Online Edition: Winter 2000/2001

The Anatolikon

John Ash

Talisman House ($14.95)

by Robert Kelly

It is a curious thing that travel literature embraces two utterly different, incompatibly opposite sorts of text: those that illuminate jungle pathways and sea voyages, huge tense or flabby deeds of getting there, and those quieter texts that exult in the amenities--or writhe beneath the discomforts--of being there.

A writer might well be enraged to find his new book of poems cross-listed under "Travel," even though texts in it seem to play out in Asia or the Mediterranean. John Ash's new book, however, unabashedly avows a poetry of being there--in Anatolia.

We call it Turkey, this strange land of Ash's sojourn, though I don't think he does. The country he moves in does not seem one of nowadays, not the Turkey of the Kurdish War or even of this century, Turks and Armenians, Turks and Germans, Turks and Jews. He seems closer to a Kavafis-like sense of time, or timelessness, as if in the sensuous detail of one afternoon we really can recover all of history, all the vexed kings and invaders, all the sly lovers and their vine-dazzled ruses. The title poem at the outset--wielding the longest lines of any in the book--shows this trust and his skill at their strongest.

Anatolia has long been a favorite place for Anglophone wanderers--I found myself thinking back several decades to Lord Patrick Kinross's accounts of his Turkish travels where naughtiness and wit mingle with precise observation. John Ash seems no stranger to that world, though his aims, and achievements, seem quite different: calme, luxe et volupté among the olive groves, the delicate whiff of diesel busses passing, oil slicks on the Sea of Marmara, a quiet, desperate holding to what is there.

These poems believe intensely in the world they bear witness to. That is the first thing we notice, I suppose, that we are reading texts of a believer. (Travelers, like theologians, come skeptical or credulous.) So vividly do they believe in the happenstance they behold that at times they go for quiet, unemphatic ways of talking, perfectly registered, when a more anxious traveler might press harder with description.

Robbed stone, ashlar.
Stacked reeds and sherds.

Cattle skirting the edge of the marsh,
whisking their tails against flies.

Then too, that same believingness seems to mark the persons who live in the poems, and most of all, the I-figure whose doings monopolize most of the syntactical operations of the book. They are not, ‘I' am not, described. They are the givens, the actors, pronoun-bearing shadows moving through a bright landscape. Where Bashô shows us everything he sees and we wind up remembering only the mind of Bashô, Ash shows us Ash beholding, and we remember, sometimes with a curious tenderness, the things he gives us to see. Strange, the contrariness of poetry.

Sometimes Ash is pretty prosy in his ways when narration replaces observation (as in the later sections of "The Tour"), especially when history with a capital H is at stake, but by and large he is able to cluster material musically before us, close to the ear. And he seldom makes us conscious of his verbal logic; we tend to accept his imagistic invention as if it were simply just more evidence.

What interests me most in this collection of graceful scenes and interviews is the quiet way, that word again, John Ash develops his own sort of poetics of information. It seems to me that such a poetics--be it Pound, Olson, Allen Fisher, Cage, Kenneth Irby--is the notable achievement of our post-narrative age, the ability of verse to handle huge tracts of stuff from our slaughterhouse of data, and bring them to shape, sense, social fact: where information becomes the in-forming of society. Ash can move from the vernacular to the formal very smoothly, can sound a little like Pound, or Kavafis, or even (as in "Language Poem: 2000 BC-2000 AD") like Olson written by Rexroth. The man's own voice is secure enough to allow these gestures, almost playful reminders of how other poets have been battered by this material, this Anatolia, the Rising Country, the source of the sun. I saw it from the air once, hard and red and barren, the highlands, and felt this was a place that still needs to speak. Ash is more civil than my harsh mountains, but he clearly speaks the place. And that is where travel poem becomes just poem.

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Winter 2000 Table of Contents