This substantial book (329 pages including notes and indexes) was preceded by the in-complete poems in 2011 (274 pages with notes, etc.). The poems in both volumes are scrupulously dated and, in many cases, accompanied by detailed endnotes, and in these ways as in others, differ from a by-now familiar contemporary style or even culture of poetry-book — which is, if anything, under-presented, intimate and unpretentiously personal. Alex Grace’s review in Goodreads of James Brown’s latest book, The Tip Shop (Te Herenga Waka University Press, June 2022) sets a typical tone: ‘Funny, dark, insightful and nothing close to a chore to read. Poetry, but it doesn’t suck.’ — ‘Poetry sucks’ being an insider poetry-reader quote, of course.
The first poem in each of David Howard’s collected volumes is ‘Judy is a punk’, dated 1976 (an endnote tells us ‘The title echoes The Ramones’ 1976 song’); in the second, recent volume, this title is, in addition, reprised as the last poem in 20.8.2020, but with subtle echoic changes. For example, the last word in the 1976 version, ‘Perfect’, has become ‘abject’ forty-four years later. What’s implied — and encountered by a close reader — is not only overarching control of the whole corpus across a wide span of time and material, including all poems being scrupulously numbered, dated and many annotated, but an implicit subtext that in itself comprises a controlling narrative of order-as-meaning, of a consciousness or character at once fastidious and cartouche-like, detailed and overarching; this implicitly expects a degree of ‘chore’ in the reader’s approach.
In both volumes, this conscientious, engrossing character begins on the book’s cover. The lowercase cover title of the earlier book separates ‘in-complete’ on different lines, forcibly emphasising ‘incomplete’ (my emphasis), but also introducing a sense of paradox, of deliberate, even playful ambiguity. The title of the second book, Rāwaho/The Completed (my emphasis) Poems, gestures at the historically conventional type of title, The Complete Poems, meaning ‘this is a wrap’; but amends the meaning to ‘these are all that were finished’ — while also adding the te reo term rāwaho for unrelated or outsider individuals who could potentially become insider ahi kā with decision-making rights by returning to the appropriate tribal area.
This is a lot of deliberate and deliberated business to encounter before even opening the book, where, on the inside cover-flap, there’s a note by David Howard where he records that ‘many uncollected pieces served as preparatory studies for these 150 titles’, and concludes, ‘This book has thousands of lines but in making it I am drawing one line. Another decade has gone, I’m done. This is the best I can do.’ Further in are two epigraphs, one from Hahi Wilson (2019) that explains the book’s title, Rāwaho: ‘we are not from here’; and a second from Samuel Butler (1872), a gloss on the subtle instability of the word ‘exploring’. The dating on the four-line poem Rāwaho (poem 93, page 148) indicates it was explored in one way or degree over fifteen years, 6.7.2006 — 19.4.2021. Under an epigraph from Albert Camus L’Étranger — ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’ — is the following enigmatic yet precise gloss on ‘not from here’ — snatches of foreign language, solitariness, a sense of being distanced from what defined the location, a sense, even, of ‘appropriate’ tikanga in that alienation:
Occasionally there was a sentence
in French. You felt it appropriate
to languish on the chaise longue.
You loved the sea from the shore.
Also in the book’s foreword material is a dedication to the poet’s father Reginald William Howard, ‘who taught me how to read’ — with very close attention I would add, as a grateful if sometimes exercised reader of the result.
My attention to what comes before the poems themselves might seem pedantic were it not for Howard’s matching detail, precision and critical commitment to the poems themselves which, far from being dry or pedantic are fine-tuned, imaginatively inventive, often elegantly lyrical, and often — opening a random page — witty. On page 156 we encounter poem 99, ‘Originality’. A sample verse:
Freighters destabilised by their cargo,
poets nose into the bar
and take on water.
The resigned smile of a lemon slice;
the parasol that drags like an anchor.
What a to-do
now there’s nothing to be done.
And another random pick, using an adroit line-turn, from poem 11, ‘Morning’ (p.18):
My candle pales as dawn breaks
down the door. Let’s get up
The term ‘aphoristic’ can easily be applied to many of the poems in this book, but it misses a range of linguistic and formal complications, including several poems that use a two-column format, for example poem 45, ‘You say it’s your birthday’ / ‘Well it’s my birthday too’ (another pop music reference), four columns across pages 58 and 59, where the reader’s experience is of echoic or overheard voices speaking simultaneously. The critical value of terms such as ‘laconic’ and its natural companion ‘droll’, along with stripped-back lineation, sometimes recall the formal and tonal economies of Robert Creeley. In the opening paragraph of his ten pages of detailed ‘Notes’ in the book’s final sections, Howard references the jazz pianist Paul Bley and quotes from an interview he, Howard, did with Lynley Edmeades and Catherine Dale in 2013: ‘I heard someone who was not afraid to activate silence … I’m amazed by Bley’s ability to let you hear the melody he’s not playing and that’s what I brought over to my poetry … I want that complex song from my poems.’
What ‘complex song’ refers to includes a substantial amount of rhyme- and line-schemes, especially in the latter sections of the book, for example in the ten-page poem ‘The Ghost of James Williamson (1814 – 2014)’, dated 19.11.2014 — 25.1.2015, which is also a voiced set of two dramatic monologues. Among the substantial long works, also dramatic, are libretti such as poem 144, ‘Water Globe: A Libretto for Brina Jeź Brezavšček’, which proceeds over twenty-six pages of closely rhymed lyrics sung by characters including the teenagers Martina and Martin, Veles (‘the first tormentor of Martin’), Giant Water Snake (‘the second tormentor of Martin’), Dragon (‘the third tormentor of Martin’), Lucifer (‘the fourth …’) and Šembilja (‘a projection of Martina …’). The short note to this work describes it as a ‘libretto for young adults commissioned by the Slovene composer Brina Jeź Brezavšček for performance at Ljubljana town hall in December 2019’. These works enlarge and complicate the scope of what I described earlier as ‘laconic’ and ‘droll’ (‘Water Globe’ is neither of these), and it’s fair to say my enjoyment and appreciation of the book’s idiosyncratic substance as a whole had to take on its ‘chore’ expectations. I’m glad I did.
This is an appropriate place to revisit the book’s closing poem, ‘Judy is a Punk (Reprise)’ and to check out the substantial note that annotates this small poem — the final note in that section of the book. The note includes the following quote from the Croatian Daš Drndić’s novel Belladonna, as translated by Celia Hawkesworth, which I take the liberty of quoting in full, since I couldn’t have described Howard’s own book better:
He has already thought out everything in his life. In little heaps, small piles, he has laid days, years, births and deaths, loves, the few there were, journeys many, acquaintances, many, family dramas, his senseless chases and even more senseless small battles, on the whole lost, languages, foreign and local, landscapes, he has tidily classified it all, and tidied up that baggage, that now unheeded burden, and arranged it in the corners of the spacious rooms as though yet another great removal awaited him.