You could say David Howard is a one off, and then ask the question, Who isn’t?
Okay. But if someone told you that early in the 21st century he’d written ‘a pair of dramatic monologues that circle the character of a Catholic tenant farmer who shipped out’ to NZ ‘on the Asia in 1874’, and that the poem ‘The Word Went Round’ ‘explores journey as a form of imitation’, that it highlights a mix ‘of the tedious and the marvellous, when flight from love is also the search for it’, and there’s ‘overlap between the visible and the recalled’, would you still doubt that he’s pretty unusual?
Howard’s been a roadie for rock bands, so he knows a fair bit about the feral world. He’s also worked in bookshops, so he knows some truths about what people read and that, by and large, most give poetry a miss. He’s in tune with the outdoors – sees and hears the world around us and finds the words to prove it. And he’s surely the only New Zealand poet who can claim to be a professional pyrotechnician – I can see why that would appeal to a poet.
A few observations about the poems as they strike me. Ironies abound in the sense that, time after time, Howard reminds us how our convictions are shaken by experience. The words may go round but we can’t take any of them, what they denote and who uses them, for granted.
I like how direct and terse he can be in his verse. Take the opening four lines of the title poem:
No man would show
good sense in taking
a woman to him then
settling on a farm that rank –
Then, a little further on he writes,
For Catholic tykes
of pain in a cathedral
weighs less than griddle-cake come dusk,
Everywhere, Howard is saying, in the voice of his Irish immigrant, there’s little or no room for illusions. And when he writes,
It was written is small solace
to an illiterate
I take that as him saying, deal with the realities of the here and now; flights to the hereafter won’t sustain us. His shipboard Irishman exhorts us to ‘Speak plainly,’… Say that you cannot / say. This is the Gaelic / way.’
When pitching and rolling in ‘The Word Went Round’ I kept thinking that Howard was suggesting that whenever there’s comfort, its bound to be shortlived, and discomfort’s sure to be sloshing round in the bilge of another ship of the self. As Freud might have said, inclination is but a mask hiding dis-inclination.
Throughout the book, the terseness – corrosiveness if you like – of utterance such as, ‘rhetoric gets up the blood / quicker than reel-step or hornpipe’, is balanced with graceful, evocative images as in the lines,
The green sod curls
off the blade the way
a wave curves on the shore.
Howard’s immigrant reckons ‘elsewhere is where / my ship will come in – ‘ but then he wonders where ‘Elsewhere is’. He also asks, ‘What’s an occupation / with no time to call your own?’ It’s a question that we continue to ask.
Howard gives us some vivid, diverting images. For example, ‘New Zealand / looms like a moult albatross’, and, ‘Off Cape Saunders’ he says, ‘the notion of “home” / slips like an excited pig / on wet decking.’ Then. later, he finds that ‘good and bad jostle like sheep / through a lychgate’,.. ‘and yet / Otago shines like loam / turned before church on Sunday.’ In the end, though, his rueful immigrant says, ‘Emigration / is a job for Job.’
The second part of the monologue, a sequence of fourteen fourteen-liners, entitled ‘On First Looking’, takes us up the coast and through parts of inland Otago. A journey, again. I read it as the poet saying we have to go back to our roots to get a better idea of where we come from and why we see – and act – the way we do in the course of learning more about where we’ve ended up. It made me think of Seamus Heaney’s remark that he saw his poetry coming from a fusion of his roots and his reading. My guess is Howard would agree with that, and that, even now, we’re still confused as to what we are doing here on these stressed islands.
The Irishman knows ‘nothing / about the direct route’, says, ‘Impossible to tell / who owns the land that shows / every footprint is temporary.’ Exactly, which raises the question to me, is it ever right for us to claim we own land?
There are wry asides aplenty: for instance, after fifteen days of rain we’re told ‘Oamaru’s runholders are stoppered / as surely as the Reverend’s decanter’, and ‘ambition’ is said to be ‘a sledge’ that ‘catches constantly on tree-roots’.
All right… there are other poems in the collection, and good ones. In ‘Letter to Charles Brasch’ he says Brasch’s verse is ‘wrought’. A good word for Howard’s, too.
Wrought, as a means of holding at bay what’s fraught about us, and our predicament here, is one way of reading it.
There’s a poignant sequence to the memory of his father called ‘The Held Air’ in which Howard quotes Socrates who said, ‘Learning is recollection’. The poems make one ask, can what we held ever hold up? Addressing his father, Howard says, ‘The comfortable life is the one / unlived.’ Surely an allusion to Socrates’ ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.
I should say the cover and other reproductions of some very strong paintings by Garry Currin add force to the collection.
I would add that I was startled to hear that Creative NZ wouldn’t offer any assistance towards the publication of ‘The Word Went Round’. That strikes me as odd and regrettable, so I congratulate Otago for going ahead with the collection anyway.
Howard has his own ways of saying, and, something not all poets can claim, things to say.