The Surreal and the Small

January 30, 2013

Review of Gaze by Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions, 2012)

Christopher Howell’s tenth collection of poems, Gaze, bears the ghostly structure of a fugue: certain elements recur in these poems—notably memory and the past, a mother’s shade, paradoxes, crows, unanswerable questions, the afterlife and its possibility, small town bars and small town lives—these elements return and are changed, faded, transfigured or transformed.

These poems do not shrink from surreality (‘The Circular Saw Children Confess Their Joy’; ‘The Refusal to Count Beyond Seven’: “There were seven crows inside her / gibbering and flapping, emitting / the occasional squawk”, a poem that seems brushed by the hand of Stevens) or beauty. Howell has a real gift for unearthing an image. More importantly, he juxtaposes his most poignant images with darker or stranger ones (“The dark branch breaks under a crow / that has been trying to break it. / My daughter’s face / fades in and out of the clouds gathered…”), or manages to undercut or sideswipe them with a humor that edges each poem—a quiet humor, sometimes gritty—so that the images become more resonant, more closely tied to the animating tension of the poem.

In ‘The Paradox of Place,’ a red kimono in an empty house becomes an emblem of loss and memory, after “the moon comes home / with nothing in its mouth and no one near,” after the speaker traces the “intricate figure / of absence / to the beloved dead,” and after the speaker traces the course of his life, which is a “house that runs on empty / red kimonos, wild / roses where there used to be a door.” In this final movement, Howell manages a piece of alchemy, an imagistic match that happens when the speaker’s past and present collide, as the red kimonos become these wild roses over the empty doorway, in a place the speaker is and is not. These are beautiful crow-lit lyric poems singed with memory, delivered in an off-hand minor chord, touched by the surreal and the small, that manages to distill loss and still deliver a fierce joy.

Mark Wagenaar

Mark Wagenaar is the author of Voodoo Inverso, 2012 winner of the Pollak Prize. Recent appear of are forthcoming in Tin House, Beloit Poetry Journal, Southeast Review, & Southern Indiana Review.

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