Ryan Siemers

Christopher Howell's Gaze

Howell, Christopher. Gaze. (Milkweed Editions 2012). 96 pages/ $16.00

Christopher Howell’s tenth book of poetry, Gaze, combines the metaphysical and the personal with urgency and honesty. The first quality arguably derives from Gaze’s over-arching concern with elegy, with the loss of loved ones and the necessity of placing those losses in some kind of context. But the second, the honesty of Gaze—to which I would add hospitality, generosity, and humility—is a testament to Christopher Howell’s craft. To read Gaze is to be invited into a simultaneously intimate and cosmic elegiac space. What sets Gaze apart as an elegy is Howell’s fluency with both lyric poetry and dramatic monologue, with nostalgic remembrances and otherworldly dreamscapes. If Gaze is an elegy, it is a prismatic one. But what I find most appealing about Gaze is the deep reservoir of resilience that surpasses the grief that drives it.

Perhaps we can locate that reservoir in the Spiritus Mundi, which Howell references in an August 8th, 2007 letter to Melissa Kwasny:

As to the grand figures in my poems: I suppose I think of them as incarnations of Spiritus Mundi, or perhaps messengers from the Negual, the Unknown upon which all knowing depends. I am comfortable with the word “soul,” for instance; it seems to me it can be made to reach down through what is known into a kind of active darkness. I am comfortable with all manner of gods and forces for the same reason and, hopefully, from the same body of respect. I have not thought too much about this, I suppose because the poetry itself is my way of encountering, investigating it. (Published by Melissa Kwasny in “God-Step at the Margins of Thought,” American Poetry Review, July/August 2009.)

Howell’s letter provides us with an important frame of reference for Gaze, where its multiple points of view can be read as different glimpses of the Spiritus Mundi, different delvings into an “active darkness.” Divided into three parts, Gaze begins in the afterlife. Most of the poems in Part I: View from the Afterlife are lyrics, and their speaker, whom we should be comfortable calling a “soul,” has already transgressed the boundary of death, has already “reach[ed] down through what is known into a kind of active darkness” to gaze backward on a previous life. In Part II: The Other Life, Howell’s gaze turns outward, investigating the lives of others: a category that includes people, objects, and “all manner of gods and forces.” Finally, in Part III: The Inner Life (With Crows), Howell looks inward, asking his soul “to tell about itself almost / anything” (“Listen”). Thus, a collection that begins with the sweeping, childlike question “What is the meaning of life?” in the title poem concludes with a plea for the soul to speak anything at all. While Gaze cannot answer the first question, cannot reduce to knowledge “the Unknown upon which all knowing depends,” neither does the soul remain silent in the collection’s moving final lines. Gaze rewards the reader who arrives at those lines in context.

But first, we must pay. Gaze derives its power from its elegiac concerns, and linked to those concerns is the idea of payment. In “The Moment Before a Change,” near the end of Part I, memory addresses the speaker:

I know you, it says,
you're the one who stands reed-still
under new stars and the old ones
with their faces turned away,
the one who’s uneasy, who remembers
and hasn’t quite paid.

The speaker’s unease can be attributed to the sense, encapsulated here, that youthful nostalgia fails to engage memory fully. Memory is for the payment of symbolic debts that inevitably come with age, as suggested by the turned-away faces of the old stars. We get a sense of the inevitability of payment in “Checkers,” located midway through the collection, which depicts a game of checkers between Jesus and Buddha: “Buddha occasionally asking, ‘Why pay at all?’ / and Jesus answering, ‘Everybody pays.’” “Checkers” is a playful poem, a black metaphysical comedy that surprises us until we realize that the questions Howell attempts to answer in Gaze lead him inevitably to divinity. “Checkers” presents the dictum that no one escapes payment as a universal law that is no less severe for the poem’s playfulness. In response to this inevitability, the structure of Gaze must itself move toward payment, toward elegy for the loss of loved ones—a payment that becomes a fixation, like “a song you play and play / until the juke box breaks and the other customers depart” (“Three Voice Roulette at Ghostly’s”).

In contrast to the moving elegies that occur with greater frequency in the last part of Gaze, “A Crow’s Elegy for the Farmer’s Daughter” offers an indifferent view of death. The crows address the farmer’s daughter of the poem’s title:

We did not care for you
though we saw the cortege winding past the arbor
and drunken berry rows, the ghosts of peach trees bowing
to acknowledge death’s grand simplicity at last

The crows highlight a tension between an intense sense of loss, expressed by Howell in other elegies, and divine indifference, attested to by the crows, who inform us that they are “gods.” The crows know that the farmer’s daughter is “not / ever coming home, / in spite of the mourners’ deeply foolish love,” and the stark finality of the crows’ view of death contrasts with Howell’s desire, in “Report from the Empty Room,” for his daughter’s soul to “simply graze the least hem / of [his] hand.” Doubt therefore threatens to overcome Howell’s elegiac project: doubt regarding God, the nature of death, and the Spiritus Mundi. “The Agnostic Prays for Rain” puts the question succinctly: “Forgive me, but, are we / alone here? Is there spirit in these / flocks and bones?” This question is echoed in the final poem of the collection, “Listen”:

Is it an empty house, the body alone
with its weary old clothes
or its bullet holes and severed arteries,
last laugh still shining in its teeth?

If, as I am suggesting here, Gaze moves toward a crisis of the beliefs Howell articulates in the letter with which I began this review, if materialist doubt threatens to drown the Spiritus Mundi and banish the souls of the mourned-for dead, “Listen” does not leave us in such a state of despair. Rather, the collection concludes with a well earned reaffirmation of the spiritual life. The speaker’s soul (which I will not quote here) does indeed speak, conveying a deep sadness but also indicating a community of traveling souls. Everybody pays, but our debt ties our souls together and links us to the “active darkness” through which we can find ourselves among others. Gaze leads its reader through a concatenation of perspectives to a simultaneously mournful and hopeful place. It leaves us with that indescribable feeling of interconnectedness that sometimes emerges from great literature wherein the particular, deeply meditated upon, expands into the universal and makes us more than ourselves.