Nick Ascroft – Back with the Human Condition

with the Human Condition by Nick Ascroft.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
RRP: $25.
Pb, 100pp.
ISBN: 9781776560844.

Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.



“The human condition” is philosophy-speak for things that get on our wick but that we can’t do very much about – for example: love, money, death, complaints. These are also the four headings of Nick Ascroft[1]’s wonderful poetry collection, Back with the Human Condition.

Be warned: these poems are all over the place. They rhyme; they slant-rhyme; they pick up similar-sounding words and run around in circles with them. Many poems have fourteen lines and are sonnets or not, depending on your personal preference. Here is ‘The Plume That Precedes a Word’:

I drag these draping lobes 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: …    (p 64)

The poem on the following page marks the sonnet turn with ‘Gadzooks’ – probably the most definitive sonnet turn I have seen in a long time.

Serious limericks are very difficult to carry off, but here is one:

Like a walnut resistant to shelling,
my feelings are screened, but it’s telling
that I ask: am I grieving
or just self-deceiving?
that I’m silent then suddenly yelling.   (p 83)

It’s one of ‘Five Limericks on Grief’ which almost, but not quite, make it. If there had been a way to keep them on separate pages, they would have worked a lot better – a hazard with humour is that if wit is stacked too deep, it can overbalance. I ended up experiencing the limerickness of it all more than I experienced the poet’s grief for his father.

Homophonic transformation is something most of us meet first in the schoolyard – remember ‘when shepherds washed their socks by night’? – but give up when we feel we have more sense. ‘Daffodils Lip Sync’ is a go at homophonic verse:

I wandered longwise as a crab
that floats a ‘hi’ and flaps a claw
when on the wall I spied a tap
and hosed a golden Labrador.    (p 74)

There are three stanzas, which work when printed on the same page because they mimic the original format. You will have to buy the book to read the others, and you should. They’re up there with Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary or the recently reprinted homophonic translation classic, Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames.

There’s a long-running distinction between people who look on the word as thing or idea and people who look on the word as frisbee. Ascroft is a fine example of the latter. Pay attention to him (and the geminated camel he rode in on).

[1] Nick Ascroft is an editor/ linguist/ competitive Scrabble player who has been twice commended in the Kathleen Grattan Award and has been Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He has edited takahē, Landfall and the late lamented Glottis. Per the book cover, he lives in the middle of Lambton Quay.

Mary Cresswell

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

First published takahe 89
August 2017