Blair Reeve reviews a collection of poetry that considers the ways in which our instincts often defy our better nature.
Nick Ascroft, Back with the Human Condition (Victoria University Press, 2016), 100pp. and Back with the Human Condition, CD (Drums Records, 2018).
In 2015 the poet Nick Ascroft returned to New Zealand from a decade-long sojourn in England, and had his third poetry collection Back with the Human Condition (2016) picked up by Victoria University Press. As the title of his collection suggests, Ascroft’s characters grapple with internal conflicts, the way instinct defies our better nature and how conscience fails, often hilariously, to patch up the gaps. Because the voice brings an extra resonant dimension to poetry, how much more effective are poems that have been crafted, refined and rehearsed with respect to their vocalization and music? Thus it was that in 2018, the independent Australian poetry label Drums Records produced a CD of Ascroft reading a selection of twelve poems from Human Condition. They encompass a varied selection drawing from all four quarters of Human Condition’s thematic schemata: Love, Complaints, Money, and Death. Despite the seeming gravity of this grouping, the four are more a quartet of walls enclosing the courtyard within which Ascroft tests the funny bones, elbows and ribs of the human condition. There’s so much attitude and nuance in these poems, that a vocal performance can only but illuminate Ascroft’s theme: the conflict that arises from trying to live moral lives free of compromise or hypocrisy.
In “The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy” Ascroft places the speaker in a boardroom of earnest advertising execs tasked with the catchphrasing of “grog.” The speaker fancies himself a wordsmith but as a frustrated creative-type he’s doomed to pedantic tangents, highfalutin locution, and recourse to irony, and it’s difficult not to hear language as the meat and meta-text of the poetry:
I set a scene, olde worlde, sepiatone, a legend in a curly typeface:
The longshoremen gargle unspeakable lingos as the liquor eloigns them to the great elsewheres of drunkenness.
Both “The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy” and “Shortcuts to the Art” focus on language but in these and other poems, Ascroft’s voice skirts between persona and character with an actor’s guile. Sometimes he strains. His hick Yankee accent in “The Thirst Of Lucy’s Copy” is pitched cartoonish. The voice amuses briefly, but the abrupt caricature is less effective for its dubious tinpot quackery. That joke may deflate but the poem expands comically into a place where sound is key.
Tonally, those poems that adopt an ironic posture—“For Disaster,” on self-regard and negativity, or “I Bid It Hello,” about loneliness and discontent—are often dusted with an acerbic inflection. The most pliable words are press ganged into the comedy of contempt—exaggerated disdain, or a hubristic sneer—and the resultant bitterness informs a line’s rhythmic tension. But while Ascroft juggles registers with ease, the sniff of academic pedigree can be heard—faintly or less faintly depending on the listener’s proximity to a bachelor of arts—in his reading, inextricably linked as it is with the convoluted syntax, high diction and arch attitudes of his narrators.
Less often does a poem offer us insight related with straight-voiced delivery. In this batch, “A Cat – Ginsu”—which has the poet ventriloquising the titular feline—is the only exception: “My legs know: the footfalls of the / stairs, carpet, / the angle at the landing.” You sense admiration for cats in this poem because cats aren’t human, they live free of moral stricture, why taunt them? So while the “Ginsu” poem is focused and contained, it’s the rangier numbers and form poems that provide scope for Ascroft’s wit and lulz. In his sonnet “Poem Bomb” the speaker brackets a kernel of candid concern about ‘problems in the Middle East’ with a self-parody that speaks to a wider criticism of what I’m calling ‘international political poetry.’ Observe in the opening quatrain the aside and the discourse marker:
When someone as contemptible as I—
as me?—whichever—feels drawn to pen
a sonnet on the Middle East, well then
the odour of the world has reached a high…
Here, more than the content, it’s the fast-cut soliloquizing to an internal voice (the distracted pedant, the feigned resignation of “well then”) that reveals the speaker’s withering attitude towards sanctimony.
Even in matters of love we can hear the poet fighting himself, as if testing a hypothesis for leaks. In the poem that opens the CD, “The Tide,” the speaker identifies traits of his lover with a list of comparisons that stretch his similes’ limits. In the second line he feints the listener with, “You are as inexplicable at 8 am as the oleaginousness of eggs on the tongue’s lapel.” In his efforts to offer a metaphor to his beloved, the poet tackles the inexplicability of taste and finds a lateral solution—echomimesis. He kneads “oleaginousness” into the rhythm, less for semantic effect (it works sense-wise twice-ways for the precious few who know the word: greasy, obsequious) than for the impact of its articulation, the way the syllables slide together until they ooze sex and nausea like a pair of smitten bedfellows. Likewise, he pushes the hard g of “eggs” into its plural with a minute gulping motion intimating a playful disgust— “ugh, gross.” This technique sense-shifts the “inexplicable” quality from a textual mystery to a slyly suggestive sound allusion.
