Dreamless and Possible: Poems New and Selected
Books of selected poems, especially if the writer isn’t overbearingly well-known, have a lucky feeling to them. As it happens, Christopher Howell’s first collection is called The Crime of Luck; the title refers to the coming of winter, when “Soon cold will step from hiding, / the bears stagger comically to sleep, poor / beggars die out the crime of luck.”
A typical Christopher Howell poem—but it’s not clear there is any such thing. There is a genial, self-incriminating persona, and it would be unlikely for Howell to publish random lists of words, truly embarrassing personal stories or confrontational talk poems. He might be called a metaphysical poet for all his mention of the soul, his favored emblems for which are boats, birds and kites—free to travel but needing to come back to land. There are stable frames of reference in his poems, but he’s good for a substantial surprise almost every time. There is an intractable need in Howell’s poems to appeal to the reader’s tender feelings, as he says in 1997’s “The Cry,” to implore the reader to “come to me / because I cannot come to you.”
Episodes from his Vietnam-era stint in the Navy recur in his poems, in particular the job of writing letters to the families of soldiers killed in action. The first such poem, “Dear Mrs. Terry” (1976), recounts the awkwardness, tedium, and frustration of the sailors on a ship
in the lead-hot
Gulf into which Cadet Pilot Terry shot
his plane, the impact of the catapult
socking him forward, his gear
snagging the stick. “I don’t know, Captain,
he cleared the flight deck and went down
like a goose, sir.” Fifty fathoms. Enough
oxygen for half an hour.
The poem ends with another sailor sleeping, “book / over his face, the writing of that next-of-kin letter / making a wide slow approach through the dead / chain of command.” The intense sitting-duck feeling of the metaphor of the letter approaching its writer might seem a little callous; the enjambment, though not as epochal as Donne’s lines about the bells, gets, as we all do, to the point.
Death often looms over Howell’s poems. His 1991 collection Sweet Afton speaks of the last days of an imaginary Pennsylvania town before the power company flooded it for a reservoir. (It is typical of Howell’s imagination both that the town has been named by a lover of Burns’s poems as well as that no mention of Burns appears in the work.) His early poems show the strong, sometimes overpowering influence of James Wright, and even in his later poems he sometimes drops Wright’s words like keys: blossoms are everywhere, and even iron bars threaten to burst into song. He seems to be aware of the issue; in his direct nod to Wright’s best-known line, “I Have Wasted My Life,” he counters that in his case, “I hope I haven’t wasted it.”
What else might a Howell poem be. He invented a classical Chinese poet given to parables, and his fabulist streak continues in later poems about various encounters with animals. It’s not as hokey as that sounds—what, after all, is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but a poem about an encounter with an animal—and in fact his 2003 poem “The Dove” is a level-headed nautical tale contemplating eating a bird that “flopped out of the sky, exhausted, onto the fantail” of a boat lost at sea for weeks. It’s no “Rime,” but it is an attractive and memorable poem, both for its modest loathing for the bird’s “scorched white plastic-seeming shit” as well as the mildly crazed fantasy that during a squall, the bird, “below in an orange crate / where he would plummet immediately into the pigeon unconscious,” might watch over and protect the ship, “fly / the entire vessel then, soar high over the spume and pitching moil,” from inside his dream. Most poets would give you one or the other, the fouling of the decks or the “darkly joyous bird asleep / and dreaming of a bird.” For Howell, the real and the ideal both appear to be necessary conditions for poetry.
A reader can be forgiven for thinking his 1997 book, Memory and Heaven, my favorite of his single collections, bears a resemblance to the quirky investigations of Dean Young, Mary Ruefle and others. Like Young and Ruefle, Howell has always grounded lightness with heavy facts. Those who seek Howell’s book out will find a poet who over time has grown more and more comfortable with surprising word choices, comparisons, and lists. He’s so sure the force of his narratives will carry the reader through to the end, so sure the feelings that come through in his poems are real and undeniable, he can risk what looks at first like irrelevance, as toward the end of the elegy “You Sailed Away, Oh Yes You Did”
Like a proton parking meter filled with mischief and stars,
like a fig bar the rain disapproves of,
like a window becoming a zip-lock bag when no one is listening.
