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This review is taken from PN Review 37, Volume 10 Number 5, March - April 1984.

THE UNKNOWABLE SYMPHONY John Ash, The Goodbyes (Carcanet) £3.25 pb.

If John Ash's Casino (1978) laid to rest the ghosts of symbolism, and The Bed (1981) represented an assimilation of modernism and signalled the influence of more recent writers (Ashbery, Fisher, Harwood), then this latest book announces Ash's arrival as a distinctive and original voice in British poetry. The obscurity of parts of The Bed gives way to a more assured, direct and sometimes, simple, tone, without abandoning the complex interweaving of images and narratives. There are a few inconsequential poems ('A Novel', for example, includes material better dealt with in The Bed) but mostly this is a collection that delights the sympathetic reader, fills him or her with pleasure (a key word for Ash), and leaves the attentive critic filled with wonder at its sheer imaginative power and at the poet's skill and procedures.

These poems don't pretend to be social realism or home-made mythology, homely anecdote or domestic defamiliarization, though each may play its part. They foreground their own artifice, not by simple self-reference - the poem crying, 'I'm a poem!' - but by offering their contents as predominantly fictive or even, at times, as empty. 'We like to retain certain clichés for the sake/of their beautiful transparency,' we are told, and the world, too, comes to resemble an empty text. We find


thin wisps of smoke like commas
dissolving on a white sky:


the words are missing.


In 'Early Views of Manchester ...
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