We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, September 19, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“BACK WITH THE HUMAN CONDITION” by Nick Ascroft (Victoria University Press, $25); “BILLY BUTTON – A Life” by Bill Sutton (HB Poetry Press, $20 – may be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have been reading with great pleasure and sometimes with sincere puzzlement Nick Ascroft’s third collection of poetry Back with the Human Condition. I at once get an image of the jester with cap and bells. Here he is, the court fool, licensed to joke about the most serious matters, but in his foolery being very penetrating and acute. What could be more serious than some of the themes Ascroft handles? And yet what finesse, what apparent lightness of touch, what verbal dazzle, what refusal to take himself seriously even when he is deathly serious. It’s a lesson in sheer poetic skill.
To judge by the way Ascroft’s collection is arranged into four parts, you would assume that the human condition is dominated by the four titles given to these parts – Love, Money, Complaints and Death.
The first section, “Love”, does not contain a single love poem in the conventional and expected sense of the term. The poems in this section are about the exuberance, variety and randomness of life, with a sedulous avoidance of direct address to any beloved. The tone is set in part by a title such as “Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out”. [Yes, carper, the title addresses a second person, but the poem isn’t in that voice.] How absurd much love is, even as the poet babbles. How much his own metaphors trip him up in verbal slapstick.
To read a poem like “The Little Allegories of the Evening Treed under Bushels of Bushes in a Rainstorm” is to be reminded of one of the agonies of love – the ultimate separateness of the beholder from the beheld; the lover’s inability to fully identify with the person who is loved; the hell of individual viewpoint where:
“…The dead philosophies fossilised in our metaphors
of back and front, this is my dead metaphor for me.
My moods are not your moods
They are quiet, blurt, subside, rattle in the bathroom
on the mirror’s metal. Squatting here on the seat
of a kitchen chair, embroiled over the keyboard
like a gargoyle, I confess them to the monitor,
thinly veiled in quatrains, then shush them,
let them obscure to a lyric, the allegory
of a sparrow lunching in a wheelbarrow.
Fiction – the depiction of anything that isn’t.
And words are the things that were.
My moods are not your moods – they live
in my legs and can’t be said, they are impositions….”
But the world buzzes with love in the sense of lived life. The poem “Spring Wedding” (written, with the strong traditional skills Ascroft can deploy, in four ten-lined stanzas of rhyming couplets) is about a stag itching its way through a landscape in a sort of prelude to rutting. “Juju”, just for the fun of it, is poem of extravagant imagery about a woman’s haircut. “The For” consists of ironical good wishes to bride and groom in a jocular rhyming-couplet epithalamium. Later, in a mood of sheer playfulness, there are haiku as imagined drifting half between sleep and wakefulness on a sleeping car.
With a title like “Money”, one would imagine that the second section would have some satirical bite about our rule by Mammon, and indeed it does. The poem “Procyclical” ridicules finance and the big deals of the stock exchange, basically telling us how trivial money is from a cosmic perspective. It is Ascroft’s most direct satiric jab. Buried in “The Bearded Blog”, with its odd typography and page-filling layout, there are some pungent comments about finance. But the “Money” section of this collection could as well be called “Work”, as Ascroft is more concerned about the things money forces us to do than he is about money itself. There are a number of poems about work. “The Lord of Work” leads us to question what we mean by work anyway (as well as suggesting that work can become a controlling obsession.) “Chimps Can’t Take Pains” is jocular but (again showing the jester’s motley) makes a real point about how unique human beings are in subjecting themselves to a certain concept of work.
True to what has gone before, the third section, “Complaints”, is only in part about complaints. There is the fuggy experience of having to get up and face the day (“So Angry”) and of vegetables and unappetising healthy food (“Through a potato”) and of a harsh music-teacher (“No Irony: Music 203”) and of old imperialist maps (“The Unknown Cartographer”). And there is the awful fact that you never can capture music in words (“Never Was a Semiologist”) and yet that music occurs in spite of our formal descriptions of it (“An Accidental Phrasing”). And there is the awfulness of boring, time-killing everyday life (“Waiting for the Toast to Pop”) and the daunting prospect of growing older (“House, Kid, Dog”). I suppose some of these could be called complaints, but in most cases the poet’s good humour minimises the painful part.
Three particularly joyful pages are about the happy relief of pissing, after controlling one’s bladder for too long, “Jonathan Relieves Himself Out a Bus Window in India”.
