By Vincent Czyz
We live in an antechamber of Asia,
in tall baroque or art nouveau buildings
without elevators, each one of us
a Janus or goddess of the crossroads,
amid magnificent or demoted
ambassadorial residences. Each morning,
we must choose which way to turn our faces.
—John Ash (1948-2019), from “Double Vision,” The Parthian Stations
We were both English-speaking expatriates living in Istanbul, and John Ash’s poetry spoke eloquently to that shared experience.
Late on a Sunday in April of 2007, I visited Ash in, yes, a narrow baroque building constructed late in the 19th century and painted a green that would be ugly even if it weren’t covered in soot. One wing of the steel door required a shoulder shove before I found myself in the dankness of a dingy hallway. I trudged up five flights of worn marble stairs.
Ash was waiting at the door. Six-two or so, bespectacled and ascetically thin, he looked the part of the poet. The apartment, which he owned, was comfortable and tastefully decorated. There were beautifully woven rugs from Anatolia (a term used to refer to the 97% of Turkey that’s cartographically in Asia), paintings by several American artists, and an assortment of handsome objects that included an intricately damascened table. “It’s amazing how inexpensively you can get stuff like this that’s not very old but has been beautifully worked by hand,” John remarked. (This table ranked high enough in John’s affections to make it into “Smoking,” a poem of elegantly understated melancholy.) I had come calling on business, an interview with John for Rain Taxi magazine.
We’d met at a party in Istanbul seven years earlier and saw each other regularly thanks to the weekly meetings of a writers’ group I’d been invited to join. His voice was high and nasal — shrill when he was agitated, which was not uncommon — and he had no qualms about wearing eyeliner.
I would not have bothered interviewing John if I hadn’t been impressed by his work—thoroughly, as it happens. Moreover, we were both English-speaking expatriates living in Istanbul, and his poetry spoke eloquently to that shared experience: each morning we did have to choose which way to turn our faces, to history or modernity, to the Byzantine past or the Ottoman past, to the West of our birth or the East of our longings.
John died on December 3rd of last year, not in his beloved Istanbul, but back where he started, in Manchester, England, a city proud to have been the hub of the Industrial Revolution. His health had been deteriorating, mostly, mutual friends told me, due to his excessive drinking. He would never have left Turkey, one insisted, if he’d had control of his life.
John abandoned Manchester in 1985 and disembarked in New York, where he formed a long-lasting friendship with fellow poet John Ashbery, with whom he is often confused. The move was transformative.
“For me,” John said in our 2007 interview, “discovering people like John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara was a liberation because I realized you could write about anything.” He was now free of “constipated awful English poets who wrote in iambic pentameter. Quatrains. Can you believe? Frank O’Hara trashed them memorably. To me, the New York Poets were an escape: I didn’t have to write like Phillip Larkin. Phillip Larkin is a very fine poet, but I am about as distant from him in temperament as we are from Mars. So discovering the New York School was very, very important for me. I realized, oh, I can write about anything. I can be silly, I can be serious. It doesn’t matter.”
“Malediction I (Phil’s Dick),” a poem about a man whose member bears a purple birthmark and whom John “wished … out of life” bears this sentiment out.
In 1996, having landlord troubles and feeling squeezed by Manhattan’s towering rents, Ash sailed to Byzantium, that is, to Istanbul, the once-upon-a-time Constantinople. Enchanted, he stayed. The author of 12 books of poetry, Ash’s work was selected for a number of notable anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1988 (edited by John Ashbery), 1990, 1991, and 1992. Poetry magazine suggested, “John Ash could be the best English poet of his generation,” which prompted John to remark wryly, “Why ‘could’?” His travelogue, A Byzantine Journey, which hit shelves in 1995, is still in the front windows of bookshops in Istanbul.
John had started coming to Turkey in the 1960s and was already familiar with the republic that emerged from the tatters of the Ottoman Empire. One of his deeper dreads was boredom, and after living in New York, the only city he could think of that “wouldn’t be boring” was Istanbul. “It’s a vital extraordinary and ancient city with these vast monuments, but it is not a museum. It’s not a still-life like Venice or even Paris for that matter. I’m sure things are happening in Paris, but it’s very much set, as it is, and it always will be, whereas … Istanbul is constantly developing and changing. It is completely unpredictable.”
Istanbul was also conducive to a peculiar feature of John’s poetry, “sort of odd juxtapositions,” as he described them. “What John Ashbery called bizarre contiguity. The historical fabric of the city is full of strange juxtapositions — Byzantine churches next to mosques, Byzantine churches converted into mosques, Baroque buildings and Ottoman wooden houses, humble teahouses and glitzy cafés and bars — all of these things within a short walk.”
“Evening II” works via bizarre contiguity. In the first stanza the speaker opines on “the Maya/at the end of their Classic Period—/deserted cities, great causeways overgrown,” but the second stanza drops the reader among children playing on a busy Istanbul street, ends — both stanza and poem — with “a pleasant evening in March,” and leaves the clash between epochs, peoples, and imagery to ring in the reader’s ear.
