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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Utopia Revisited (John Ash)


John Ash: Disbelief, Carcanet.

John Ash has always adopted a particular line in aestheticism.  In his works, the world is present but estranged, not so as to make that strangeness terrifying or alienating, as in Kafka, but to make it delightful and pleasurable, which surely must be a more difficult, if also more necessary, transformation.  It is also a more dangerous one, in that the impedimenta of melodrama, pastoral silliness and campness must be used.  Some poems in Disbelief, Ash’s latest and, in many ways, best volume, repeat the strategies of earlier books.  (See my review of The Goodbyes, PNR 37.)  The operative staginess (‘These are steps we will descend in sleep/like echoes of ourselves, each singing/in our different ways, without dull repetition …’) does, in fact, seem to have been repeated too many times to remain effective; all defamiliarising gestures have an entropy towards the familiar, a danger Ash must be aware of, given the range of this new book.  When not concerned with individual aesthetic consciousness, Ash creates imaginatively playful utopias, which he then describes, images of a possible non-alienating social freedom.  It is precisely the question of description in this project which now disturbs me.  The idea that an image of a possible utopia might be produced by defamiliarising and aestheticising the world alone, by making it fictive - which still seems to me a necessary first step - seems unwittingly complacent.  Lyotard in ‘The Critical Function of the Work of Art’ (in Driftworks) questions art which remains ‘a representation of something to come; this is to remain within the order of representation ….  The system, as it exists, absorbs every consistent discourse; the important thing is not to produce a consistent discourse but rather to produce ‘figures’ within reality.  The poet holds language ‘under suspicion, ie to bring about figures which would never have been produced, that language might not tolerate, and which may never be audible, perceptible, for us’.  To put it another way, Ash often argues, rather insistently, the case for aestheticism: his transformations happen at the level of semantics, often strikingly so: his ‘The Second Lecture: An over-excited man tells us about clouds’ - with its use of synaesthesia and imaginative and metaphoric dissolution - ends ‘We are effaced.  A chrysanthemum of air remains poised to drop its petals into the blue that will reshape them endlessly.’  But at the levels of syntax, rhythm, line, phonology and grammar the conventions are often as intact as they are in the varieties of contemporary poetry that Ash - rightly - has criticised repeatedly.  He tells us of the postmodern condition, but he never enacts this formally:

I regard the world as a TV

on which I change channels at will,

never moving from the bed.

It is, I would contend, only through formal disruption that a desire for change can be activated, involving the reader directly in the construction of the meaning of the poem, something Ash’s insistence makes hard: ‘utopia’ is not a radiant isolated image, but an active education of desire.

Nevertheless, this collection covers new ground, even within his aestheticism.  His ‘urban pastoralism’ is extended dramatically in an embarrassingly whimsical ‘Eclogue’ (for Black American English: ‘Are these the locals honey? / They sure talk funny.’), but in ‘Men, Women and Children’ the effect can be sour: although ‘life is a festive marching to no purpose’, the ‘destination’ may yet turn out to be ‘the oppressive portals of the capital, / the altars still smelling of blood’.  The litany, ‘The sky my husband’, is a kind of printout of possibilities that enacts metaphoricity itself as it cancels the meaning of the repeated word ‘sky’: ‘The sky my galleries my icons / The sky my radio my satellite my video’.  Ash has also turned more expansively to prose, as in ‘Every Story Tells It All’, which is a serial writing in search of its own evasive narrative.  There are ‘translations’ of Li Ho, a found text from Lorca’s letters.  But, particularly towards the end of the book, there is a seriousness of tone, as in ‘The Nine Moons of Austin’, which, when it addresses the poet Christopher Middleton, approximates something of the older poet’s integrity and capacity for wonder:

You are translating from the German,

difficult words: heilignòchterne,

meaning both ‘holy’ and ‘lucid’

like this moment of stillness and clouds

passing, noble as HØlderlin’s swans.

15 August 1987                                                                              PN Review 63, 1988

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.