Stride Magazine -


John Ash: Two Books: The Anatolikon/To The City
(Carcanet, £9.95)

After a virtual silence of approximately 6 years John Ash offers not one but two new books, albeit within the same covers. In these intervening years he has transplanted himself and his concerns from New York to Istanbul, in order, he says:

          to escape the children and the dogs,
          and the nice but strange woman
          who stole my doormat’

This ‘explanation’ can be found in one of the poems I keep returning to, ‘Mektup’, a broadcast from Ash’s current outpost of exile and one I first read in Ian Robinson’s Oasis magazine a couple of years ago. The form, as the Turkish title suggests, is that of a letter and may be entirely fictional or autobiographical. From the uncertain conditional of the opening, ‘If you receive this letter’ through descriptions of the surroundings the writer currently occupies to the almost confessional tone that the poem moves towards it is a concise example of what Ash means when he says in ‘My Poetry’:
                                                  I always thought
          it was just my heart talking about things
          I loved and hated, hated and loved.

His focus moves from a prosaic present and can’t help but take another look at a past he displays an inveterate fascination with:

          But I don’t know why these places mean so much
          to me, or what I am seeking in the ruins.
          Repose of a kind, compiling a Dictionary of Lost Things…

In fact those last six words could almost be an alternative title for this collection of his work.  This poem conveys, in its meditations, an irrecoverable sense of loss, both personal and general, and concludes with a statement that is as hopeless as it is well meaning:

          I send you all the love that makes no difference at all.

This loss runs through a number of these poems. Sometimes it has a specific focus, as in ‘Elegy, Replica, Echo’. Elsewhere it is more wide ranging, as in ‘The Anatolikon’, a brilliantly sustained piece that finds the narrator in restless journeying, absorbing and describing dazzling images whilst remaining somehow unsatisfied:

            And still I kept looking for something that was not there amid
               so much that was

This  fugitive narrator cannot answer when asked what he ‘was looking for in the ruins so late in the day’ and the inevitable conclusion is that the journey or the search is the end in itself and justifies the relentless pursuit of something lost or elusive. This sense of irretrievable loss is at its sharpest and most poignant in, ‘My Life’:

Father, sister, mother, I look at the phone –
          black instrument – and my hand moves to dial
          numbers that will connect something to nothing.
          There is so much to be said that can never be said.

But if his tone is often predominantly elegiac it can equally be humorous, sometimes combining both, as in ‘All Purpose Elegy’:

            O it was here, but now it is gone!
          It was always gone or going. It was here,
          I am convinced of it, only a minute
          Or a century ago, and already I miss it.

 There are number of poems that convey an unalloyed pleasure in language, such as ‘The Plumbers Of Asia’, a fantasy in which the said plumbers become migrating birds and ‘lyrical and improvisatory’ composers. He also offers some extended meditations on beds, nervousness and music, the latter concluding with another note of loss, the listener expelled from ‘that paradise’, the music being something that ‘cannot be grasped’. It seems that however I try I find myself drawn back to these images of loss and exile. He does treat the latter  in a lighter, self-referential way in places, as in ‘Bozuk Para’. Here he comments on the  failure to write and send home letters which could actually convey any sense of exile whilst asking, ‘So this is exile, is it?’

He is perhaps at his most playful yet instructive in ‘How To Use This Book’, a poem which to some extent does set out part of his poetic purpose, that is, ‘to get you moving’. It contains some gentle mockery and humour as he takes the reader aside to offer advice on how to read the text.  It obviously connects with My Poetry’ in that this work is not ‘difficult’ or ‘experimental’ but simply offers any reader with an open mind something Ash has commented on elsewhere:

The function of poetry isn’t really direct commentary on the state of the

          country and so on, but rather to present an alternative to it – feeling,

          fulfilment, the search of the individual.

In this selection there is certainly plenty of evidence of the latter but I enjoy the range and richness of language he uses to convey his concerns, the wit, the celebration, the ‘imaginative geographies’ that he leads the reader through. All of these aspects of his work single him out as an original voice that deserves to be widely read and relished.

          © Paul Donnelly 2003