John’s death sent me back to his books, and I was mildly surprised to find that I like the work even more, not out of nostalgia or sentimentality — we were not close friends — but more likely because as I age I am approaching his perspective, and maybe my literary taste is getting some distinguishing grays. It also occurs to me for the first time that his approach to his art was to work primarily by the poem, not so much — like, say, Albert Goldbarth — by the line. It makes it difficult to excerpt the work; to be properly appreciated the poem has to be seen a whole. There are, nonetheless, some lovely lines: “Olympus dazzles us, and the sea/flashes like a polished shield”; “scatter me in the light/on the crowns of the olives”; “it will all pass/like a train of ghosts as the empire declines”; “Everything was reversed, confused/like a revolving rainstorm …”
The style is spare but not skeletal; Ash excised excess, refusing to do the work that rightly falls to the reader. The speakers are witty, frequently playful, at times sagely, as though they were dispassionate dispensers of wisdom.
John the man, as opposed to the poet or one of his narrators, was multiphasic, more akin to a moon deity than a Janus. Depending on the day, he could be irascible, understanding, condescending, generous, abrasive, compassionate, savagely belittling, surprisingly gentle, pointlessly combative — and I don’t think that exhausts the spectrum. After one of our writers’ meetings broke up and we were headed to a restaurant for a late dinner, I made a remark about Seljuk architecture that John never let me forget: for the next several minutes he berated me in a voice that drew stares from scandalized Turks. In his defense, I had indeed been mistaken.
How then did you sink
into this fog, this limbo in which
nothing is distinct as you always were
like unrestrained laughter?
—“Aunt Milka I,” The Parthian Stations
The national drink in Turkey is rakı, pronounced more like rah-kuhh, not rocky, which is one of the most common offenses committed against the Turkish ear (the word doesn’t end with an i; it’s a letter we don’t have in our alphabet). Rakı is customarily served with a pitcher of water, with which it is diluted, sometimes also with ice, and, like other aniseed liqueurs, turns cloudy white when in the presence of either.
One night in 2003, when I was separating from my Turkish wife (the first one), I sat with John and a recently opened bottle of rakı. We talked and drank, and he smoked until the bottle had about two fingers left. I hadn’t downed more than a glass — I don’t like anything that tastes like black licorice — and as I was getting ready to leave, John poured the rest. He must have been drunk, but he showed no sign of it other than a flushed face. I think that’s why it didn’t occur to me until much later that he might have a drinking problem.
In August of 2008 John and I travelled to Iznik, 87 miles south and somewhat east of Istanbul, a sleepy lakeside town of dusty sunsets and Byzantine ruins—crumbling walls, a badly restored basilica, forlorn towers (including one behind the hotel). Famous for the vibrant colors and workmanship of its ceramic tiles–exemplified in a dazzling minaret–Iznik was known to the Romans and Byzantines as Nicaea, where in 325 AD an ecumenical council established the Nicene Creed.
During the bus ride from the ferry station, John turned to me, a look of malicious glee on his face, and tapped the window with a crooked finger. “This is the valley where the People’s Crusade was massacred.” I understood the allusion only because of time spent with John and his circle: the People’s Crusade, essentially a migrating pogrom, had indulged in an orgy of killing. Thousands of Jews, primarily in France and Germany, fell victim to this peasant army. But Peter the Hermit and his followers pushed their luck too far; when they arrived in Anatolia, the Seljuks were waiting.
While there were plenty of sights in Iznik to take in during the day, nightlife, as John remarked, consisted “mainly of fending off mosquitoes.” We usually spent it at an outdoor table in front of the hotel, watching the sun sink into the lake and the light gradually disappear from the sky, discussing new poems — John always wrote them out by hand — or whatever topic was handy. John drank double rakıs; I stuck to mineral water and beer.
John’s oeuvre can be broken up into English, American, and Turkish periods. Iznik, Istanbul, and Turkey in general comprised what came to be John’s preferred mise-en-scène. The poetry from his final period is loaded with references to ancient cities and civilizations, ruined basilicas, the palaces of kings, historical allusions — it was the Parthians, to take one example, who lent their name to the title of his penultimate collection.
Shortly after that trip I left Turkey and resettled in New Jersey. I saw John briefly during annual visits to Istanbul. He was growing frailer and his hands had begun to tremble. He seemed also to have mellowed, to be more affectionate as well as permanently distracted — even when he was following the conversation and looking at you, he was simultaneously, behind his glasses, peering backwards at something, maybe another time.
The only solution—assuming one is needed—
is to plunge into the water or the ruins, to touch,
in either case, the bruised bloom of another world.
Nothing will be as you expected it to be, yet it is home
of a kind, with complex signatures you recognize.
—from “A Short Divan,” To the City
After John’s death, a mutual acquaintance of ours posted a photo of him on social media. It shows him from behind, walking toward an overgrown wall built by some bygone civilization. I have a similar photo of John’s retreating back. Wearing a grass-green Lacoste shirt, a knockoff he laughed about picking up on the street for 5 Turkish lira, he is walking through a shady cemetery in Iznik on a bright afternoon. Historically, cemeteries in Turkey were treated as city gardens, and Turks strolled through them and sipped tea in cafés set up along their perimeters. It was a snapshot of convenience; John didn’t like his photo taken unless he was in a group, when he would smile obligingly, sometimes half-mockingly, for the camera. The view he seemed to prefer we have of him was from a distance, at an oblique angle or from behind, through his work. It’s the only view of him left.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.