In his poem, “They Dream Only of America,” Ashbery presents a duality of America throughout to establish a notion of being lost in a country whose meaning has become clouded. In the opening stanza, he seems to reference both Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Lot’s wife at once. This contrast is further defined by the count of thirteen million. In presenting these three notions together immediately after the title line of the poem, Ashbery has created in the mind of the reader a beautiful America spoiled by the sinfulness of its population. He reinforces this and adds yet another element in the stanza’s closing: the land of milk and honey is now something that burns his throat, as bile. Written while abroad, Ashbery seems to reject the pastoral image of America he sentimentalizes about in favor of a harsher reality of what America actually is.
He furthers this complexity of his vision of America as the stanzas progress. In the second stanza, childhood innocence of hiding from imagined threats gives way to the real and terrible threats of adulthood. He leaves an interesting gap in the revelation of this adult fear until the end of the second stanza, when he again presents the conflict between a pastoral image and the modern world. The “lilac lake,” a beautiful image of a pastoral scene, is skewed in Ashbery’s presentation. The lake is not pure or untarnished, it is lilac – discolored – but also misshapen: a cube.
The next image that Ashbery uses to reinforce this tainted lens through which he sees America is the idea of the field of dandelions. Yet, he does not see the beautiful flowers at all, he drives through the field at night. The driving itself connects the pastoral image of the field to the degradation of modern life, as the country’s beauty no longer matters, only our modern agenda.
The poem approaches its climax as the poet imagines returning home to his “bedroom” of America. The process will be slow, for his distance from it is so great. The image in the final stanza of a broken leg is interestingly sandwiched between the two references to beds. What Ashbery signifies with this is that he cannot be comfortable even at home in America. He now sees the country without the rose-colored glasses and questions the point of returning if he can never truly be “home” again.
Finally, at the end of the poem, Ashbery writes the most interesting lines of the work: “There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” What is the liberation he speaks of? To be free from the conventions of modern life? Death? A return home? What requires him to wait “in” the horror of it? Lastly, though, Ashbery admits that he does wish to be reunited with America, good or ill, for it is his own land.