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.