Near the end of the first, exquisitely crafted poem in David Howard’s new collection, the ones who keep quiet, there are the lines, ‘Here I am trying to control/details others ignore’ (The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014). It seems a fitting meta-poetic statement for his poetry. The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014 is a poem which, over 58 stanzas, maintains control of a tight line structure and rhyme pattern which many casual readers probably won’t notice on a conscious level. And it’s not just that poem – throughout the collection you are required to keep up because he is doing so much all the time. Look at these three words in the poem ‘Because Love Is Something Left’ – ‘Penknife, pliers forceps…’ and notice all that connects those words aurally, visually and in image.
Detailed construction is found everywhere in the ones who keep quiet and his approach reminds me of the one advocated by Glen Maxwell in his book On Poetry. Maxwell wants poetry of pattern, ‘new forms. But still, forms,’ he demands. Maxwell and Howard are also similar in their use of verse for the craft of playwriting and the ones who keep quiet has a short ‘play’ in the form of the poem The Mica Pavilion.
My favourite in the collection however, is the poem Prague Casebook which Howard tells us ‘circles the character of the New Zealander and alleged spy Ian Milner’. It has wonderful lines, for example, ‘The people here are strangers, they show/scant compassion; they smile like real estate agents.’ Or this wonderfully hideous example, ‘Socialism is soup made of cow lips./Smack smack.’ Gross! I love it!
Remember the poem I mentioned before which continued for 58 stanzas? At times I felt I was limping towards the finish of a poem, like an athlete at the end of a marathon. Howard would always reward me with a short poem as if aware of my need to stay on just one page for a bit. The placement of poems in this collection is a gift to the reader.
Howard includes detailed notes about some of the characters and history the poems reference. This is good, but it raised my expectations and I was disappointed when a poem did not have accompanying information in the notes. Why for example does Howard not tell me anything about the music referenced in the poem Der Abend? But this is a minor criticism of an otherwise thoughtful collection.
In the synopsis on the back cover, Howard is praised for his ‘metaphysical mulling’. He is not using his poetry to display his theology yet God, the Word (a reference to Christ in the Bible), heaven, hell, the details of our souls, are all here in Howard’s poems without his own specific beliefs being present. It is a hard thing, to depersonalise ideas about faith, and this to me is the most difficult thing, of all the difficult things, that Howard achieves.
Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod
the ones who keep quiet
by David Howard
Published by Otago University Press