Reviewing two books in tandem has its pitfalls. Sometimes it seems unfair if one of the two texts (both so tenderly edited and designed) in question is particularly whizz-bang, leaving the other to seem more lackluster as a result. E.Martin Nolan, in his in-depth review of Harris’s The Staghead Spoke on LemonHound, makes mention of the rare energy of Harris’s line breaks and diction choices. Yet, set against Howe’s jarringly brilliant The Civic-Mindedness of Trees, it actually felt lexically flat at times and lacking in human “hooks” of engagement. Which, as I will go on to write, may be the ambient intent of the former text.
Harris has indeed scripted a unique foray into fairy tale polyphony, along with a tracery of the numerous levels of detachment grief procures. Her sequences, split into two disparate in character but equivalent in tone books, presents the reader with dialogic lyrics, fragmentary passages, Steinian hugger-muggery of language and an overhanging of Beckettian apocalypticism . Most compelling when it tiptoes, uncomfortably and with suitably awkward sorrow, on the animal spaces, it is less so when it drones on in a solo-noted, Prozac-dervish mourning mode, as accurate as that absenting can be in its endlessness, that lodging in the grief-trap.
More than anything else in poetry I think, beyond the empathic music of words finely chosen, I adore the sense poems can impart of a wholly idiosyncratic way of being in the world, as evidenced by lexical and other prosodic choices. In The Stag Head Spoke, for all the odd un-Heimlichness of this fusion of a Sexton/Plath-style gothicism, tinged by Faust, Roethke, Grimm (of course), Clive Barker and the aforementioned deadly serious tomfoolery that is Beckett and Stein combined, I didn’t click into any such stance. This is likely because Harris has effected a virtual human erasure in sensibility and mood, despite the presence of human stand-ins or cut-outs like the brother, child, bent lady, Duchess of Dusts in the first part and more accurately stiff and pivoting, the figures of the man/woman/man in section 2.
I understand why this experiment exists but I didn’t enjoy it (as I do say the fantasied entrees of Bishop’s “Man-Moth” or Page’s “The Man with One Small Hand”). Besides the point perhaps? Does one feel jubilation at a Tarkovsky film? Or at a Giorgio de Chirico exhibit? Harris conveys this brand of “long-take” alienation, possibly, if sadly, the genuine state we have fallen into in relation to nature and emotion. So although there are taut, haunting lines that snag, surreal and singingly like, “his voice is carried off by one crow/and placed elsewhere” or, “the slime-drenched reed/returns its shadow to the guard,” and Bestiary II is a perfect series of couplets ending with an exquisite trio of adjectives -“awed, half-furred, frozen,” this aim is not Harris’s project. Although she undoubtedly has an ear, lines like “open-air/tomb of layabout parts where jutted ice scraps/of spent machines spending their bloodying rusts,” showing the yield a decade of tweaking can produce (though this also perhaps not important to mention as many books take this much time to gestate and compose), what carries is that environment of ringing desolation where repeated Anglo-Saxon words such as bleed, child, house, keep, voice, light, step, dusk, star and so forth ding-dang-dong in the psyche like a pack of baroque wolves, until the reader is numb as anyone who slowly and seepingly realizes that the world of their childhood is dead forever.
Howe’s book, divided into five consistent delvings into the lexical joys of loss, is all ping-zingy-schwoong words. From almost the get-go poem on an oak to the closing piece on a birch, scientific diction like vitriosphere, lagomorpha and duodenal jive with Latinate swingers such as primogeniture, aseity and Mixolydian while bopping with slang like conked, onomatopoeic blurts (sproong, shhhhpop!), phrases in French and German, musical terms, product placement and an erudite wealth from Plato to Xerxes (phew!).
At first, I had little idea how to negotiate Howe’s use of form or linebreaks. A series of single lines might be followed by a stanza of 4 or 5 lines, then a couplet, and another stanza of 8 or 9 lines and so forth. Lines could end on articles, on hyphens. My pattern-seeking mind flailed about, eventually eased up, then rejoiced in the necessary, epistemological chaos. Nothing Howe does in The Civic-Mindedness of Trees is random (though he might guffaw at this). The reader feels utter confidence in the quirky journey he is taking us on. His scholarship is riddled with lingual jouissance, so that his poems of eco-yes (even the paeans to the pathetic fallacy) are imbued with adoring verve, leaping with the riches his original background as both musician and translator have proffered him. When he murmurs, “O Oak,” and imagines acorns fitting “into the space reserved for them in the mind/ with a soft but audible click,” or even when he envisions a gopher called Harvey, transposes a remark on East Timor to groundhogs or spies two maples driven to verbal fisticuffs over who is larger, his vision is respectfully believable. For a tiny taste of his daring lungings between discourse communities listen to: “Others lift/and carry bales wagonwards, a constellation/of workers rotating around this advancing hub, a/quantum system, the/atom post-Bohr with the indeterminateness of – /Ouch! (Binder twine can cut.)” or “Aquarelle a veery tree…sweet sweety phew…Mafic sandwich…(tee-hee-hee-hee)…Aspen icthyolatrous/The thurible of spruce./Snod your hemlock….”.
Not all poems attain such aural apexes; a few fall flat like the close of Sonja on the Beach or are far too wordy without textured respite, but mostly, whoa. Bestiaries are no longer only for animals and extinctions can also be of certain kinds of haircuts at Jerry’s Barber Shop. Hints of Lee, McKay, Lilburn, Dewdney and Legris but it’s as if Howe has eaten their powers and spat them back up wonderfully in this book of o so risky witnessings.