Stu­art Wal­ton

A Master of Hu­man In­tri­ca­cies

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

The Songs We Know Best: John Ash­bery’s Early Life, Karin Roff­man, Far­rar, Straus, Giroux, June 2017, 316 pp., £23.00 (Hard­back)

Col­lected Poems 1991-2000, John Ash­bery, edited by Mark Ford, Car­canet, Jan­uary 2018, 840 pp., £20.00 (Paperback)

Com­mo­tion of the Birds: New Poems, John Ash­bery, Car­canet, Novem­ber 2016, 74 pp., £9.99 (Paperback)

‘What do you want, John?’ the elderly poet quizzes him­self, and with­out paus­ing for so much as a line break, goes on to sup­ply a cou­ple of an­swers. ‘In­for­mally, a / new body, and an as­sis­tant’ (‘Un­der­stand­ably’). Within touch­ing dis­tance of ninety, amid the teem­ing and loom­ing of the sen­si­ble world he has been ad­dress­ing since his mid-teens, there is so much to re­call, if one can re­call it. ‘Did we once go to bed to­gether? / And how was it? I need your help on this one’ (‘The Up­right Pi­ano’). At the win­try end of life, the sen­si­ble comes adrift in painful ways from its me­di­a­tion by thought. ‘In­tel­li­gence with­out un­der­stand­ing / is like con­stant frost, pound­ing at the tem­ples / un­til its bar­gain is over­seen. I kid you not.’ As the Preacher taught, there is a sea­son for every ac­tiv­ity un­der the heav­ens, a truth seen all the more clearly in the sun­lit prism of ret­ro­spec­tion: ‘What was it about those boys? Some were plain, / some were smooth. All en­joyed the sun / for as long as it chose to shine upon them.’

John Ash­bery’s twenty-sev­enth col­lec­tion of po­etry, Com­mo­tion of the Birds, turned out to be his last com­plete book. That it should have pre­ceded the first vol­ume of his bi­og­ra­phy by Yale aca­demic Karin Roff­man, The Songs We Know Best: John Ash­bery’s Early Life, seems to mark an all too neat bor­der­line be­tween his creative out­put and what prom­ises to be a sed­u­lously de­tailed chron­i­cle of his life. These de­tails, re­trieved from

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