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In the Wake of the Day

In the Wake of the Day

by John Ash

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Istanbul—a place that is both exotic and familiar, spanning west and east, past and present—is fully explored in this collection of poetry that sketches out its many faces. Memories, cultures, and histories intersect in these poems that arch from imaginings of contemporary Turkey and trace back along a journey to Antioch. With


Istanbul—a place that is both exotic and familiar, spanning west and east, past and present—is fully explored in this collection of poetry that sketches out its many faces. Memories, cultures, and histories intersect in these poems that arch from imaginings of contemporary Turkey and trace back along a journey to Antioch. With characteristic playfulness, sophistication, and savage wit, this sojourn delves into what it means to be a part of a culture and to celebrate what is loved and ultimately unknowable.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"John Ash could be the best English poet of his generation."  —Peter Campion, Poetry, on To the City

"This may be the most auspicious debut of its kind since Auden’s."  —New York Times Book Review on The Branching Stairs

"Full of elegance and poise, properly elegiac and alluding to real, as well as imagined losses and absences, the poems are by turns beautiful, entertaining, and moving."  —Guardian

"[John Ash] may be the doyen of a new 'Istanbul School' [of poetry]."  —Economist

Product Details

Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

In the Wake of the Day

By John Ash

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2010 John Ash
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-917-5


Part I

The Women of Kars

    The Couple

    When evening came on
    The Great Wind started up,
    And a knife flashed in the kitchen.

    The old women were cowled
    In white, sitting before doors so
    Weathered their colour could not

    Be determined. Black water thrashed.
    Rain spattered down like bolts.
    A vile stench issued from

    The topiary bushes. The couple
    On the far side of the wall spent
    Whole evenings reciting numbers,

    Then sealed themselves in their room.
    Asphyxiation appeared
    Inevitable, but they woke

    Unharmed, and, in the calm
    Of dawn, washed their clothes.


    In the lands to the west of the Jordan
    Olive groves were guarded by the soldiers of the kings
    By night and day, and the destruction
    Of a single tree was punishable by death
    Or mutilation. This is no longer the case,
    But I am not convinced of the improvement.

    Unasked For

    A white cloud came to the City,
    Mouthing platitudes, contradictions,
    And everything stopped,
    Avenues silent as canals.

    Lines of black statues carrying pistols
    Appeared on the edges of the pavements.

    I liked the embroidery and the gold,
    But that was all. I placed flowers
    In chapels (lilacs, peonies), but that
    Was only because I didn't know what
    I was doing, worshipping a tyranny.

    Cloud of my childhood
    And my mother's lukewarm prayers,
    I do not understand this visitation.
    You should be shut safely
    In a nursery decorated by
    A Renaissance master, one of the
    More aimless ones, torn between
    Faith and the apprehensible world
    According to your dicta, which the day rejects.

    I was an idiot like everyone else,
    I was an idiot like everyone else,
    Neither ducking nor exceeding
    The average level of malfeasance, I would
    Have worshipped a cube, like the Nabataeans.
    This might have been the more rational choice.

    The late light on the sweet waters
    Of this millennial harbour is a refutation
    Worth a thousand volumes, a ton of inert icons.
    I don't know what's happening, never have,
    And what, in the words of the opera, what
    Shall I do?
The colours and the accents
    Will change irrevocably. I have friends,
    I think, but want no one beside me
    Like a scented flank: that would be a disaster,
    A paroxysm, lasting a lifetime and more.

    This is precisely how it is.
    You will learn nothing, absorbed as you are
    By your white thoughts and the drowsing swans
    Of your order. O emblems and symbols, return
    At once to the absurd oval from which you came!

    Finding Prostanna

    for Bronwyn

    On the way back
    From the Canyon of Inscriptions,
    I glimpsed for a second a sign that said
    Prostanna, which I knew at once to be
    A city of 'the wild Pisidians',
    But there was no time that day
    For further exploration, and we sped
    Along the causeway to the island
    (Weathered houses, metal-clad,
    Plane trees, a boat builder hard at work,
    Pensions, poppies, a small church like a barn).
    As the light faded a fierce south wind sprang up,
    And the white tablecloths were agitated
    Like the wings of limed birds. We made
    Enquires, and, yes, the waiters all agreed,
    There was an ancient city called Prostanna.
    It was easy to find. It was only five kilometres
    Away, but they had told us what they thought
    We wanted to hear, not anything they knew.
    So, benignly misinformed, we set out
    For Prostanna in the late afternoon
    Of the following day, when, we reasoned,
    The light would be at its most alchemical,
    Turning stones to ingots. But what awaited us?
    There might be a theatre perhaps? An agora,
    Or a library, houses, towers, tombs, fine ashlar
    Of the Hellenistic Period, when states quarrelled
    Continually, but trade and cities flourished. All those
    Antiochs, Alexandrias, Apameas and Seleucias ...

