Moral Sloth by Nick Ascroft

Moral Sloth. Nick Ascroft (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781776562398. RRP $25. 80pp.

Reviewed by Rachel Lewis

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In “What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection”, Ascroft lists ‘You’re Going to Need a Big Old Dictionary’ as one of the titles. Which, ironically, was hilariously appropriate (and slightly demoralising) because one of those big old books is exactly what I needed. That and Google, to provide some contextual background to the poems. Call it a generation gap; Ascroft was a young adult in the 90s while I was still learning to count that high. Once I cracked them though, these poems had me laughing all the way through.

The poems are simultaneously humorous and serious. Underlying their humour is a struggle with morality, faith, truth, art, agency, and social responsibility. “Reflections on Emptiness, Celebrity and Agency, Having Visited Patrick Pound’s Hall of Mirrors” grapples with ideas of free will,

We have free will.
We are not walking out the paces
of a life shaped ahead of time for us.
Desire is our own.

Though tugged at by advertising

and the dubious politics of our associates,
we are the author of our choices,

I am being ironic,
saying one thing and meaning the antithesis.

“Self-Planting of Evidence” meditates on inner conflict,

Things to avoid meet
emotions of deterrent
and attractors thrill, the self-abuse of decision making

and ‘the wordless chemical torture / of the inner awareness’ stands out here. The poem “Truth” calls the merits of faith and values into question,

by habit we connect a faith with this
assurance of its universal good,
this certainty that every fool should think
as we do.

Ascroft skilfully pinpoints the crux of each matter with wit, and just the right balance of humour and cynicism.

Speaking of humour and wit, it is impossible not to acknowledge Ascroft’s impressive and enviable vocabulary, as well as his linguistic mastery. While I admit that the pages of my copy of the book are heavily sketched and indented with dully-pencilled underlinings and definitions of words I’d never heard before, I enjoyed every new exposure to these words of whimsy. “The Plotz”, the longest and one of the best poems in the collection, is littered with such words. I won’t list them here for fear of exposing my own inadequacy. One of the most fun poems to read is “What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection”. It is great fun to read lines like, ‘Full metal jean shorts’, ‘Unstapleshuttable’, ‘Charge Conjugation Parity Symmetry Violation for Dummies’ and ‘Hang on, Nobody Wang Chung a Second’ at speed.

There is so much to be discovered in this collection. I could easily address each poem individually, but alas, word limits. Ascroft’s humour and depth make for writing that wrestles with big ideas, but whimsically. I recommend dusting off your dictionary, sharpening your pencil, and sitting down with this gem.

Rachel Lewis is the editor of Betty Zine, a female-focussed, grassroots zine for ocean lovers. You’ll find her on the road or in the water when she’s not nose-deep in a notebook.

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