In the opening poem of Christopher Howell’s Gaze, “Home Stretch,” he concludes with, “Receive me. Here are my silver / wings, in accordance with custom. Inside of them / leaves have been falling all these years.” And as readers, we do receive him, trusting Howell’s confident voice.
Howell’s voice works very subtly. After the first few readings, I was ready to declare Gaze unremarkable, which is not at all true. Howell surprises by not trying to surprise at all. His language and imagery do not draw attention to themselves. His leaps are not what we postmodern readers have been conditioned to expect. Once a reader takes these poems on their terms, the poems become really intricate and beautiful.
In “Long Arm of the Lake,” my favorite of the collection, Howell tells a simple and cliché story of a family fishing trip from the speaker’s childhood. The poem operates, just as most of his poems, by behaving exactly as you would expect a mediocre poem to behave, capable yet pedestrian. The second half of the poem, without drawing focus or announcing its shifting, hinges on the word “terror.” After, the poem is about religious fear, “too tired to care / about whatever version of the Devil / my hook had caught.” The speaker’s version of the Devil is a five-pound bass, “flopping and miraculous,” which the speaker will take “and beat its brains out on the stern,” just as he’d been taught. The possible interpretations to this idea and Howell’s wording show his deft handling of complicated subject matter in disarmingly simple ways.
Throughout the collection, Howell sustains the image of crows. In “Long Arm of the Lake,” he writes, “I thought it might be a kind of crow, one of the gods / of hatred …” This connection permeates all mentions of crows that follow. Section three has a subtitle of “The Inner Life [With Crows].” These gods of hatred show up everywhere. “The Refusal to Count Beyond Seven” begins:
There were seven crows inside her
gibbering and flapping, emitting
the occasional squawk, much more
like a suddenly discovered moon than language.
Sometimes she hopped around
because of this.
At sunset we would find her on the roof
looking for the rest of her clan
or for that Nebraska corresponding
to a crow’s curious need for endlessness.
Seven gods of hatred live inside her. They have a curious need for endlessness. Without the earlier connection, this poem would be lovely but easily dismissed. With the earlier connection, this image has a beautiful relatability. Who doesn’t feel gods of hatred sometimes? Who doesn’t understand the “curious need for endlessness? Later, in “The Wind off the River Asks if I’ve Seen Myself Lately and, if so, Do I Remember the Name,” he ends,
Suddenly, in answer to the wind, I see myself
exiled in the far north of longing. Forsaken
by the crows, I have bought only one book
and I read it again and again.
Somewhere, the curious need for endlessness gave way to forsaking. What comfort to be found in this far north of longing. All of these descriptions alone are entirely forgettable, but if a reader remembers the small, subtle line that links crows and gods of hatred, then every reference is made complicated, beautiful, human.
After the first reading of Gaze, everything in me wanted to dismiss the collection as underwhelming and unimaginative. I looked to poems as proof, such as the word “jaunty” to describe a hat in “Long Arm of the Lake” (has that word ever in the history of our language described anything other than a damned hat?) and the poem “Checkers,” in which a game between Jesus and Buddha allows for cheap and dull religious platitudes. Every time, though, I couldn’t do it. This collection is one that is so different from most of poetry, from the Modernists on, where the flashiest and most clever poems receive the highest reward. Instead, what Howell has given us is a quiet collection that gets to you, that stays with you. It isn’t a book of poems that behave like we expect poems to behave, but more than that, these poems live with you beyond the experience of reading. This is gazing at a fire so that the after image is with you, for a little bit at least, every time you close your eyes.