When I was working on this book with Nick I quickly figured out that if I wanted Nick to change something, I just had to say, ‘This could be funnier’ and he would change it. This is how I got him to replace one line in his list poem, ‘What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection’, with the line ‘Suckle on my verse teats’. Nick has so much at his fingertips – a mastery of form, style, vocabulary, sheer vulgarity – that you need only gently prompt him, or, gently shame him by saying that his joke isn’t funny enough, and he’ll respond with a line of terrible beauty.
But this is an unkind way to begin, because the truth is that Nick is insanely funny and needs no help from me or anyone else. His poems are brainy and wise, stern and joyous. They don’t dance around the big subjects; or, rather, they do dance around – they actually dance around a lot – but while also tackling the big subjects, like rugby if it was as beautiful as football. There are poems here about thwarted ambition and whether art has anything to offer in the face of terror. Poems about God, truth, celebrity, free will, morality, and ‘the wordless chemical torture of inner awareness’. Some of these subjects are addressed effortlessly in poems about watching TV, missing the bus, and John Travolta and the 39 faces hidden underneath his main face.
At VUP we have one of my favourite Nick poems, ‘The Lord of Work’, printed on the tablecloth that we have our morning coffee on, as if to chastise us for slacking off. ‘I worked as I lie dying,’ he scolds as we eat our doughtnuts. ‘You can’t work when you’re dead. / But I’ll work when I’m dead, like Jesus, or Sisyphus.’ Often with Nick’s poems I am simultaneously admiring and frightened of the narrator. He has a line that goes, ‘When you stare, bored, into the abyss, / the abyss yawns.’ Reading a Nick Ascroft poem is sometimes like staring into the abyss, and the abyss does a funny face.
It’s impossible to talk about Nick Ascroft without talking about his formidable vocabulary, and because I have a poor vocabulary it’s impossible to talk about his vocabulary without using the word ‘formidable’. No one in New Zealand does diction like Nick Ascroft. Earlier this year he competed in the National Scrabble Championship, and in one of two great essays on Newsroom about that championship he noted that pretty much the only time you even hear about Scrabble or dictionaries in the media is when some new and strange words are allowed in. ‘Every few years the same headlines float up like that jelly-froth fat in a pot of saveloys,’ he wrote. ‘English language under siege! You’ll never guess what word is now allowable in Scrabble! This year, as of 1 July, you can play OK, ZE and EW. . . . But, we Scrabblers just play on. Whatever is in the list is in, and whatever isn’t, isn’t.’
Like the Scrabble methodology, his poems revel in what language makes available to us. All over the show he is breaking holes in the word–time continuum. Sometimes these poems seem to exist in their own language universe, when in fact it’s totally the same universe as everyone else’s and he’s just reminding us where we actually are, and that words don’t end with human language but are encoded in the sea, in crabs and clams, in the airstream, in change itself. I kind of feel like Nick is the Hubble Space Telescope of New Zealand poetry, revealing numerous distant galaxies to us as he orbits the dictionary at great speed. But also, maybe, he is the large hadron collider of New Zealand poetry, hurling sentence parts together with great force yet great precision.
It’s risky to praise a poet’s vocabulary, because it’s all too easy to go down the path of, ‘Aren’t words wonderful! I love words!’ But Nick’s sesquipedalianism has real force; it reveals a quickness of thought and richness of imagination. Bill Manhire is not wrong when he compares Nick to Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan. I also like what Charlotte Graham-McLay said in a review of Nick’s last book: ‘The linguistic flourishes reassure you that somewhere, somehow, Nick Ascroft is taking all of this harder than you are.’
I want to talk briefly about the existential grappling. There is some existential grappling here, which continues a thread running through his last book, Back with the Human Condition. The grappling, though, is never despairing: these poems are clear-eyed, almost drone-like as they zoom in on human neuroses and follies. Often there’s a jolliness to it – an embrace, almost, of things being shit, or just, not as good as you once dreamed they would be. In ‘Three Questions for a Job Interview’ he asks, ‘When you were young and idealistic, is this how you saw your future: the drudgery, repetition and under-utilisation of your capacities?’ Well – in the poem there’s a jolliness to that bit; perhaps less so when you take it out of context. Maybe a better example of what I mean is one of his longer and more personal poems. Nick’s longer poems are often domestic in scenario but vast in emotional scope. In Human Condition there were the masterpieces ‘Waiting for the Toast to Pop’ and ‘This Poem Is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim’; in Moral Sloth we have ‘Superman’, in which he staggers gamely up a hill, weighed down by four bags of groceries that he’s carrying towards the woman he is going to cook for, for the first time, and by God he’s gonna make it. There’s also his terrific long poem ‘The Plotz’, which is, among other things, an account of a period of homelessness in London, when ‘the nineties raised me up and let me drop’. ‘The Plotz’ is a masterpiece of form and storytelling in which he asks whether we ever really change, or whether we just stay the same and get better at talking about what we used to be like.
Nick’s long poems are marked by struggle and triumph, and occasionally he allows a hearty smugness to enter his work. For other poets this would be unforgivable. But Nick gets away with it because many of his triumphs are, while extraordinary in the moment, basically ordinary and nice. Here he is in ‘Superman’, nearing the top of the hill with his groceries:
I try not to make a big thing
out of the horror of the ascent,
but later I marry you, and I know
it’s because I made this climb,
that I pushed out the strides, that
I fought when my blood hissed
that there was no fight left to fight with.
Everyone may say, So you carried some bags up a hill?
But they are all the scum children of the sewers
and I am the husband who
made vol-au-vent . . .
And I just think, ‘Yes. Yes. You are that husband and I am that scum child of the sewers.’ At this point of the poem, I am just agreeing with everything he says.
I note that not all of the struggles culminate in triumph; one of the best in this book, in my opinion, is ‘Late-Night Horror’, which is about missing the bus that only comes every half an hour and then being abused by a guy screaming out a window. This spoke to me of a place we all have been and likely will be again. Maybe it’ll happen later on tonight, and that will be a good omen for this book.
Finally, a note on love poetry. As you can tell from ‘Superman’, Nick can write an incredible love poem. It’s difficult to write a good love poem – a love poem that anyone aside from the beloved would want to read. To be honest, often when I read a love poem I think, ‘I don’t want to see this.’ But Nick’s love poems are something else, something spectacular. They remind me of the theatrical mating dance of a bird of paradise – the fancy footwork, the head shuffle with spin, the flash of the iridescent throat patch. No love is taken for granted here. In his Human Condition we had ‘Juju’, an ode to Kate’s perfect haircut, and ‘Beaux’, which reimagined the couple as two storm-flung geese. Here there is ‘Slung Across the Cat’, a gorgeous and hilarious scene where a couple watch television with their cat, and ‘Spring Is Sick with Child’, a visceral expression of sympathy for the beloved who is suffering from morning sickness, and in which spring is imagined as a pelican that vomits all over Wellington for a whole trimester.
And this is what I love best about Nick’s work – how it can express warmth and affection, even for its reader, while being blazingly, sickeningly original. This is another brilliant book from the legendary Nick Ascroft and I hope you all will take the opportunity to suckle at his verse teats.