BOOK REVIEW / Entrancements on the local bus

Jeff Nuttall encounters priestly kisses and exiled flautists

John Ashbery doesn't half go on. His Can You Hear, Bird (Carcanet, pounds 9.95) is the latest in a steady tide of work in which his strange, laconic ecstasy is constant and unchanging. Reading him is like sitting on a bus next to a compulsive talker who promises to be the biggest bore in the world until you realise that he is entranced and so are you. He would continue nattering whether you were there or not. It is your exceptional good fortune that you are admitted to this wry, private litany.

The casual tone of these poems, which sometimes start in mid-sentence, confounds the formal norms a reader may expect. The titles don't seem to have a lot to do with the text much of the time, and the text is whispered in the ear, a droll commentary on the procession of cunningly disconnected day-to-day miracles filing past Ashbery's senses. "So runs," says he, "the carousel we call life".

The disconnected interaction of his successive experiences is the secret dynamic of his work. "Music played by a gifted child puts me in mind of a cigar I smoked on a picket line once," he says. Another time he was "digging a fire trench./ Along came a fireball,/ stopped, asked the time of day/ and went politely on his way." The speaker is continuously surprised and so are we.

Much of Ashbery's verse avoids obvious metre. The rhythms are oblique even when, in the long poem, "This Tuesday", he flirts with rhyming quatrains. Ashbery is a poet of vastly greater stature than any of them, but Ogden Nash, Bill Moenkhaus, the crazy Dadaist of Hoagy Carmichael's college days, and Groucho Marx are all among his antecedents.

Similarly Ashbery is among the antecedents of Tess Gallagher's Portable Kisses (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95). Even in the midst of a most graciously negotiated grief for her dead husband, Raymond Carver, she maintains a light and wonder-struck touch for a world that is never blamed for her personal misfortune. Carver's vacated spaces are thronged with kisses which are not acts, nor gestures, but which, in a spirit akin to that of Ashbery, are personae, nuisance children, priest confessors. Like Ashbery's, her tone is quiet, anti-rhetorical and friendly.

Roy Fisher has Ashbery's scale and, in his more radical pieces like "The Ship's Orchestra", an oddball novella, something of Ashbery's delight in the disconnected. "The Ship's Orchestra" is included in The Dow Low Drop (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) which includes all his work already published in an earlier Selected Poems with some new work added, including a selection of passages from the title poem.

Fisher, like Bunting and Ken Smith, is one of the few British poets this century who have joined topographical material with humour and intimations of destiny. He ranges the Midlands landscape like a guide, with a kind of morose avidity for fact and detail, always bewildered about how scenes of such turbulence and invention have grown so oddly quiet.

The anecdotes are always vivid and often about humanity's inability to deal with its own realities. There is a tonic frontal sanity about Fisher's work and his self-deprecatory humour can make the reader (this one anyway) yelp with laughter. For instance: "Men call me Roy/ Fisher. Women call me/ remote."

Fisher is quoted in the back cover of Ian Pople's The Glass Enclosure (Arc, pounds 5.95), praising Pople's work, and you can see why. Pople writes about places illuminated by the disjointed cultures they accommodate. Thus we have a European Roman Catholic Christ bleeding all over Manchester. There is an accurate and particular awareness of one holocaust or another running concurrent with domestic and regional coincidences: "F.15's peel back the fabric of sky. The sun shapes/ turrets and adobe houses/ into Downham Market and Swaffham." The rhythm is doggedly incantatory throughout. What saves Pople from being another despondent poetic voice is his skill with the extraordinary.

Charles Boyle's Paleface (Faber, pounds 6.99), although immaculately written, is in danger of being one more fed-up slim volume about British urban life which everybody knows is dire. So is Kate Clanchy, although in her first collection, Slattern (Chatto, pounds 6.99), she expresses a perceptive, unsentimental compassion for the male of the species.

An Irish flautist busking in an alien city for his fare back to Larne is just one of a number of men and boys in these pages. With vowels composed into sequences of considerable beauty, she explores the difficult excitement of the violence, failure and disaster of human energy without condemnation and with a great deal of vivid compassion, notably in a telling poem about the James Bulger case.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all