And so to the fourth section, “Death” – which begins not with graveyards and the Grim Reaper but with wry limericks. “This Poem is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim” makes light of comas (why not?) while “Poem Bomb” is a perfect sonnet lamenting the impotence of poetry in the face of real world tragedy. In fact it is a very good piece of satire at the expense of poets’ pretensions.
I am not over-emphasising the High Seriousness in Nick Ascroft’s wit, for there are some poems which I can see only as fantasias - “Limo Juice” and “The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy” are wordplays of a slightly intoxicated sort. “I Bid it Hello” appears to have a European winter setting and be half a kitchen reveries. I also have to make an admission, which some critics are loath to make under any circumstances. There were some poems that were completely impenetrable to me. I did not understand them at all. What on Earth is “The Ultrasonic Tweets I Scream” about?
At the other reach of achievement, there are great poems like “Impachydermatous Pride”, which could be an anthem for those who don’t like seeing animals locked up in a zoo – or at least the highbrow ones among them. The title poem “Back with the Human Condition” has a huge frame of reference, speculating on which of our pre-human genetic forebears we carry within us, but its touch is typically light.
I end by quoting in full “The Plume that Precedes a Word”, a careful reflection on the maddening gap between concept [or feeling] and language [words]. You will note that, like other poems in this collection, it is a perfect sonnet. Whatever else he chooses to do, Ascroft knows what form is and knows how to use it:
I drag these draping lopes of thought with pins
to pierce a word whose subtleties finesse
the sense I am intending to express.
My blood upon arriving at it thins
with nauseous disappointment: ugh, such dire
and Latinate humdrum. An instant prior
I had foreseen it dressed more finely via
a prophecy of counterfeited fire.
But this corona, plume or aura which
precedes the fittest word’s as much among
the word’s collation as its stocking-stitch
semantics and its flourish of the tongue –
and glottis – casting Plato’s gravity
in sound-shapes through the oral cavity.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Late in his second collection of poetry, Billy Button – a Life, in the poem “Sunrise track”, Bill Sutton says “after two marriages and three careers / I am free to do what I like”.
Perhaps best known as a former Labour MP, Sutton has also worked as a research scientist and knows farming matters from his family’s farming background. This collection is frankly autobiographical. Dividing his poems into four sections (Early Years, Working Years, Later Years and Reflections) the 72-year-old Sutton prefaces each section with a prose account of his life. As he notes a number of times, he wrote some poetry as a youngster, but work, family, marriages and other aspects of life kept getting in the way of his writing any more poetry until he was retired.
Only in the last decade or so – “ free to do what I like” - has he sat down and worked at his poetry.
A world away from the verbal gymnastics of Nick Ascroft, the poems of Bill Sutton are simple, straightforward and colloquial. When he deals with childhood, he remembers comic-reading fantasies and the stalwart nature of his parents and aspects of a country life. The collection’s title is explained in the poem “The big rake” - as a kid he was sometimes tormented with the nickname Billy Button. As a parent he recalls such things as children kindly trying to celebrate Father’s Day and he having to play along with the ritual (the poem “Dad’s Day”). Old friends are particularly celebrated, even if the friend is simply a curious passer-by asking about a tree in his front garden (“Tree Talk”). The older he gets, the more he reflects on partings and separations and of course the inevitability of death. But there’s a serenity and acceptance to the closing poems of the volume, especially “Mood Swing” and the beautiful “Restless Nights”. No raging against the dying of the light.
I enjoyed this volume for the clear way in which it presents a particular personality. If I were to fault it, it would simply be that some of the poems are a little too prose-ey, like anecdotes rather than crafted poems. In “Speaking from the heart”, Sutton tells what is an oddly moving story from his parliamentary days, but I think it might have sat better in a prose memoir.
I don’t want to end this brief notice with a dismissive kick, however. There is too much here to enjoy, Sutton’s sincerity and openness of spirit are clear throughout, and many poems hit just the right tone. I am most of a decade younger than Sutton, but I am old enough to remember the Rome Olympics, that inspired one of the best in the book, “Golden hour”, which I quote here in full:
That thunder-crack race
splitting the sleepy 50’s
from the dangerous 60’s
warning the world
the Boomers would be different.
No wonder the Germans
were shouting Schnell Schnell
Schnell as lightning
struck the stadium, a hero
who was fast, muscular
trained to endure
and driven by a V8 motor.
Lydiard was jubilant, vindicated
while the others lay sobbing
and boys I had boarded with
lined up to train
alongside the great Peter Snell
who raced only the world’s best
after that, beating them all.