new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Howard




Going after the half-known’: Review of Shebang

Kapka Kassabova

First published in New Zealand Listener (2-8 Feb 2002)


David Howard is a mystery figure on our poetic landscape. Sparse in his output, virtually invisible to the media and involved for the last few years in staging entertainment shows around the world as a pyrotechnician, he belongs to an endangered species: the truly independent artist who remains quietly active throughout the years.

His first publication in six years, Shebang: Collected Poems, is a beautifully produced and timely collection comprising work from his critically acclaimed previous volumes – In the First Place and Holding Company – in addition to a body of new work that generously lives up to the contained intensity and piercing precision of his earlier poems. The shadowy illustrations by Jason Greig, black and white portraits of loneliness, haunt the text and are in turn haunted by it.

Howard’s world has the tension of multiplicity. There is a sense of engagement in a number of poems, especially those prompted by or written for other poets, a sense of artistic continuity through time and beyond the boundaries of English-language literature. There is however none of the pretentiousness and artificiality that sometimes goes with esoteric literary references. Each poem can be experienced in its own right, such as the wonderfully concise and loaded ‘For Paul Celan’ where the reader may or may not glimpse the tortured world of Paul Celan – and still find something of value.

prise the stone you
expose those who need
more than the stone
for protection

fell the tree you
build a bed to collect
the hearts of lovers
the bones of strangers

Howard’s greatest lyrical power is in apprehending the elusive. His is a poetry of the vanshing, of the shifting elsewhere, of loss lurking within the moment. It is a poetry that, to rephrase the author, always lives in autumn.

Dressed for another
century, I bend to caress
            this river: it absorbs
            me. Going

after the half-known I
            my shadow.
(‘Snatches of Old Tunes’).

There is the exquisite ‘The Reader’ where, in a story within a story, the poet sits in an old villa and imagines a waitress wiping a table at a café; she smells the gladioli that will cover the ruins of the house once the wind has turned and it has burnt down. In poems like ‘Care of the Commanding Officer’, ‘Cain’, ‘On the Eighth Day’, ‘Dove’, ‘To Cavafy’, to name but a few, the cerebral blends with the visceral with a lightness of touch I can only describe as poetic brilliance.

This is also poetry of the inexpressible, where the brutality of intense emotion is captured with rare precision. The love poems are therefore among the most striking in this already strong collection, not least because of their evocative directness and their unsparing final lines. ‘The Perpetual Bird’, a poem in seven parts, is among the most mesmerising examples of Howard’s astonishing ability to distill worlds of complex emotion where nothing is simply erotic and nothing is simply melancholy.

Once again the sky comes to
earth, firing the iron

knocker on our door. Draw
back before you knock, knowing

I will answer with a half-smile, remembering
last night: your bent neck in the bedroom

presaging our boy, who will point
out my faults, and finally

answer a different door after my knock
twenty years on, with you gone

before me into the dark
laughter of the dirt. ‘Show yourself’ I will

say, still tasting your pillow talk.
‘Come in to play’, you will

respond, offering your body as the sky offers
its blue to the puddle under the poplars.



Last updated 12 April, 2006