Michael Tolkien

The Parthian Stations. (Carcanet)

(Publ. in Ambit 192, Spring 2008)


The first century B.C. Stations describes trading towns between Antioch and western India, ignoring the colourful Parthians. The title poem of Ash’s Stations, his seventh collection, highlights the panache and genius of this warrior people, a reminder that his map is impressionistic, less concerned with facts than with how art defines or transmutes experience. More broadly, though, this sequence comes to terms with an alien culture that submerges historic associations which can seem perplexingly more familiar than the current scene. Arriving in Turkey and sailing along its coast evokes qualified excitement. Note the discursive style and ambiguous simile. Ash excels at this kind of finale.


What was it we were about to find,

and what would we fail to find

on disembarking in blue Bithynia?


To all appearances unbruised,

innocence had been restored to us

like a pearl lost in the back of a taxi. (Arrival III (Departure))

The ongoing travel/arrival structure also suggests that you can purge and abandon your life, but its mental luggage may weigh all the more among fresh perspectives, adding to the mind’s warfare of memories and impressions. Ash emphasises this well by fragmenting ruminations over characters, places, and the process of writing, into displaced numbered poems. Their contents develop in his mind like recurring threads but with new tinctures. A particularly fine mixture of elegy and humour colours his relations with an eccentric aunt, an alienated sister, and an unfathomable, culture-vulture friend.

The persona’s displacement can evoke apparently absurd cross-cultural comment. For instance, do Americans called Brad appreciate their identification with a lost Byzantine city in N. Syria?  The response he’d like to hear in his lonely search (and won’t) hints at an unbridgeable gulf: ‘…that flat monosyllable would be/associated with great architecture/and the abandonment, many centuries/ago, of vineyards and olive groves…’(Brad)


In contrasting or highlighting a sense of place Ash lets architecture speak for itself. He sees two blind men, arms linked, singing a folk song, greeted kindly with coins:


You know you’re not in Manchester,

and you heave a profound sigh

of gratitude, but don’t forget


the sorrow in the turnings

of the street, in dusty windows,

and fractured architraves over them. (Gratitude)


     Here typically we feel what it is like to observe and not see. The poem

Things (one of several ironic apologias) declares: ‘…these names and feelings and places/…exist/ in no observable dimension…’ An impression reinforced by the predominant scepticism of the poems. Though there is every tonal nuance from anger to tenderness, Ash consistently rebuffs clichés and shibboleths. This might pall were it not complemented by a honed, accessible and well-crafted arrhythmic style.


John Ash