Friday, January 18, 2019
Stevie Howell's I left nothing inside on purpose
I left nothing inside on purpose, the title of Stevie Howell’s 2018 collection of poems, is taken from a note in the window of a Mercedes, in a ridiculously optimistic request for preservation of property. Howell’s header uses that naive note ironically, realizing we – I use that collective pronoun seriously – can’t shut out disaster, whether we’ve money and good health, or, in the speaker’s case, little of the former and even less of the latter. The title also refers to the fearless revelations of the speaker, impatient with the poses and tertiary peccadilloes that comprise so much of the tea-cosy-and-grey-sky school of poetry.
Voice is a particular challenge in this volume. The tone, I feel, left plenty of room for various inflections, tempi, and dynamics, yet I didn’t feel this an arbitrary exercise. The poems have to be read aloud – all of them – and I found myself stopping and starting frequently because of the constant indentations, caesurae, ellipses, one-and-two line stanzas, short phrases, and sporadic period disappearance. The effect is halting, but not tentative, and certainly not flat. Though sentences are paratactic, they don’t fill the page with numbing, unresolved repetition, the latter a cheap ball-peen in the postmodern toolkit. Actually, the ‘flat’ tone emphasizes the terse and not infrequent tragic maxims that follow the earlier strategy. And those harsh conclusions are earned by the (now) heightened earlier content. This is difficult, even impossible, to relay accurately here because of the typographical misrepresentation which would result. And unlike the often arbitrary indents and erratic spacings other poets use in an attempt to impart complexity, Howell’s efforts in layout are instructive. So I’ll just pick a few quotes from various poems that can be rendered here with fairly close representation, realizing that, in this volume more than most others, excision doesn’t do justice to her work.
“A dream of diaphaneity by the calcified. Life requires 3 people to make a//tragedy. & for the tragedy to be performed. A 3rd person can’t come between a couple unless//you let him, & he wants to.”
“That I can close my eyes & make you//mine on loan is a miracle////God help me –
“a retired train station, too. A maze of different platforms makes you panic – you might miss your ride into oblivion.”
The bravery on display doesn’t just result from exposing the extremes of mental and emotional states – (“I refuse to describe the tangible world in signs anymore. Since Google killed/the lyric, all we have inside//(states, not traits)”) – but on laying out spare relational settings (objects in a room; mundane images) and somehow managing to link the humble beginnings to interesting, even profound, observations, and all this through transitions that, initially, seem maximally disjointed.
Here I note that her editor was Ken Babstock. I don’t normally comment on a book’s editor, publisher, or designer, preferring to let the poems speak without the support system, not that that system is unimportant – far from it – but that those details can easily veer into the ‘business’ of poetry, important for sure, but also dangerous in that false conclusions, or at least banal ones, can be drawn from the links. In I left nothing inside on purpose, though, Babstock’s influence shows. His latest book, On Malice, now four years in the rear view mirror, uses flatness and disjunction to mirror emotional reactions to history as impersonal insult. Howell has learned well, and has added her own deft touches, dependent on no one.