Junctures and Meaning: A review of Back With the Human Condition by Nick Ascroft

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Nick Ascroft has garnered a reputation as a comic poet, and rightly so: anyone who’s seen him in performance can attest to the hilarity of his lines.

Back With the Human Condition, Ascroft’s third collection of poetry, is studded with highly entertaining and performable pieces. There’s ‘Juju,’ an ode to a fabulous haircut; ‘The Lord of Work,’ a list or litany poem with a punchline ending; ‘Five Character Descriptions I Am Too Lazy to Novelise,’ which shifts between the nonsensical and the macabre; and ‘Waiting For the Toast to Pop,’ the best poem on the subject of toast I have come across.

Comedy’s not the only string to Ascroft’s poetic bow. While many of the poems are clearly the work of a humourist, I also had the strong sense throughout of being in the company of a semiotician. This feeling continued with the poem titled ‘Never Was a Semiologist.’ With a background in linguistics, Ascroft is clearly interested in signifier and signified, and many poems in the collection eschew accessibility for complicated plays-on-words.

I see wordplay as the central theme of the collection, rather than the human condition, although the book’s divided into four sections titled for the very human concerns of ‘Love,’ ‘Money,’ ‘Complaints’ and ‘Death.’ At times it seems the reader takes part in a round of the Dictionary Game, with frequent instances of obscure words such as polypary, vermiculant, gallimaufry, eloign and absquatulate. Sometimes these words are used logically and other times nonsensically, with the sound of the word being the greater part of the enjoyment.

As well as humour and linguistics, another recurrent concern of Human Condition is form. Few contemporary New Zealand poets work regularly in traditional forms, and Ascroft’s enthusiastic willingness to do this should be seen as significant. Sound and other aesthetic considerations are often at the heart of these poems. Among the forms used are rhyming couplets, haiku, limericks and, most frequently, sonnets. The sonnets vary in their rhyme schemes between Shakespearian, Italian, and combinations of these. For the most part their metre is iambic pentameter, though this is often roughened or disregarded. I found I enjoyed the sonnets most where they did conform to a metrical pattern, as in ‘No Irony: Music 203’:

            This one particular assignment for
            a clarinet – a fuguing soloist –
            presents a microcosm of the flaw
            that is my optimism. I dismissed
            it as an exercise in melody –
            for me, a cinch, and never thought of raising
            any questions of complexity
            in flow and breath when setting out the phrasing.

Here, the conversational tone juxtaposed with the traditional scheme increases both the comic power and the performativity of the poem, which continues with the (headless iambic) line ‘Like a weasel, violently fellated[.]’ Is there any other New Zealand poet who would write a line like that? Other sonnets use formal devices in conjunction with linguistic complexity to make poems seem like inextricable knots. The sonnet is a surprisingly expansive form, and I hope Ascroft will extend its use in future.

The greatest accomplishment of the collection is the sequence ‘Five Limericks on Grief.’ Following its original publication in NZ Books, this sequence had a lot of writers talking. The limerick’s traditionally a humorous form, generally associated with Edward Lear-style nonsense or crass sex jokes. Its jaunty anapaestic metre, coupled with a five-line rhyme scheme in which the final rhyme compounds the joke, makes it appear the least suitable form for a serious subject. It’s as though Ascroft sat down and asked himself, “What’s the most difficult poetic challenge I can possibly set?” Amazingly, he succeeds. His limericks, dealing with the death of a father, are consistently moving:

            There was an old man they embalmed
            and he lay there so clean and becalmed
            The work loving, unrushed –
            his eyebrows were brushed –
            and I wasn’t emotionally armed.

As well as being a rare feat, ‘Five Limericks on Grief’ makes a contribution to the discussion (largely abandoned by literary critics but still worth considering) about the juncture between metre and meaning.

If there’s another poem in the collection to be nominated a Greatest Hit, it’s ‘Daffodils Lip Sync.’ Here, Ascroft rewrites Wordsworth’s well-known poem in the manner of misheard song lyrics, resulting in lines like ‘I wandered longwise as a crab / that floats a ‘hi’ and flaps a claw[.]’ In a very light-hearted way, the poem returns to the theme of wordplay.

Readers expecting a collection of humorous light verse will find themselves challenged by Human Condition. Instead, the strength of this book lies in its diversity and complexity, showcasing the growing range of a skilled poetic craftsperson.

Back with the Human Condition by Nick Ascroft can be purchased from Unity Books, other indepdendant booksellers and from the Victoria University Press website. Picture of Nick Ascroft by Grant Maiden.