    The road wound up from the lake shore
    Aslant a near-vertical mountainside.
    Bronwyn winced, and moaned in the back seat,
    Head down, and I said, perhaps a little callously:
    'Well, dear, you wanted to see the Taurus Mountains ...
    And did you know that somewhere, I forget where,
    Shakespeare alludes to the snows of the Taurus?'
    We arrived, at last, on the edge of a natural terrace,
    Suspended above the glass of the lake, and here
    There was a village full of dark, wooden houses,
    And a second sign proclaiming Prostanna.
    This gave us hope, but the road ended, and the track
    Branched and branched again, but signs remained,
    Giving us further hope that the place could be
    Reached, although our books were silent on the subject.
    Tabula Rasa. Thus, it became inscribed and coloured
    With images of which we had no knowledge or
    True understanding. We walked for a long time,
    Then everything began to seem uncertain. Flocks
    Drifted across the slopes above us. We heard their bells,
    But saw no sign of human artifice, not even
    The clumsiest carving of an acanthus leaf or Ionic
    Scroll, and advancing darkness menaced us.
    We turned back, conscious of an exceptional failure.
    The city was too far. We had been misled. But I
    Did not excuse myself. Prostanna remained an idea,
    Something like a thornbush or a cloud, blocking us

    In Jean Dubuffet's Crimson Landscape

    The colours come to us
    Pleading for acceptance. They come
    In squares, which we perceive
    As one side of a cube. There are more
    Than a hundred of them, many more –
    Amphora, Earth, Caviar, Amazon ...
    And I am obliged to choose, and choose
    Only one, which will then surround me
    For years like a landscape, inflecting,
    Infecting each word I write, even
    The humble swarms of articles,
    Which, at present, all seem indefinite,
    Though, given a choice, I favour the definite –
    Solid like a tree centuries-old, giving
    Shade to a tea-garden with a fountain.

    In Jean Dubuffet's Crimson Landscape
    There is a high horizon-line, above which
    Is a saturated, inky blueness. Below it,
    There are many deep, vermiform purples,
    But, as I recall, nothing crimson or red.
    Everything broods and simmers pleasingly
    Like an active and fertile mind you would
    Like to get to know better. In other places
    On the pristine walls there are what may be
    Humans, animals, or features of an invented
    Geography, veiled under tones I cannot
    Begin to define, which argues in favour
    Of indirection and manifold ambiguities
    Inscribed, perhaps, on vellum coloured a pale lilac,

    But then the man in the green hat grins at you
    Conspiratorially, hands on his hips;
    The round figure in the red costume laughs out loud;
    A blue woman embraces herself, swaddled,
    Mummified, and you remain motionless, in place
    Like a pillar in a pool of artificial light,
    Or the celebrated circle of the lamp. You sit
    On the bench of blond wood, beyond which it is
    Best not to drift like a log or a raft of reeds.
    Evening disturbs you (it is always this way),
    And you are left, at last, in a world of loss,
    Your mother gone, staring at blackened walls
    Whose buried colours it is your task to uncover.


    Hear the flames now rising,
    Their keen, exasperated rush,

    Read their six thousand pages –
    Flames of a heart, a fist, a liver, a lung,

    Flames of dark, always dark (sad) eyes.
    Don't ask, 'What is happening to

    My pleasant civilisation with its many
    Admirable markets and inventions,

    This place like a park with fountains,
    Boxwood avenues, and perspectives

    Ending in long palisades of columns?'
    Don't ask. It never existed, and you know it.

    Remember the shattered windows of the stores,
    The blood smeared on torn newspaper,

    The smoke, and severed limbs underground,
    The stench. Bilal, young, male, consigned

    To some (yes) godforsaken periphery, said:
    'We don't have the words, so we speak through fire.'

    Blame lies elsewhere, like a lost cabinet,
    In a Star Chamber, under the lush foliage

    Of a stolen affluence, in desert places where,
    Reversing history, uncounted people are sluiced

    From ruined towns into camps without shade
    Or water, and tank tracks are driven over Babylon.


    They planted trees on Music Street,
    And how they've flourished,
    Tossing their bright hair whenever
    A breeze blows in from the Black Sea.

    Then we recall the unforgiving
    Emperor, Ovid's bitterness,
    The nereids of Mandelstam ...


    Music blasts briefly from the stores,
    Too loud and a little stupid like a drunk,
    But I don't dislike it. Its energy
    Irritates and infects. I edge

    Forward through intervals of
    Silence, albeit like a small boat
    On a sea of uncertain temper.


