Caroline Ashley’s poems build a mythology which beguiles immediately with an apparent innocence. But behind that innocence there is a troubling, serious world whose images, once they have got under your skin, do not leave you. The poems work like fairy stories for grown-ups, with all the unsettling strength that this suggests.
Bernard O’Donoghue – (Literary Editor, Oxford Magazine)
I met Caroline Ashley as rain was pelting down the streets of Summertown, Oxford. Student bicycles glisten as I dash to the refuge of her door. Venturing inside I am offered a cup of Earl Grey tea, in a specifically chosen “half naked mermaid mug”.
We settle down to talk in a room filled with glass ornaments and jewellery hung from picture frames – mostly Pre-Raphaelite. I sense Ashley’s strong aesthetic extends beyond the pages of her mysterious poetry.
It is her distinctive narrative voice and her strong sense of atmosphere that has recently seen her gain some very noteworthy praise, namely from Bernard O’ Donoghue, an English Fellow at Wadham College, a senior member of Oxford University Poetry Society and winner of the Whitbread prize in 1995 for his seminal work “Gunpowder”.
Ashley has been published in ASH – the Oxford Poetry Society Magazine, but by her own admission, “I’ve been much too windy in the past about sending work out, but that is changing.”
We both light a cigarette, and I ask her how she started writing. She originally wrote in prose, but found she was too slow and soon realised it would take her “nine thousand years to write a novel, yet I carried over a desire to tell stories but this time using a thimbleful of words. I had some kind feedback suggesting my prose was poetical so I thought I would try my hand at poetry.’’
At my drop-leaf table
I am bent like a snowdrop over pages
of my February nonsense
with an alphabetic flower-map as guide.
I go from acanthus to bridal rose, yet no further,
and long for my lost muse –
Her outline is obscure, which suits
my blurred imagination, her form
hidden in stoles of mist. Grey of eye
she’s as inscrutable as a lake at dusk.
Close, yet ghost-far, her tracery clings,
leads me from clematis, wisteria, to zinnia.
As her face clears, we breathe together.
That was 5 years ago, and she is now receiving significant praise. She was recently published in The Interpreter’s House, an Oxford-based poetry magazine, and Merryn Williams, Editor, commented how “Caroline has an instantly recognisable voice. Her poetry admits us to a world of flower-maps, grey lakes, drowning girls and the occasional ghost, always suggesting a little more than it seems.”
I asked how she nurtured this distinctive voice: “It is not conscious, I’m out of my time in a way; I’m not very 21st century. I veer away from too much reality. I think it’s a form of escapism. I know the literature I’ve enjoyed most is where I’ve escaped to another world.”
She continues, “I love the notion ‘more than it seems’ and strive to add layers to my work, like the ‘Magic Eye’ pictures when suddenly you see the 2 dimensional as 3 dimensional.” Ashley’s poetry is ethereal, otherworldly; it transcends the mundane monotony of modern day existence.
Her poems certainly provide a refuge. For instance, she comments upon her poem Flower-Map : “This was a very personal piece. I had an image of a woman bowed over paper, writing in a cold month, conscious of her own stupidity. The muse, the doppelganger was me trying to reach a poetical part of myself, as rescuer.
I hear the wheels before I see her
as metal winces over stones.
In her chair, her thick-smocked gown
stiff with pins and stitched with herbs
in the quaint style of a healer.
I, the sour scribe
in a daze at the crossways,
my dark ledger of Lost Loves
wedged under my arm.
The first faded entry
mourns a crippled girl
with her sorrow-poultice
and I, the bitter boy
who refused her balms
and her unbroken kindness
though I in truth was needful.
Can I help you? She says sweetly.
Then, sweeter still, Do I know you?
“And I wanted to explore the language of flowers. ‘Zinnia’ means thoughts of absent friends. I meant this to mean ‘you, the reader’. I’m very interested in the concept of the wounded healer and people who can’t heal themselves yet can heal others.”
Caroline’s work has a painterly quality. One can imagine the scenes depicted in a magnificent Pre-Raphaelite painting. She tells me “I often start with an image. There are some poems that arrive at me and some I arrive at. The reason I write poetry is as a response to life. There is a lovely quote from Leonard Cohen: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” She continues, “It’s a way of seeing, like a butcher may look at a house with a red door and see it as a blood-coloured door.”
Despite her innocent appearance, there is a deeply unsettling disquieting undercurrent in the poems. She describes how she “leans towards the melancholic, the tragic. It interests me; I feel an affinity with it.
“I recently wrote a poem about a character with a watercolour heart who can’t write unless it’s raining, and ‘water’ is one of my themes – from sea to a teardrop and everything in-between.’’ Caroline always writes in pencil with an eraser at hand and only uses the computer “for the poem’s formal education.’’
If she could choose, she would much prefer her work to be in calligraphy. “My hope is that people will take something away that they have not seen before.’’