Nothing for it but to Sing by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, 2016), 64 pp., $25; Back with the Human Condition by Nick Ascroft (Victoria University Press, 2016), 100 pp., $25
A Gaston Bachelard quote at the start of Michael Harlow’s latest book of poetry has been stern with me for months. ‘One doesn’t read poetry while thinking of other things’, it says.
Towards the end of Harlow’s book, Nothing for it but to Sing, a man pauses while digging a trench in a poem called ‘Last Post’:
‘This war will soon be ended,’ he said.
And he spit into the narrow trench
they were trying to make come true.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘until the next one arrives;
the children will pour from our houses,
their fists in their eyes.’
In an old interview I heard with Harlow once, he was remembering aloud his twenties, shaped by his involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement. ‘We’d better talk about the poetry, Michael!’ the interviewer said.
I have been reading poetry while thinking of other things. Much has been written about the experience of being alive in recent months and most of it frankly makes you feel worse. Have I been reading more than usual, since Trump? Not books, I haven’t. The internet disgorges, daily, thousands of furious, mourning words. Some of them are really important, but most of them just pretend to be. I read that stuff voraciously at the expense of whatever I am meant to be reading. It is not making me any better. I recently read a comment that a particular kind of writing was a ‘luxury of the pre-Trump era’. Surely, I thought, that can’t be true, and then I read 2000 graceless words about Sean Spicer or Syria and tried to feel wiser.
Michael Harlow and Nick Ascroft have both written poetry collections preoccupied, as we all seem to be, with words and being alive. Ascroft – clever, complicated, full of haiku and sonnets and limericks – tosses the words out furiously, in a rush. In his latest collection, Back with the Human Condition, he spends all his letters at once: haiku, sonnets, limericks, lists. And it feels like Harlow, sometimes, is being pursued by words, the weight of things said and how their meanings change with time. Both books were published, of course, pre-Trump (if there was ever such a time!) And no one is obligated to address the peculiar mess of a human condition we face in 2017 – indeed, the criticism, for example, that the new George Saunders novel was not concerned enough with the concerns of the current time seems unfair.
The poems, or songs, of this collection are rich in a sense of time. Not only do you feel as though Harlow has had the time to become assured in his sense of the world, but time stretches a tapestry across the book. An extraordinary breadth and depth of things seems to happen simultaneously, each character and action a dot on the timeline of all human history.
There are momentary characters: the mother looking out the window the second after her son is hit by a car; old widow Miss Jones. There is love, hazy and golden; the intimacy in the tilt of a hat. At times, it seems like sweet air and words that sound like music are the point of these poems, but then you turn the page and are met with the women’s prison or ‘the dark ripple of news / that stills the day in its tracks’.
There is always something unsettling, even in the quieter poems, and never more than when Harlow is talking about words. ‘We were looking / For the One thing we couldn’t find / a way of saying’, Harlow writes, in ‘Forgetting to Remember’. Words wound in the poem ‘Hidden Hurts’; they are used to betray in ‘Reflections: In the wider world’. But even as he wrestles with words, Harlow brings a quiet confidence to the heart of his poetry. He wants to reintroduce us to ourselves; to ‘that someone we once were’.
Harlow has borrowed from and drawn on many; a list of influences on his poems can be found at the back of the book. It felt like a small accommodation – one I appreciated – to anyone who can’t keep up with the jumps in style and in history. It was helpful to me. The book makes Harlow a poetic time lord. In ‘Cage-masters, Their Want’, he is biblical in scope. In ‘Hidden Things’ he channels the rhythm and portent of the ancient Greeks. And when words frustrate him, Harlow lifts off from earth completely, travels from the everyday into orbit and circles human concerns like a satellite, to find the truth at a remove: ‘the dead are always shuffling behind / sure to catch up / when the time is right’.
The book exists in a place across space and time that is heavy, loaded with meaning – and sometimes the poems groan under the weight of it. Occasionally I found it overwhelming – the sheer scope of Harlow’s attempts ‘to discover / what there is in you to attain / when the light comes stealing in’. Each poem feels like an equally possible parallel universe. It is a lot to take in. One moment, in ‘No Full Stops in Heaven’, he posits ‘something about being condemned / to live with who we are’. The next, in the event of a car crash: ‘I’m always surprised / that people are helpful / the wonder of it.’
There’s nothing wrong with that, the search for the light inside darkness alongside complicated, risky propositions such as: ‘how to survive even yourself’, or ‘my mother died before she was born’. It’s a brain-bending puzzle-box of a book, with language our only thread to follow out.