Again, at the end of “The Lord of Work,” Ascroft uses sound to sway sense into context. In this poem the speaker announces a list of things “I worked through,” such as “the manflu,” “the tour de France” or “This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush” as a bitter recrimination of the human being conditioned to a leisure-free life wrought by the religion of capitalism or any other ism that demands our collective sacrifice. He finishes up with, “You can’t work when you’re dead. / But I’ll work when I’m dead like Jesus or Sisyphus.” So betrothed is the speaker to his work, he’ll continue into the afterlife. But isn’t such longevity a reward for poets? The attitude that besmirches the working life cuts back to the idea of “poet” as a job too, albeit one that bleeds an eternal sigh. The final simile, “like Jesus or Sisyphus” leaves the poem trailing on a hissy note of ‘blasphemous’ sibilance.
Convoluted syntax is a risky endeavour if the mouthful is too much for the mouth, but because these poems were written by and for the mouth/ear as much as the hand/eye, they’re pre-meditated to land on their feet like cats. In the climax of the love poem mentioned above, “The Tide,” Ascroft structures his syntax as rhythmically mimetic of its content—a tactic that draws our attention away from the cliché of “almond eyes.”
Your eyes are like the almond eyes of crabs, all-sideways-seeing, whose soft-footing of the sand and breaking tide of your woodwind telling to the seedheads at the isthmus’s edge of your throat is delicate and enthrals the sea itself, yourself.
Here the static image stretches into a filmic sequence that strives through asymptotic specificity for poetic seduction. During the reading Ascroft glides through this sentence, dexterous of speech, unwavering of tone, just losing breath after “delicate,” but poised to enter the final clause with a hero’s daring. Here “delicate” befits the tenderness of the line’s littoral imagery and the manipulation of articulators required to enunciate “the seedheads at the isthmus’s edge.” These effects come together and reach their apotheosis in the final clause: “enthrals the sea itself, yourself” with the listener in thrall too.
Ascroft’s penchant for syntactical flamboyance is a fun listen especially when he’s indulging with distracted pleasure in protracted mimetic phrasing. Cue for illustration the collection’s title poem, an inquiry into the poet’s fascination with Darwinism, which contorts a device out of narrative rhetoric:
What insight – then asks some meatbox awakening out of its doze – is there into this [sub]human condition that knowing – it grinds some of the sleep from the crevices of its eyes, once on stalks like a crawfish, with its elbows – that I have these leftover bits of when I wasn’t but someone else was a bison, or the back of my brain was a sturgeon’s?
While this is not particularly remarkable for its delivery, the excerpt above does require the reader to bounce through tonal shifts and a specific rhythm to prevent the sentence collapsing. The stresses and depressions of voice are difficult to ‘see’ in text, but the reading illustrates how Ascroft hears syntax as a convincing supplement to image. There are numerous examples of other inventive onomatopoeias in Ascroft’s work—how “forward” becomes “fo-orward” for example, or how flowering is better read as “flow-er-ing,” the way a train “shu-d-d-ers on” in the larynx, or a robin “absquatulates” under a door. We hardly need look up “absquatulate”; those four syllables do all the work. Ascroft’s reading is packed with such delights.
It’s testament to Ascroft’s performance skills that his rhythmic flow and prosody of diction generally combine into an appealing, listenable form. It’s also a pleasure to hear to just how effective sound can be in poetry when it’s working on several levels simultaneously, and the poet, having found the right words, has checked his lines against his own voice for intuitive enunciation. This is the realm in which poetry leaves the most comprehending impression for me. Densely poetic or figurative language that might seem mystifying as text can really convince when heard from the mouth of a practiced reader.
Listen to Ascroft reading from Back to the Human Condition here:
Blair Reeve is a performance poet, stay-at-home Dad, children’s author, and educator with an MFA from the City University of Hong Kong. He mentors students on the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s post-graduate writing program. Blair grew up in New Zealand then spent much of his adult life in Japan and Hong Kong. Music appreciation is one of his biggest passions, while his latest challenge is learning piano.