So, me and my friend Ana were sitting in my attic flat, the first flat Marian and I lived in when we moved to Spain. Ana was smoking, with occasional pauses not to smoke, but smoking more often than not. We were working on one of John Ash‘s poems, I think ‘Ferns and the Night’. The epigraph comes from Marie Luise Kaschnitz (and another thing I need to thank John Ash for, too late, too late: discovering Kaschnitz to me, roundaboutly): ‘Und wir hörten sie noch von ferne | Trotzig singen im Wald’. I remember suggesting that it was deliberate that ‘ferne‘ should make its way into a poem with ‘Ferns’ in the title.
I found the Kaschnitz poem in the Penguin anthology of Twentieth-Century German Verse (1968), and I like to imagine hopefully that that’s where Ash came across it too: the persona I like to think of him adopting in his work is as someone more comfortable with anthologies than collected works, more obviously broad than deep. Here’s the Kaschnitz quote in context:
Auf dem siebenten Berg war kein Haus
Und mein Bruder sagte, steigt aus.
Da wurden sie alle traurig
Und ließen die Luftballons los,
Und das lieblichste übergab sich
Gerade in seinen Schoß.
Sie gingen eins hierhin, eins dorthin
Die kleinen Fäuste geballt
Und wir hörten sie noch von ferne
Trotzig singen im Wald.
And here is what is always advertised in the Penguin series as the ‘plain prose translation’ of this stanza, the last one of Kaschnitz’s poem ‘Die Kinder dieser Welt’:
On the seventh mountain there was no house and my brother said ‘Out you get’. Then they all grew disconsolate and let go of their balloons, and the sweetest one was sick right on his knee. One went this way, one went that, their tiny fists clenched, and from afar we still heard them singing sulkily in the woods.
You can see, once you fall in love with John Ash, what he might have found enticing in Kaschnitz’s poem: the children, the apparent whimsy, the melancholy, the overlay of what appears to be surrealism but which instead is a complex of gestures embodying a wider emotional accuracy. Here’s the last stanza of ‘Ferns and the Night’:
She finds that her bare feet are wet and that she is looking into a puddle,
Seeing the clouds reflected and her face (the moon also). She calls again
but has forgotten where she is, or whose name she is calling. Her own perhaps?
The wooden house, the lighted porch seem unreachable, –
artfully lit, a glassed-in exhibit in some future museum of the human.
Ferns and the night conceal the child whose laughter distantly reaches her.
This echoes and ebbs around the Kaschnitz epigraph, but is all its own thing as well: the stage-set lives, the sense of looking at the world through slightly alien eyes, the emotion that is not ours, but which maps onto emotions we might feel.
Ana and I worked on this poem for a long time: there were little fish-hooks in it, difficult phrases that we worried at, that worried at us. ‘A series in retrograde inversion’, for example, which I couldn’t explain well enough in Spanish, and which became in the published version the meek and inadequate ‘serie inversa‘.
I think all of the above is nothing more than a set of ways of showing how I never think I’ve really understood how John Ash works. I sit and read him and say to myself ‘How does he do that?’, but there’s never an answer that satisfies me. It comes back to the question of broad versus deep mentioned above: he’s extremely knowledgeable about some things (music above everything else), but generally knowledgeable about most things. He’s carefree, camp, angry, philosophical, sometimes in the same poem, sometimes all at once. I can’t work out how it all adds up.
He’s one of my favourite poets. Thank heavens I don’t have to analyse him. Translating him was hard enough. All I need to do, all anyone needs to do, is say ‘Thank you’.