A Byzantine journey

Back in the days when John Ash was a rising English poet of the New York School, critics either loved his stiletto wit or loathed it as "camp disdain."

A Byzantine journey

Mr. Ash's new book, "The Parthian Stations," shows how a decade of living in Istanbul, studying the heritage of Byzantium and traveling in the Middle East has sharpened both his eye and the claws of his feline black comedy.

Meanwhile, any disdain he may have felt in the past at the politics he observes around him has matured into a deep and incisive anger.
"The Parthian Stations" -- named after a caravan route between the Mediterranean and India that was described by a Basra geographer in the first century BC -- displays Mr. Ash's talent for integrating contemporary Middle Eastern events into an English poetic frame. He condemns the ruler of Syria, for instance, for retaining the holes made by bullets fired during the 1982 Hama massacre -- and then building a hotel on the bulldozed remains of the ancient city center.

Out of crushed bones and corrupted
flesh a white, pyramidal hotel
rose in balconied stages. Cursed.

But Mr. Ash also takes a long (and not altogether favorable) view of America's role in the region's conflicts.

The auguries, the inaugurations
Proceed at vast expense, banquet after banquet.
A fire of the mind is invoked, and this is what
We must live with as the century raises itself
On crippled limbs to proclaim victory.
Neither Alexander nor Trajan combined
Such arrogance with ignorance
But, in the end, what difference does it make?
Persepolis burned, and Fallujah is emptied.

When Mr. Ash's 2004 collection, "To the City," came out, Poetry, a leading American literary magazine, said that he "could be the best English poet of his generation." Now he is a leading light among an "Istanbul School" of several American and English poets who use the city as a vivid background against which to weave together themes of East and West. They include fine poets like Sidney Wade, Mel Kenne, James Wilde, George Messo and the late Daniel Pendergrass.
By day, many of these poets, including Ash, teach English in Turkey's burgeoning private colleges. Some meet regularly, others share a new literary periodical and two recently produced a Turkey supplement for the Atlanta Review. Several translate Turkish verse into English, which Ash counts as one of his principal sources of inspiration. Turkish respect for poetry goes back to Ottoman times, when, according to Walter Andrews, a translator, "almost everyone, from the ruler to the peasant, from the religious scholar to the rake and drunkard, aspired to be a poet."
Michael Schmidt, Ash's publisher at Carcanet Poetry, feels that the new generation of poets are all too new and different to share the same appellation. But Tony Frazer, whose Shearsman Books is interested in poems about Turkey, believes that the country exerts a unique and powerful influence. He gives the counterexample of expatriate British and American poets in Germany, who "might as well be in Leicester or Peoria for all the impact that Germany has had on their work."
The son of a schoolteacher, Mr. Ash, 58, lived until 20 years ago in his hometown, Manchester. Just as he was achieving recognition in Britain he left for America as a protégé of John Ashbery, a leader of the avant-garde New York School.
In his new book, Mr. Ash writes that he moved to Istanbul in 1996 partly to be in a land of Muslim calls to prayer, "to shuck responsibility, to imagine I was not Western, not Christian and free." He found a new patron, Selçuk Altun, a Turkish banker-turned-novelist who supported him for three years. Istanbul recalls Paris of a century ago, a place where expatriate writers could find liberty, affordable living and exotic surroundings. However, Mr. Ash, who likes to sip aniseed-flavored raki instead of absinthe, rejects the comparison. "I just like cities on the verge of chaos," he says. "Istanbul was one of the few places that wouldn't seem boring after New York."
His book is by turns autobiographical and whimsical. The narratives are accessible, whether meditating on the spontaneity with which he writes or on the sudden death of his sister. Above all, Mr. Ash engages with Istanbul, the former Constantinople,"an antechamber of Asia, a place of distances and perspectives."
The absurd surfaces in a battle of wills with an Istanbul postman about whether he is or is not Jan Keetman, an unknown man whose "orphaned letters" are left at his door "like offerings to the god/of all that is foreign and infidel." A play on the Turkish name Isa introduces the wanton lines "I met Jesus on the street, /and took him home. The sex was good." Isa turns out to be a manslaughter convict and the real-life Ash had to be saved by his Turkish neighbors. Dangers are not metaphorical. "Once, someone dropped a brick on my head. The sound was like that," he writes after a terrorist bomb ripped through a synagogue a couple of streets away, blowing out five window panes in his 19th century apartment.
Ash also chose Istanbul to pursue his life-long obsession with the Byzantine Empire, whose curious emperors and place names glimmer like archaic jewels in many of his poems. Ash sees continuities between the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the Turks today, be it in cuisine, popular customs or the citizens' obsession with a view of the Bosphorus.
Ash still loves to search for forgotten Byzantine towns in remote valleys of the Levant. In one new poem, he wonders if the many American males named Brad are aware that they share their name with a lost Byzantine city in northern Syria. "I have spent days amid stony hills/trying to find you but failed utterly, O Brad!" he writes. "I will not give up. You will be mine I tell you."

[INFO]

 'The Parthian Stations' By John Ash

In the US
Talisman House, Publishers, Jersey City
Mid-February 2007
ISBN-13: 978-1-58498-051-6
US$ 12.95

In the UK
Carcanet Poetry
April 2007
ISBN-10: 1 857548 72 8
ISBN-13: 978 1 857548 72 3
RRP: GBP£ 9.95

 

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Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16
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