    Clouds pile up. The sun flashes.
    Dust dims the street. Rain
    Crashes down. The cat growls. Absurd,
    All of it! But the tree that was cut
    Almost to extinction has come back,
    Shimmering, affording generous shade.

    The past arrives much later
    Like starlight, salt or poisoned water.

    Near the Euphrates

    In the market district
    We admired the dried apricots.
    It was a custom of the place,
    Obligatory like a glass of tea.

    The restaurant was octagonal
    And surrounded by water.
    The men from the town hall
    Guffawed like lions.

    The approach was guarded
    By bronze busts of conquerors,
    Frowning as if about to decide
    The fate of a mutinous vassal.

    Acacias were in purple bloom,
    But snow still streaked the brown hills.
    Tall brick columns rose like
    Exclamations out of flourishing orchards,
    And a boy showed me a ruinous
    Mansion with a hooded hearth.

    The narrow road twisted steeply
    Down into hidden valleys.
    Beyond them, beyond everything,
    The great, tentacular river flashed
    Like a mirror raised as a signal.

    I felt then the exhilaration
    Of a child released from the care
    Of an anxious mother to spend a day
    Wading in swift, clear streams, lips
    Stained with the juice of mulberries.
    But the memory is not mine, could not be ...


    I was an impossible child. Why not
    Admit it? I hated to be photographed,
    Even though my father used a Leica
    (The best available at the time).

    I concealed myself in woods, among bushes
    And brambles, emerging later with my new pants
    Stained. On the summit of a mountain, I got lost
    In fog. My mother trembled. I, of course, was

    Perfectly OK. What was all the fuss about?
    I was thin, but greedy. Given the chance, I ate
    Whole jars of pickles, turned green and threw up.

    Out of sheer perversity, I stamped on
    A Roman Candle before its colours could explode.
    Well, it wasn't a candle or Roman, was it?

    I hated school. I hated sports. I hated the sea.
    Most of all, I hated public swimming baths
    Of the Edwardian era. I hated their smell,

    And the pale, naked bodies of my classmates,
    Which resembled rose-devouring grubs, but I
    Thoroughly enjoyed thumping my sister on the head
    With a heavy hard-backed book. Later,

    I told my kind and sentimental English teacher
    That Wordsworth wrote a poem about an idiot,
    Because that was what he was. On

    Another occasion I was so bad my mother
    Fled the house to spend a night with her sister.
    I ran after her along the dull, endless street,
    Begging her to come home, which she did

    On the following day. But what had I done?
    It is an empty chalet by a loathsome lake.
    I have no recollections of it, but fifty years on,

    I haven't forgiven myself, or forgotten
    The terror of her leaving. Most likely,
    I broke something in anger, a last straw ...

    Poem: 'I never really wanted ... '

    I never really wanted
    To put my thing into anything,
    Or anyone. The prospect seemed
    About as exciting as, say,
    A logarithmic table, and I
    Am not of a mathematical bent.

    As to being fucked, well,
    We all are in one way or another,

    But perhaps this is no reason to
    'Throw in the towel', and conclude
    Prematurely that all of life is horrible.

    It was not last time I checked.
    The fan is open. You only have to choose
    Which coloured spokes are yours, and what

    They mean. But this raises more questions
    As any thought, however crippled, must.
    People are averse, and the answer might be nothing –

    The vacant tomb of a nameless tyrant,
    Hacked out of a cliff-face and unreachable.

    Lines Written in a Hotel Room in Afyon

    My name is ash.
    No need to make
    a big issue of that,

    but it unnerves sometimes.
    Some events or relationships
    are said to taste of ash,

    like the aftermath
    of a medieval sack,
    or worse, O much worse ...

    I am speaking of things
    happening in my lifetime,
    in my century (of which
    I must take some sort
    of possession, as if it were
    a diary left idly open
    on an escritoire by some
    famous, political mother)

    – incinerated cities,
    hecatombs, the earth unable
    to consume its corpses,
    rivers filled with them and lakes ...

    But what am I to make
    of any of this when
    the only connection is
    the coincidence of a name,
    its horrible specifity.

    My parents, meanwhile,
    grew mad and died. I had hoped
    that another meaning of the name
    might gain authority,
    that, under its sheltering influence,
    they might be ushered out of life

    in a style as orderly
    as the way second subject
    follows first in a prolonged
    sonata movement by Mahler,
    I wanted it to be endless,
    and I wanted it cut off like a limb.

    No chord was resolved,
    yet it was The Song of the Earth
    we listened to most often,
    held motionless by the image
    of friends meeting at evening
    and parting forever: ewig ...

    The words were not sung,
    no celesta accompanied them;
    blue shadows did not descend
    from the mountains, and birds
    were silent as stones. What
    you said at that last meeting was:
    'Next time you come, I won't be here.'