If words are Michael Harlow’s only certainty, the only certainty in Nick Ascroft’s work is our own self-consciousness. I’d heard Ascroft wrote clever clogs verse arranged by subject matter. This is a poor description of a brilliant book that lets us creep as close to human neuroses and idiosyncrasies as we dare. The linguistic flourishes reassure you that somewhere, somehow, Nick Ascroft is taking all of this harder than you are.
Ascroft is photographed for the back jacket of his book standing on Lambton Quay in his dressing gown; a disarming act that serves the same purpose as Hera Lindsay Bird weeing herself as a teenager in a supermarket, in the opening poem to her self-titled collection. It warns that something is about to happen here, something so linguistically knotty that you’ll feel better about it if you’ve just seen a picture of the poet in his bathrobe. Hold my beer.
But when Ascroft sets off down the lanes of form and style and a surfeit of words tossed everywhere like breadcrumbs, there is nowhere I don’t want to follow. In his introduction he states his annoyance at people who ‘see mystery for mystery’s sake’ in verse. Where Michael Harlow carries through his poetry the deep mystery of a space alien, Ascroft says it’s all ‘chiselwork’. And he’s been busy with the chisel: one challenge in his work seems to be what a few of the words mean; I’m sent to the online dictionary over absquatulate, for example. But relax into the style, allow the rhythmic tricks to carry you through the verse, and ignore the pretence of categorisation from the chapter headings ‘Love’, ‘Money’, ‘Complaints’ and ‘Death’. Ascroft’s insight into the human condition is rooted in a real sense of feeling, though possibly he wouldn’t like you saying so.
The strongest sections are on work and death. ‘I’ll work when I’m dead like Jesus, or Sisyphus’, he writes at the start of the ‘Work’ chapter, before moving to the savage ad industry takedown, ‘The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy’, and the screamingly funny ‘Five Character Descriptions I Am Too Lazy to Novelise’. But the moment that elevates Ashcroft to genius status is the collection of limericks he has written on the death of his father.
The first time I heard one of those jokes, ‘What’s worse than a worm in your apple? Cancer’, I thought it was delicious. A savage, savage pleasure. At home, my mother was dying and I understood, as a kid, that this was not funny. But really, what’s worse than a worm in your apple? Cancer. I turned it over and over in my mouth, trying it out. I knew I couldn’t say it to anyone, but why couldn’t I? It was true.
Ashcroft is an adult’s Michael Rosen with a worm in his apple, full of a son’s grief but ready to apply form to the situation like a blowtorch. A cold, constrained precision results, almost too terrible to look at directly:
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 but suddenly yelling.
The poet at the end of ‘Through a Potato’ reveals what might be his true fear: ‘for all my fancy brogues and ornate handwriting / I am no less of a dunce, / wringing no miracles out of thought / no matter how crunched shut are my eyes / no matter the hunger’. Ascroft need not worry. The miracles out of thought go beyond a sarcastic love poem about haircuts – ‘The stylist was a priestess in a church of evil / your hair is honestly that good’ – and love haiku set in the sleeping car on a train. It even goes beyond rhyming tarragon with paragon, and the poem written in a kind of computer code. It is poetry that, behind the sleight of hand going on up front with the metrical rhyming couplets, reveals a vulnerability, a desire to make sense of other people. He underscores this by having someone wee out of a bus window.
A year and a half ago my best friend had a stroke. He was young; he’s my age. It was a horrible shock. He and I always did a cracking sideline in really bad-taste jokes. When he was in the hospital I was scared and I told myself, I will never joke about anything awful again, just as long as he is all right.
This week I sent him a link to a story from the Houston Chronicle titled ‘Large asteroid unlikely to destroy Earth Wednesday’. I said: ‘These asteroids just keep disappointing me, man!’ And he laughed.
At the end of Michael Harlow’s ‘Last Post’, the two men digging trenches are
Staring into each other’s
eyes for a long moment – they could see
that there was no one looking back.
And their children, waiting for years
in their darkened rooms, for the all-clear.
No asteroid hit on Wednesday. Thousands of words churned out of the internet and on into the night. I read them while thinking of other things; a human condition.
CHARLOTTE GRAHAM is a journalist and broadcaster who lives in Wellington. She teaches at Massey University, where she is completing her master’s in journalism. Charlotte received the 2016 Original Composition Prize at Victoria University’s IIML.