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Ford, Mark (Nicholas)

FORD, Mark (Nicholas)


Nationality: British. Born: Nairobi, Kenya, 24 June 1962. Education: Oxford University, Oxford, 1980–83, 1984–87, B.A. 1983,D.Phil. 1991; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983–84. Family: Married 1) Xantue Gresham in 1986 (divorced 1990); Kate Bomford in 1994. Career: Lecturer in English, University College, London, 1988–90, and Kyoto University, Japan, 1991–93. Since 1995 lecturer in English, University College, London. Address: 89b Highbury Hill, London N5 1SX, England.

Publications

Poetry

Landlocked. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Other

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams. London, Faber, 2000.

*

Critical Studies: "Post-Modernism and Its Discontents" by Steve Clark, in The View from Kyoto, edited by Shoichiro Sakurai, Kyoto, Japan, Rinzen Press, 1998; "Scoops from the Tide Pools" by Helen Vendler, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 1 January 1999.

*  *  *

Mark Ford's poetic voice is transatlantic, cool, self-aware, and often funny. In his accomplished collection Landlocked the quality of play in the language brings contemporary American poets to mind, especially John Ashbery, without seeming derivative. As with Ashbery, Ford likes to mime the processes of sequential thought while tantalizingly departing from them in the interests of his poetry's "most peculiar almost whimsical shapes," as he puts it in "Funny Peculiar." Transitions behave as though advancing a poetic argument, but they actually draw attention to gaps, so that the poem invites the reader to detect a more orderly ghost of itself just behind the verbal skeleton. Thus,"Invisible Assets" opens,

After he threw her through a
plate-glass window, nature seemed that much closer.
Even the dastardly divisions in society
might be healed by a first-rate glazier.

Although the Auden of "Consider" is briefly recalled here, and might even be a candidate for the "first-rate glazier," Ford sends up any possible engagement with "dastardly divisions in society" through the jokey woodenness of the phrasing. In place of Auden's antimodernist wish to "make action urgent and its nature clear," Ford entertains a postmodernist blur of possible meanings, delighting in the sheer daftness of language ("threw" passing into "through," for instance), his details tempting the reader into interpretations they simultaneously resist. He is more than content to encourage his reader to "wander" through a "literary-critical / Conundrum."

Above all Ford is a master of the intonational quotation mark, to borrow Bakhtin's term. His lines continually presuppose a sophisticated, negatively capable poet assuming the accents of a naive or blinkered speaker. In "Street Violence," for instance, a macho voice overcompensates for emotional "disappointment": "Too bad, I thought, for her sake, / That she didn't remember me like she should have." The comedy here derives from the well-caught sense of injured merit. In other places Ford allows his speaker greater self-awareness, as in the witty end of "Night Out," where he turns the phrase "couldn't care less" on its head, making it the vehicle of a humorous competitiveness: "I care less than any and all of you, / it's a major strength of my character, I care less / and less, and of course will never but never give that up."

Elsewhere for Ford all the fun lies in how a person says a thing. "Christmas" weaves in and out of fooling around ("I very much enjoyed your latest book I lied having / NOT read it") and parody to develop a beguiling narrative about possible death and accidental traces of a life. In "General Knowledge" he brilliantly captures the arbitrary weightlessness of facts in a stanza that says much about the mock-rueful persona he develops in the volume: "It's said that every forty minutes the world is girdled / By a satellite; with a nail I trace the thin blue / Veins of the delta winding dubiously towards the sea." The two assertions balance received wisdom against a tentative foray into the unfamiliar, "dubiously" doing much to imply the speaker's attitude. Equally impressive is the sure handling of the line breaks and long line. "A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts" is the high point of Landlocked' s surreal capers and illustrates Ford's poker-faced ability to create just about believable yet fantastic scenarios.

Work composed after Landlocked shows a deepening and intensifying of Ford's concerns. In "I Wish," for example, he displays his ability to write unpretentiously about the effects of his own writing in phrases such as "an invisible host of dubious connections." It may be the case that in his work since Landlocked the poet emerges more clearly in proprium persona without sacrificing a shred of humor, as when he says in "Contingency Plans," "in a quandary I seized / My innate Englishness, and practised / Wrapping it around me like an old army coat," in which "practised" speaks volumes about the way Ford always looks even when he leaps.

—Michael O'Neill

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