“Gaze” — Christopher Howell

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christopher Howell’s Gaze  (Milkweed Editions, 2012)

I once heard Richard Kostelanetz propose, at an event at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC, a guideline for determining the stature or significance of a poet: someone who has several memorable poems in addition to the title poems of his or her books. Christopher Howell’s Gaze certainly meets the standard of having poems that match or exceed the quality of the title poem. In particular, “The Mystery of Names” is one of the best poems I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s almost eerie how the first half of the story-line of that poem catches and blends together a series of experiences that will be very familiar to most readers: a new year’s eve party, sleeping over at a friend’s house. Reading “The Mystery of Names” is almost like a dream-like, deja vu experience, out of which an epiphany flows which takes one’s breath away, and then restores it.

Although Howell’s poem has nothing in common with the structural form of the blues, “The Mystery of Names” similarly encapsulates so much knowledge of the fundamental conditions of human consciousness that it accomplishes that rare feat of arousing and satisfying one’s craving for wisdom; in other words, it attains a resemblance of universality. It does this without any pretension whatsoever or posing in the manner of Rilke. Instead, the quiet candor of its subtle transitions enables a reader to trust the poem completely. The visionary restraint of this poem is nothing short of astonishing. Not many young poets, even as they ripen towards their mid-30s, can realize how many years one has to work to perfect the skills that Howell displays in “The Mystery of Names.”  For once, I’m grateful to be old enough to begin to apprehend the full measure of a poem on this scale.

There are, of course, other very substantial poems in “Gaze,” such as “The Long Arm of the Lake,” with its audaciously blunt conclusion, but “Mystery of Names” is a mouth-dropper. The first time I read it, I had to put the book down and just walk away and let it flow in and out and around me, and then back into me again. I only needed to read it once for that to happen; it just kept floating alongside me for the next couple days. It was that stunning.

Over the years, I have not seen an abundance of anthologies with Howell’s poems, an omission that needs to be rectified. He has published ten books, so one would expect more visibility for a poet who has won two NEA fellowships and had several Pushcart Prize credits. One major obstacle to wider recognition is that his predominant publishers are considerably west of Pittsburgh. I’m happy that Milkweed Editions has made his poetry part of their booklist. One of the poets long championed by Milkweed, Jim Moore, has long been one of my favorite American poets. At this point, I can’t think of too many readings that would be much better than hearing Jim Moore and Chris Howell back to back. Come to think of it, one could build a very interesting poetry festival around those two poets.