No, not John Ashbery, but John Ash, a poet born in Manchester in 1948. I had read poems by him before, but only a few from anthologies.
I picked up John Ash’s third collection The Goodbyes from the Scottish Poetry Library on loan. It was published in 1982. I’ve only read a few poems so far, but already I’m hooked.
The first poem, Great Sonata I, begins with a fantastic image:
The pianist commences the sonata about the angels and the rain.
It is slow, so lingering we will soon be fast asleep
dreaming of pink rooms filled with musical animals and roses
while our teeth rot in sympathy, and outside
the autumn air grows dense as a preserving oil.
It’s the “teeth rot in sympathy” phrase and the description of autumn that follows that hooks me in. The description is so dynamic. The pink rooms aren’t a look back to innocent childhood, but something sickly and cloying, a mawkish escape from reality.
The poem continues:
We must start now on the long road back
to the ‘evidence of our senses’ but it is hard –
we may have to unlearn as much as we learn,
besides, we distrust all the approved maps and signposts…
So the threat arises of a sojourn as long as a life
in some commonplace purgatory
of cacophonous motels and braided intersections. Yet
these are not all that modern life has to offer us
and the town is not a monster to be run away from,
screaming into headlights and blank night: thus, escape
from one dilemma only lands us in the swamp
of another, and the smell is worse than ever…
So we have the dilemma that not to follow the approved maps is to end up not knowing where you’re going. The evidence of our senses involves unlearning, not an easy thing to do.
But escape is no answer. That only leads to more questions.
The thought is clear yet intriguing. The poem itself resembles its “cacophonous motels”.
We could invoke tradition, speed up the film of the flower
or imitate the procedures of music, in the hope
that these evasions might lead us, by way of doors
casually thrown open as if nothing were at risk
back to the dim point of departure. But how
can this appear as it was? It is only a confusion
of inclined planes, corridors and theatre boxes –
a fake painting called ‘Melancholy Of The Set-Square’.
I was with him until the last line. Then I did a little research and found this article, which includes a paragraph on Durer’s painting, Melencolia I:
The picture is at once immediately legible and deeply ambiguous. Seated on a step outside a narrow building with a ladder leaning against it is a winged angel...
...Strewn about the ground are a variety of tools and instruments – a self-feeding furnace, or athanor, a polyhedron with a hammer lying beside it, a sphere, a set square, a pair of pincers, a plane, a handsaw, a ruler, three nails, and some sort of syringe...
...In the background is a stretch of coastline overlooking an alarmingly calm lake or sea, and in the sky a comet, a rainbow and a batlike figure brandishing a streamer with the inscription “Melencolia I”. The scene is steeped in a lugubrious grey twilight.
What makes Dürer’s picture so enigmatic is precisely this superabundance of objects: it is “overdetermined” – has too many clues and signposts pointing in similar but not quite identical directions.
That could be the answer. I wonder if it spoils the poem, as it’s quite an obscure reference (of course, I realise there probably is a simpler solution, and if anyone knows what it is, I'd be interested in any suggestions).
However, the rest of the poem is so intriguing that I’m almost prepared to forgive him. I’ll certainly keep reading the rest of the collection.