Lifesaving Poems: John Ash’s ‘The Middle Kingdom’

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One of the pleasures of being alive is reading John Ash.

Think of a prize-winning poet, someone you think of as a poetry-household-name: that’s how good John Ash is and how well-known he should be. I have a strong suspicion that none of this means a jot to him, which makes me enjoy his work even more.

I first came across his work in the great Cliff Yates‘s great book of teaching poetry, Jumpstart, which contains a marvellous poem of faux-instructions of Ash: ‘Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod’. The poem opens :

Never believe the words you hear in popular songs.

Conversely, believe them all,

even the ones about changing the world and living forever.

This is a microcosm of many of Ash’s procedures: the importance (or complete irrelevance) of words; a relish in artefacts of popular culture; and a profound sense of decay. Most of all, these lines have a conversational lightness of tone, a characteristic he shares with the late Kenneth Koch, who used to say that just because his poems were not solemn did not mean they were not to be taken seriously.

‘Some Words of Advice’ led me to buy Ash’s Selected Poems, which of course it did not contain. By this time I had read Ash’s poem ‘Smoke’ in the terrific Peter Sansom‘s terrific Writing PoemsThis poem also contains references to ‘snatches of show tunes in the corridors’ and ‘old arias of desire’, but now the tone is chastened, cautious, elegiac:

In a city of burnt throats there can never be

enough sweet water to start the songs

and if you would dance, you must dance to the memory

of that lighted window the dusk carried off

Both ‘Smoke’ and ‘Some Words of Advice’ are contained in the second book of Ash’s poems based in New York (The Burnt PagesCarcanet, 1991), where he moved in 1985.

If you do not know it, it is a seriously important piece of work. Without wishing to be reductive, it is as critical to our understanding of AIDS as the perhaps more famous The Man With Night Sweats, My Alexandria and What the Living Do:

What is left is irretrievable,

but continues like a melody

whose logical and grieving progression nothing can halt. (‘In Rainy Country’)

The book is about much more than that, of course, but I do think, in poems like ‘The Middle Kingdom’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘My Egypt’, ‘Following a Man’, ‘The Sweeping Gesture’, ‘Forgetting’ and ‘In Rainy Country’ Ash performs a sustained mediation on mortality and decay that is both exquisite and what Peter Sansom calls ‘urgent’.

For my money ‘The Middle Kingdom‘ fuses together two of The Burnt Pages’ chief impulses: clear-eyed satire and deep personal ‘regret’, a word the poem uses three times:

We were all well-fed and warmly clothed, and
experienced no misgivings on this account.
The oceans were calm and shallow,
the rivers stocked with salmon. Each spring
brilliantly coloured birds passed over
on their way to northern lakes and hills.
Poems were often penned concerning
their brief and glorious transit. When
they returned in autumn we succumbed
to appropriate feelings of mild regret.

You should read this, and everything by John Ash. His work, including his recent work about living in Istanbul, never fails to take the reader into wholly new territories both real and imagined, living and historical. His poems never let you forget the forces of history in which they were created, and which they notate, but neither do they bash down your door as they remind you of this. I think he is one of the greats.

Read ‘The Middle Kingdom’ here

You can find more Lifesaving Poems here

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