Assigning a voice to the speaker feels nearly pointless, at first. But what if we’re dealing with multiple experiences in a poem? Amy King in “And the Occasion Changed” writes the following about Ashbery’s corpus:

John wasn’t trying to show us “reality,” what is; he was showing us how to discover what else is beyond that shared social overlay. Ashbery pluralizes what is: the plurality of reality. The realities right under our noses. This is the spiritual for me…

I can’t help but feel that “the plurality of reality” is very much on display in “Pleasure Boats:”

Pleasure Boats
John Ashbery

Wash it again
and yet again.
The equation drifts.

Wallowing in penguins,
she was wallowing in penguins.

With fiendish cleverness
the foreground closes in.

The four-leaf clover loses.

“Wash it again / and yet again,” “penguins,” and “four-leaf clover” could conjure a child’s bathtime in a suburban home. Toy boats and toy penguins and no responsibility. Just drifting until bathtime’s over. However, one could also imagine oneself on a cruise, one of those heading, say, near Antarctica, washing oneself over and over in an anxious moment, aimless and out of luck. There are an infinite number of scenarios worth discussing, but strangely, they cohere based on the thinnest of threads: the unfocused and repetitive action, the wallowing with what almost seems absurd, the end of the time doing the action, and the sense that this involves being “out of luck” or beyond luck. Nostalgia and our supposedly refined, adult desires both meet on these grounds. I can say one thing for myself—I’ve never particularly wanted to be on a boat, though if the food is spectacular, sign me up. Still, maybe I should take a closer look at those times I’ve lingered at home too long, doing nothing before work. Why did my feeling of freedom depend so much on what I didn’t want to do?

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