Read an Excerpt
In the Wake of the Day
By John Ash
Carcanet Press Ltd Copyright © 2010 John Ash
All rights reserved.
The Women of Kars
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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