The rhythm method, Paola Bilbrough

From the Author of
Nick Ascroft
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0864733887

Animals Indoors
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0864733895

A close-up of a bat’s face and prehensile paws adorn the cover of Nick Ascroft’s first collection of poetry, From the Author of. Orange-eyed and hairy, it is an eerie and beguilingly humorous image. What one would expect of a movie poster for vampire schlock. In the author photo, Ascroft, who has enviably pre-Raphaelite hair, sits next to a huge TV screen. The jacket is a clear reflection of what’s inside: Ascroft’s poems are an evocative mix of grungy detail, half-glimpsed narratives and (sometimes) overwrought images. All with a good dose of irony and romanticism.

Ascroft uses the rather old-fashioned convention of starting each new line with a capital letter and generally each stanza is the same length. This means that when he does change stanza length particular lines are highlighted. Likewise, these slight constraints of form make his thematic playfulness all the more effective. A love poem is also an ode to the rich chaos of a bedroom. Reading “A Vacuum
Cleaner”, I could almost smell the unwashed sheets and stray apple cores:

I sleep with my guitar
With my records,
Cups, plates, sandwiches

and:

I realise
You won’t slip behind my headboard
Like laundry,
You’ll slide out my window
& Out of my arms
Like notes from a cash register,
Like coins into a vacuum cleaner.

 

The last lines of this poem remind me a little of the last stanza of a favourite James Brown poem, “Turning Brown and Torn in Two”:

It is barely an idea
how skin sails across the body
– a sheet of paper, warm
as a fresh photocopy.

 

As with Brown’s poetry, part of the satisfaction of reading Nick Ascroft’s work is in its elusiveness, its refusal to be confined to any particular type of poetry. There are lots of first-person poems here, but it would be facile to assume that they are autobiographical; Ascroft slips in and out of a diverse range of characters:

I was the dashing & terrible pirate captain
Who fell for the heart of the She-Octopus,
The half-woman half mollusc beauty of the deep.
(“Hours & Hours of Schlock”)

 

A background in linguistics is evident in Ascroft’s gymnastic use of language. Words and phrases are bent into unlikely positions and pairings and compete for the reader’s attention. Half-rhymes, internal rhymes and wordplay are all here and while his work is at times cluttered, this never gets in the way of rhythm:

& I’m a game mammal entering an intersection, some India or Africa,
A safari through the cars, nipping my herbivorous teeth back from
The whack of hips of two taxicabs rhinocerising the red lights.
I’m a free meal, freeforming from tree to tree in the needless treelessness …
(“Terrain Ignorant Tourist Beastie”)

 

Ascroft’s are cerebral poems that barely venture into emotional terrain and sometimes they do come across as an intellectual exercise. Yet they are never drab nor so opaque as to be alienating and the reader cannot help but be impressed by their unconventionality and verve.

2

Although the cover of Stephanie de Montalk’s first collection, Animals Indoors, is bold and eye-catching – yellow with a fuchsia stripe, a collage of flowers and a parrot – it’s a rather inaccurate representation of the contents. De Montalk’s talent lies in gentle satire, graceful endings and musicality; nothing in her poems jars or jumps out at the reader.

In the title poem Bill Manhire’s naked horse becomes an interior decoration:

A horse isn’t necessarily going to be a problem
in a hallway, bedroom, or kitchen –
keep it simple keep it white …

 

Later in the same poem we realise the horse is simply a cut-out, a dream of a grander, more vivid existence:

I have a palomino which I keep
between Fisher’s History of Europe
and a painted piece of Tuscany.

 

This is a great poem: witty, precise and visual. Another hit, “Lost at Sea or in Central Asia”, reads something like the beginnings of a 50s romantic novel:

Looking back on the adventure
of it all, she began to suppose
that life with George might have been
more rewarding than she had previously
imagined.

 

There is beautifully observed detail in de Montalk’s poems, many of which are set overseas. “Ch’ing Ming” describes the everyday routine of a Hong Kong woman and her duties to ancestors and employers in delicate imagistic stanzas: “the combing of children’s hair / hot from the tennis courts”. And:

her brother’s urns
keep the earth
off the clavicles, scapulas
and knee-deep patellas
of her parents …

 

One of the most engaging things about de Montalk’s work is her obvious interest in the dynamic between two people. In “Shepherding” a woman shepherds one-syllable words into rhyming ditties whilst patiently driving “Rodney” around the city to inspect accommodation, all of which is unsatisfactory. In “Afternoon at the Beach” a meandering conversation between two women traverses the mundane and touches on more disturbing concerns that never fully break the surface.

I was left with the impression that silences are what interest de Montalk most. What is unsaid even in the most expansive dialogue, in the pause between stanzas as we digest what has gone before and in the dying away of the last line of a poem. Just sometimes I found the poems in Animals Indoors lacking in urgency. Although de Montalk uses the ordinariness of everyday concerns and conversations to comic effect, there is a danger that the writing itself will become ordinary.

While From the Author of and Animals Indoors are both first books, perhaps the only other comparison worth making is that each of these books uses, with deceptive ease, the rhythms of everyday speech. Rhythms that lull the reader with their familiarity but are actually very carefully crafted. In almost every other way each book works as an antidote to the other. These differences are a testimony to the fact that diversity is alive and well at Victoria University Press, that there is not a particular brand or aesthetic of poetry getting published. And this is something that readers and poets alike should rejoice in.

 

Paola Bilbrough’s first collection of poems, bell-tongue, was reviewed in our March 2000 issue.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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