    I write this in a hotel room
    in a town full of fountains,
    and repugnant monuments
    to the enmity of peoples, where I sit
    trying not to forget anything at all.

    The Cut

    It is winter. Night is falling.
    People rush home to turn on the lights.

    The grid overloads. The power fails.
    It is like this often. We shift and change,

    Slipping to a poor, third place.
    Inaudibly, a sigh goes up from kitchens

    And bathrooms. No one thinks to protest:
    'For five days it snowed, and now this?'

    Candles flicker behind thin curtains.
    The mother stops cooking, the painter

    Drops his brush, the writer his pen;
    In offices and homes the screens die;

    Nor can the framer frame, or the welder weld:
    There is nothing to do or be done.

    Where does darkness lie? Ahead,
    Behind? It does not end. Entire ages,

    When knowledge lapsed, and emperors
    Were proclaimed, then killed in an eyeblink,

    Were named for it. Yet an interval opens
    Like a fifth in music, though silent.

    It would be wise to be calm, and we are,
    Immersed, but attentive, acknowledging

    What may happen without our consent,
    While we remain motionless as obelisks

    Until the light returns, and a river of
    Incident flows again, and the weak craft

    That carries us drifts ineluctably
    Downstream to the expected destination.


    Sundown. The cannon sounds, and the call starts up,
    But briefly, since everyone must attend to this evening's soup,
    Which is essential to life. In truth, I barely register
    These reports and acclamations, absorbed as I am in thoughts
    Of the growing excellence of this city's public transportation,
    Yet for fully nine years, I disdained it, as Tsarist nobles
    Serfs, pre-emancipation, until my pockets emptied,
    And the landscape changed. Scales fell. Now, I see how
    Pleasantly the trams and buses move to and fro along
    Their predestined routes, and whether they are green
    Or blue, red or white, it is hard to resist the impulse
    To jump on board – so jump – and sit back! There is
    No need to argue with the driver, as sometimes happens
    In a taxi: 'Where are you going? No, this is the wrong
    Way. You have missed the turning. Stop at once,
    You utter blockhead, I am getting out!' But on a bus,
    Or a tram the driver knows exactly where he is going,
    And so do you. There will be nothing improvisatory,
    No anarchic detours in the style of Charles Ives.
    He is devoted to an Idea of Order, which he may interpret
    Ionically or ironically, since he is no one's slave.
    He will get you there, wherever that might be, despite
    Longeurs occasioned by the many private conveyances
    People mysteriously persist in using, to our general
    Detriment. This accords with nothing, as a harp concords
    With a trombone. It is a crazed cult of individualism,
    (In the Soviet sense of formalism), which you,
    As an individual, can do nothing to eradicate,
    So relax and look around. No one seems too ugly
    Or unpleasant do they? Here, for example, is a group
    Of five cheerful young people (students of music
    I imagine). There are several empty seats, but they
    Prefer to stand so they can talk and joke together.
    And here are a girl and a boy, sound asleep, one
    Slumped against the other. The bus lurches, and they wake
    With a start, but are soon asleep once again. Evidently,
    It has been a very long day for them. Then, for another
    Instance, there is a woman who is so elegantly dressed
    That you would expect to find her in a limousine,
    But obviously she has more sense. Only a few feet away
    Sits a handsome young man. He is neatly dressed,
    And appears to be in the last stages of lassitude,
    Which only makes him look more attractive.
    Suddenly, his head tilts back, his eyes open like windows,
    And he takes in his surroundings. He was, perhaps
    Immersed in some profound reverie, but now he stands
    To offer his seat to a much older foreign woman,
    Who smiles gratefully. She also looks tired. It is the end
    Of the day. We are all going home, and the soup is waiting.
    It is made of lentils, garlic and spices. It warms the heart.
    Meanwhile a mosque flashes by or appears to
    (Its finials are gilded) then a second mosque, a third,
    A drinking fountain, a palace and another palace, then
    A second fountain with a beautiful inscription,
    A tomb. Ancient planes make a vault above us.
    We also pass many other buildings of ugly severity,
    And some scrawny trees and shrubs, but the sea
    Flashes, and the sun sets in glory, and it would be
    Hard not feel a sense of gratitude for where we are,
    And how, despite insuperable difficulties, we live –
    Hard, also, not to recall the other meaning of transported.


Excerpted from In the Wake of the Day by John Ash. Copyright © 2010 John Ash. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Ash is a poet, a translator, and a writer. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Oasis, the Paris Review, PN Review, and the Village Voice. He is the author of several books, including The Branching Stairs, A Byzantine Journey, Disbelief, The Parthian Stations, To the City, and Turkey: The Other Guide.

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