Friday, 17 July 2009

The Parthian Stations by John Ash

David Briggs on The Parthian Stations by John Ash (Carcanet, 2007)

In this recent collection Ash returns to some familiar themes and territories, albeit, in the first part of the book, by means of the ‘short’ poem. It begins with ‘An Apologia for an Earlier Book’ which sets the tone—a self-effacing voice of dyspeptic world-weariness that assures the reader he produced the poems simply because he “had nothing better to do”, and persevered with them to the point of publication because he had to “stand by these damaged creatures”.

This faux self-consciousness takes us into the process of writing, causing us to question the way we’ve been reading, the assumptions we’ve come to. These provocative little punctuations in the reader’s hermeneutic arise most pointedly in two of the sequences, the poems entitled ‘Short Poems’ (of which there are three) and ‘Book’ (of which there are four). In ‘Book II’, for example, he continues the ironic assertion that he has “no idea what [he’s] doing”, that we shouldn’t be fooled by the “apparent confidence / of the progression”.

But there’s too much weft and weave in the patterning to allow us to believe this. The book is littered with sequences that have been broken up, dispersed among the rest of the collection, often stitched together with single lines or images. The poems ‘Evening II’ and ‘Evening III’ are separated by seventeen pages, but end and begin respectively with the same typical Ash understatement: “It is a pleasant evening in March”. Others form a series of elegies for lost friends and relatives. ‘Leaving New York’ runs to four parts, each one contributing to the central travelogue motif of the book—the extent to which in moving to the East Ash did not

“move from one
city to another
[but] between different
versions of the same city.”

Some of these sequenced pieces are given playful sub-titles, such that the poem called ‘Shard’ is subtitled (Glass II); ‘Terrorist’ is the second piece in the ‘Hero’ sequence; and, ‘Arrival III’ is sub-titled (Departure). While it is tempting to skip back and forth through the book reading these pieces in sequence, to do so would be to miss the book’s central concern: it is the nature of travel that we find ourselves in unfamiliar cities remembering loved ones, and favoured haunts, from a former stage of life, from other times and places: it evokes the unpredictable intrusion of memory into the travelogue. While the sequence traces loosely the route of the Parthian Stations, from Istanbul to the borders of India, Ash is transported back to memories of New York friends, his dead sister, or his Manchester childhood; hence, the preference for shorter poems, which, as he announces in the final poem of the first part, was part of his design, part of his desire to be “pithy”.

Everywhere on this journey among the familiar and the exotic, past and present, there’s a sense of civilisations ending, of eroding monuments to former imperiums, which set the personal meditations on mortality in context. Typically for Ash, there’s a search for consolation in the historical long-view, a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun, and he melds classical and contemporary references to highlight the paradox of familiarity and exoticism in being a traveller east of the Mediterranean in the twenty-first century. Each one of us is “a Janus of the crossroads” viewing the “Byzantine rotunda / converted to a mall”.

Ash clearly seems pleased to be away from the West, nowhere more so than in ‘Hero II’ where he goes to Syria, not Beirut, but deems the difference insignificant as both locations are viewed by the present “imperium” in the same undesirable light. He wonders whether all those American males called Brad would view themselves differently if they knew it was also the name of the largest Byzantine town in Syria. Yet, there is a strong English sensibility to these poems. In ‘Drinking’ he complains that “It would be ridiculous / to appear angry at things / I cannot alter”. It’s also typical of Ash to use so many abstract relative terms, words like “agreeable”, “charming” and “affectionate”, as though completely assured of a shared set of values between reader and writer (although this too is ironic). He can sound like the gentry discussing mutual acquaintances at a garden party in Berkshire: a revolt in ‘Samarkand’ is described as having been “injudicious”; in ‘My Death II’ he claims to have outlived his peers “to an absurd degree”.

Ash wants us to believe he is trying sincerely to communicate. In ‘Things’ he admits the ideas may be difficult, but he assures us they are “real”, like “gloves in a coat pocket/ or a thorn in a hem”. In a parody of the philosophical thesis: “If we are dying, and we are…” he issues a Marvellian plea exhorting us to “drink wine … drink coffee … make conversation”. With its constantly shifting mode of address—from the reader to the poems; from particular places and people to a personification of the twenty-first century; from one part of the poet’s sensibility to another—the art of conversation is what this book demonstrates so well.

* David Briggs' first collection The Method Men is forthcoming from Salt.