Poems by Ruth Asch, with art work by James Tyldesley
Saint Austin Press, 2009
136 pp.; $10.00
When I first opened Reflections, Ruth Asch’s extraordinary first collection of poetry, I did that bad thing readers are not supposed to do: I turned to the last page. The little poem, poised there on page 129, stared me in the eye, smiled, and then kicked me in my reviewer’s shin just hard enough to smart a little and make me grin at the task ahead of me.
If you would rather be surprised by a clever little twist at the end of an enervating poetic ramble through regions of “Nature,” “Time and Change,” “Love and Friendship,” “Faith,” and “Inspiration,” then you may want to avert your eyes here and skip a couple of paragraphs down in this review. With that spoiler alert in mind, here is the book’s concluding poem in its entirety:
Haven’t you noticed?
Nowadays the critic is the artist.
The artist presents a pile of rubbish
for the critic to have the honor
of exegesis on—imaginative catharsis.
So; in your capable mind,
I leave this work. (p. 129)
The poem is ironic, of course, because Ms. Asch has presented us with nothing like a pile of rubbish. It is more like a pile of diamonds, a dazzling display of mysteries poured out and pored over by a mind of tremendous alacrity and imaginative range.
And yet, if these poems are diamonds, as I think they mostly are, some are still in the rough and some are cut at strange angles that glint darkly in the dim light of rainy days and evening walks. There is not a lot of full sunlight in these poems; rather they abound with subtle glimmerings and sparkles. The light shines in the darkness, indeed. Even at their brightest and warmest, the poems seem to only tenuously stave off night’s dark or winter’s chill, or embrace of the inwardness that such an atmosphere inspires.
The book’s opening poem, which is among the brighter ones in the collection, is entitled “Running After Rain” and the speaker of the poem is “flung flinging through a liquid-/ Haze, as insubstantial as a dream” (p. 15). Despite the exuberance of the moment, the poem dwells more on the dreamlike after effects of the rain than on the clarifying power of the sun. Later, in the section entitled “Love and Friendship,” the sun is mentioned but it is “sun distilled through earth’s tears” (“Testimonial,” p. 74). Although the poems are laced with music, beauty, and gentle humor; the overarching mood of the collection is one of melancholy, solitude, darkness, and the contemplation of complex truths carefully but imaginatively dissected.
That “flung flinging” moreover has, to my ear, a very Hopkinsesque quality to it, an impression that recurs throughout the book but particularly in the Nature section. In “Evening Walk” (p. 17) the poem’s protagonist sees into the inscape of the scene again with what strikes me as a very Hopkins-informed sensibility:
The feathered darkness there is purple-warm,
Stacatto-edged with chattering birds’ last song:
Embrace of muffling magic bestilling.
A few poems later, in similarly charged language, a swamp appears as a “stench-shot rot-black swathe/ of once-water” (“Reaction,” p. 20). Throughout the collection, in fact, the language is prone to Hopkins-like flights of musicality and a willingness to experiment with odd line-breaks and refreshingly jarring compound constructions. As with Hopkins, rhythm and cadence take precedence. Unlike Hopkins, at times—as in a poem like “In Denial” (p. 52-3) where a repeating stanza structure creates cohesion but individual stanzas suffer from strained intelligibility or slightly-off word choice—the music of Asch’s lines can overwhelm the language. By and large, though, Asch pulls off these acrobatics quite beautifully and successfully.
If the Hopkins influence is apparent in these poems, the ghost of that other most idiosyncratic 19th-Century poet, Emily Dickinson, also haunts the pages of Reflections. Asch shares with her predecessor a certain combination of jewel-like inscrutability, intellectual assertiveness, and whimsy tempered by shyness. Additionally, Asch’s poems occasionally exhibit an insistent seeming heedlessness of punctuation and strained syntax—as if reality cannot be circumscribed according to the standard rules of writing but must be captured haphazardly and on the fly. A few of the poems in fact seem on the verge of flying apart, tenuously held together with a mad stapling of colons, semi-colons, elisions, and Dickinsonian dashes.
In “Epiphany?” (p. 44)—a wonderful poem which describes one of many evening walks that take place across this collection—Asch’s persona grapples with her shadow self “Like a figure of Nemesis” and her impinged sense of freedom. Nature seems to stand in judgment: “The trees weep over me.” But then, as often happens in Asch’s poems, an imaginative break occurs, and the language and the punctuation both seem to cross over into territory where rules—both syntactical and existential—are bent or changed:
I look down, only a stubborn chin holding out
against my own mean, hollow, hunched shrivelling—
And leap into my eyes, my heart, my soul!
through glum-gauzed veils of apathy, the
living, glowing colours of slight, lost leaves.
Abandoned innocent treasures. They soak
into my mind. On sudden impulse—
(for no-one is around)—with abandon
I gather them, scrabbling in the dirt, to
fill my pockets; fill myself with beauty
‘till again I rise. And stalk blackly down the road.
Asch pulls off this magnificent turn-about, and then carries it further, or full-circle, back to the question-mark of the title, which is really a question-mark looming over the entire collection. The poet is a woman of faith and her faith informs and nourishes this outpouring of imaginative reflection; but at the same time that faith undercuts or calls into question the motives and insights of the imagination and of poetry. The leaves she has stuffed in her pockets make their way, through holes made by “gnawing fingers” into the inner lining. This puts me in mind of the statement of faith Pascal sewed into the inner lining of his coat. For the poet, that statement is replaced by a sacramental sense of secret beauty: “But my cloak is all/ spilt-littered-silk-leaf-lined with the colours of sun-blood.” Catch the poignant and Christ-haunted significance of this: autumn leaves are red with “sun-blood” and they are in her inner lining. The question-mark of the title, moreover, is not simple uncertainty, but a faith-informed awareness of and desire for something greater that awaits us and that is within us: “In my thoughts I go; heart beating to know/ a hidden joy inside.”
At the end of this short review, the critic throws up his hands at having barely scratched the surface of the beauty, the surprising power, and the shimmering light the spills forth from Asch’s pile of diamonds. I urge you to get the book and see for yourselves, dear readers. I leave it to your capable minds.
Jonathan Potter lives about a mile from the hospital where, in 1965, he was born. He is the son of a musician mother and a wheeling dealing woodworking father; the husband of a large-living speech therapist photographer wife; the father of two twirling whirlwinds of creativity and cuteness; and the author of the poetry collection House of Words.