I’d prefer that series without the clause beginning with filled, but I’ll take it as a package deal with the fig bar, token of an outright Ashberyan tendency I wouldn’t mind seeing him develop further, if it might mean more poems like 2004’s “He Writes to the Soul.” There, his native impulse to hold the reader’s attention somehow coexists with his other great will, to daydream: “Anyway, / at every crossing I kneel and say ‘Excelsior!’ / and light a little fire in a jar and drink it down, / hoping if fire’s a prayer no one will answer it just yet.” The close of the poem makes me want to encourage this fluent silliness in Howell and almost nobody else on the planet:
Don’t fret about my safety; if the weather
doesn’t suck its trigger finger while it hunts for time,
or if something huge and golden lets me have its keys,
I’ll be ok. Lake or no lake, some days I feel
perfectly disguised in front of you, like intention
around an iceberg or sunlight on the skin of the rain.
And I’m happy now, happy as a jungle, happy as a wisp
of dreaming melon and I cry only on your days off.
In a dramatic monologue from 1991’s Sweet Afton, Christopher Howell ends the speech of the town painter with what might serve as a motto for his art:
The few things I do sell
I sell for no great golden fee.
Most of my sad companions here will never know
the single object of the work
While that’s a reasonable mission statement for small town painter and well-published poet alike, I think it puts too low a price on Howell’s inventions. Reading back through Howell’s books for this review, and prompted by his new poem, “Time Travel,” I noticed several anticipatory borrowings from popular culture in poems not included here. For example: His “monster that ate Sandusky,” included in a science-fiction anthology in 1977, was at the very least likely something in the air breathed by the creators of “The Creature that Ate Sheboygan,” a 1979 computer game. The poem “Chance,” with its weasel “rattling the stargate of an infant’s sleep,” is from the 1985 collection Sea Change, and therefore only predicts what most men think of James Spader. And as for his appalling 1997 pun title “Christian Science Minotaur”—the band of the same name that began recording in 2002, it turns out, may be able to plead that their use of the name is merely a literary reference.
Dreamless and Possible is Howell’s ninth volume. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University, and most of his books have been published in the northwest; by his current press, University of Washington, by Eastern Washington U’s now-closed press, by Idaho’s Lost Horse Press, and by L’Epervier, then of Seattle. He’s no more a regional writer than his fellow northwesterner the late William Stafford was, though. I first came across his work in The Gettysburg Review; his near-annual appearances justify a subscription.
Howell writes as if he believes both that art cannot be willed, and that it never comes without a sacrifice. This refusal of the will sometimes gives his work a self-diminishing quality, and it is not always clear that his best, most characteristic poems are on offer here. For example, of the 25 poems he’s published in The Gettysburg Review in the last decade, by my count he’s only collected ten in books so far. My favorite poem of 2006 is one of those uncollected poems: “Rachel,” a psychological thriller monologue in the voice of a patient of Freud’s who’d lost her child. Maybe he’ll put it in the next book. In this book there are nine or ten poems at least as good as that one, one of which, “The New Orpheus,” is an elegy for his daughter Emma. The poem is both beautiful and excerptible, but it would be irresponsible to just pull a quote. It’s worth getting to the end of the book to read the last three lines in context.
As devastated and clear as Howell can be, singer of sad songs is not exactly the writer I see when I look at his work in the round. That character I see more clearly in one of the new poems. “Letting Things Go” relates a trip the poet took in his baby-poet pre-first-book days to the annual conference of John Muir Publications, a press run by an engineer-hippie carrying on the family name of the legendary environmentalist. (JMP’s best-known book remains How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.) Ever the ambitious poet, Howell secures an invitation to read for the “principal mavens of the group”:
We gathered around a huge table out
under the stars
and I opened my manuscript…
but first, Muir said, we should “get into the mood”
and began to load his pipe with a weed
and Psilocybe Mexicana mixture which everyone
smoked until their eyes were huge, pulsing zeros.
Then I read. It was like hollering
into a vat of butter, like singing to Martians
about the stock exchange.
When, after three hundred years, I finished,
they nodded into themselves, looked around
and went off toward the beach.
Two days later the managing editor collared me
and said, “Well, they thought I should talk to you
because we’re about the same height. So,
it’s like this, we know you’re a good poet
and we’d really like to help you out, but
you’re into holding onto things
and we’re into letting things go.