Like most poets I know, I try to keep up with what’s new, and end up feeling somewhat overwhelmed because there’s so much out there (especially if you read poetry magazines as well as new collections). Of course, you can’t read them all, and then have time for writing. Nevertheless, I was in the middle of a reading blitz when I got to Matt Howard’s debut pamphlet, The Organ Box (Eyewear Publishing). I have to say I did no writing after I’d read it becasue a) I went back to the beginning and read it again, and b) I decided to review it on the blog and give it the space it deserves. So, here’s an introduction to Matt and his fantastic work, followed by the review, which I hope tempts more than a few of you to buy the pamphlet.
Matt Howard lives in Norwich where he works for the RSPB. He is on the Advisory Board of The Rialto and with Michael Mackmin, is co-founder of the RSPB & The Rialto Nature Poetry Competition. Since 2007 he has been on the committee of Café Writers in Norwich. He is also part of New Networks for Nature, an eco-organisation that asserts the importance of landscape and Nature in British cultural life.
Matt was selected by The Poetry Trust as one of the participants of ‘Aldeburgh Eight’ at the 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
His debut pamphlet, The Organ Box, was published by Eyewear publishing in December 2014.
‘As for poets that got me / keep me writing – too many to list, but always Ted Hughes, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie.’ Matt Howard.
For his moods,
the schemes and theories behind each curious held gaze,
the gasps and beating of his chest;
for his hands, their absolute powerand grace;
every capture and release of sparrow or finch –
unharmed, their flight intensified.
For his obesity,
each of his thirty-four stones,
and his teeth,spoiled with melon, pineapple and dates,
even punnets of strawberries, sent out of season.
For his thirty one years
and the necessary dentistry that killed him.
For his dead weight in the deep freeze,
his pelt in the tanning drum,
the shrinkage of his skin and the beatitudes in his DNA;
the silver of his back
that would not stretch for the stitching.
Guy on his haunches as full-mounted specimen.
For all the incinerated viscera,
the vanished waters of his eyes, their empty sockets;
for the painted glass beads
and the person who came by Circle Line to deliver them
and everyone they reflect; the irises too brown,
the too-perfect ring of each limbus.
The Organ Box by Matt Howard (Eyewear, 2014)
Given that Howard works for the RSPB (he’s also on the Advisory Board of The Rialto) it’s not surprising that his debut pamphlet contains a number of poems about birds. However, the ‘organ box’ of the title relates to another of the pamphlet’s preoccupations: anatomy. In the case of the organ box, it’s the female anatomy, ‘deformed from years of corsetry’. Howard’s fascination with the body and how it has been put on display is clear from the start.
In the first poem in the pamphlet, ‘Making Evelyn’s Tables’, the tables are those used for teaching anatomy in Renaissance Padua. The tables were purchased, and brought to England, by John Evelyn (a contemporary of Pepys); the Latin motto, ‘Omnia explorate; meliora retinete’, is Evelyn’s own, ‘explore everything; keep the best’. It could be Howard’s motto too, as this, and other poems, feel as though they are informed by thorough research. To make the tables, the corpse of a criminal is dissected and the workings of the body are ‘pinned’ to pine board, to ‘display like a winter birch, each branch/ bare of fruit’. There are deft parallels to the crucifixion here, the maker constructing the tables so we can ‘truly behold’.
Another ‘body’ poem, ‘To an anatomical Venus’, starts with the address, ‘Lady’, which risks echoing Plath’s ‘Leaving Early’. However, this is a respectful and tender appraisal of an anatomical model. Howard threads in religious references, ‘the heart/ bright as a book of hours’, whilst sensually worshiping the model of the female form: ‘a host of wax, braided with a wick/ of real hair’. On one level, this might seem voyeuristic, but rather, the description honours the subject: ‘I will not lift your womb; /the foetus, its honeyed silence’.
One of my favourite poems is ‘Gorilla gorilla gorilla’; we’re still with anatomy, but there’s a real sense of empathy with the subject here (Guy, the famous gorilla of London Zoo). The humanizing of Guy, through ‘his moods’ and ‘his obesity’, is what we do to animals in zoos, yet Howard invests his subject with dignity and grace (physical, yes, but religious grace too; take ‘the beatitudes in his DNA’ for example). The quiet but honest ending, where the glass eyes are ‘too brown/ the too-perfect ring of each limbus,’ shows how subtle and lyrical Howard’s use of language can be.
There is a sense of the Gothic in some of the anatomy poems, which is continued in the central ‘House of Owls’ sequence. There are elements of folklore and fairytale here:
‘she came with a heavy scent of hawthorn,
and all the men were taken by her owl-white skin
by such silent graces’
Again, ‘grace’ is important. However, in this poem, the woman is no Pietà (as in the poem ‘Woman breastfeeding in the National Gallery’) but a succubus, tying her lover’s wrists with bindweed and bestowing him with ‘dead-nettle’ kisses (there’s real power in that phrase). The fruits of this union are, we assume, the thing ‘Born wrong’. The owl metaphor is extended through what can be read as a narrative of post-natal depression and infanticide: ‘she took that shrieking head,/ twisted it past all turning.’ By the time we get to ‘A vision of order …’ it seems that hard work might absolve the couple. They strive to be rewarded with more children, with ‘an estate for generations’. Instead, there is the fall. Biblical, certainly, but also referencing Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Howard refers to the outbreak of World War I, with the issuing of white feathers for cowardice. Of course, the feathers also symbolise the owls and all they stand for. These birds have blocked the house, both literally and metaphorically. Thus, the contractors find, ‘A fallout of desiccated abundance’. In the final poem in the sequence, we see the woman in old age, ‘On the brink like a slack-necked hatchling’. So, things have come full circle. I found the line ‘she woke the house with a shriek’ a little too obvious and telling, but her reaction to what she has seen (owls, ghosts of children, the angel of death) is tempered by the delicate beauty of the last line, where we have an owl, ‘lit with honey fungus, flying at the bounds of their acreage’.
There’s ambition in the ‘Owls’ sequence and it is well placed in the centre of the collection. However, a few poems later, we have the stunning ‘Song Thrush’ in which a young bird is ‘singing to the premature dusk’. The word ‘premature’ works perfectly to convey the fact that night is setting in early due to the change in the weather, and that the bird, hatched too early, ‘can barely fly’. We’re in France, in a landscape that still yields evidence of the battlefield. Even the weather ‘mobilises fast’ (another example of Howard’s subtle and precise use of language). The phrase ‘head gone’ jars a little, but the resonance of the last line, and the way it mirrors the repetitions of birdsong, works well.
Another confident and rewarding bird poem is ‘The Drawer of Kingfishers’. Here, the metaphors do the work in a way that truly opens out the meaning. Starting with a collection of skins, the kingfisher becomes the ‘hilt of a king’s stiletto’. There’s real scope for imagining in this small phrase, which is concise and beautiful.
In ‘Left Glove’, the title is the starting point for a meditation, of sorts, on a work glove left out over winter. The poem is let down somewhat by the heavy description:
‘sweated proxy for my soft hand’s
exertions now grown around
by fallacious intimacies
Although I quite liked ‘sweated proxy’, the lines felt overloaded by the description as a whole. Phrases such as, ‘The grass under the palm yellowed/ like hay made through the cold’, are so much stronger. I found the ending, where the poet is more direct and purposeful, declaring he will ‘cut all back to fit my cloth’ (an apt sentiment in an age of austerity) more effective because of its economy. Perhaps this last line also suggests a realisation that the earlier, rather verbose, description isn’t necessary.
The pamphlet ends with ‘Datum’, a fine poem which is perfectly placed to draw together the themes of the collection. In this poem something is rescued from a ditch in winter; what, exactly, is left unsaid. The ambiguity is intentional and works incredibly well to bring the pamphlet to a close. Sleep, for the couple in the poem, is disturbed and restless and dreams serve as warnings:
‘Sleep was a cold confusion of birds,
the stuck chink of a chaffinch,
robins ticking incessantly at the edge
Because we are not told who or what is rescued, we go back to poems like ‘Song Thrush’ where the premature chick is singing for a chance of survival, and to the ‘House of Owls’, where children have been ‘born wrong’ or lost. Here, the rescued thing seems almost other-worldly, lured by placing ‘a glass of near-turned milk/ by the front door to draw a ghost’. All we know of this creature (bird/ child or something in between) is that he is important to the couple and their relationship: ‘We held him in that dream’. The ending is similarly enigmatic: ‘his first-last words: now I know of gravity’. This is an assured and confident way to end the poem as the oxymoron ‘first-last’ prevents us from settling on any fixed conclusion. It is also an assured way to round off the whole pamphlet, so much so that I was left thinking that the full collection must be just around the corner. After reading this debut, I very much look forward to it.