Homeless by John Howell.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb/flaps, 68pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
John Howell is a Wellington-based poet and former minister, and he has turned his attention to pressing environmental and social issues that are at once international and local. Howell’s collection Homeless focuses on poverty and insecurity in Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly homelessness and how this to a large extent affects men, who find themselves unanchored and drifting. His poems explore various ways in which individuals attempt to negotiate this instability of means and place, as well as how being homeless more broadly affects whole families. He uses a variety of narrative viewpoints and settings, as well as experimenting with playful forms of poetry such as nursery rhyme, ditties, and prayer.
Howell’s work as a whole paints a dismal picture of the realities of life for those of faltering socioeconomic means. His nameless characters, single features of each poem, are lonesome, dispirited, and at a loss as to purpose or connection with anything positive. They are usually observed neutrally from a third-person observer, although there are pieces in first person as well. In “Closing down sale” a man ‘hunches on the park bench./ Shoes without socks, balaclava./ He’s a man of few words,/ eyes redundant./ A nervous twitch, talking to himself’ and later: ‘He folds himself into himself,/ a moth sleeping in the park’ (p 24).
Creatures such as birds, and moths in particular, are a recurrent motif, where these men are in flight, or aiming for microscopic and ephemeral significance. In “Squatting”, the homeless are drawn: ‘Vacancies are to squatters/ as moths to candlelight/ hunger to homeless/ victims to escape’ (p 33). These men own little, and have few rights or access to things permanent.
While the cover, vibrant in its image of a graffiti-covered squat, perfectly anticipates the material, the stories inside are even bleaker and predominantly grey-tinged. The utmost feeling that these men share is one of shame, such as a man brought before the court on petty charges, in desperation: ‘Blue blanket over his head -/ shuffles through the doorway” (“The appearance’, p 14). A man learns tricks to survive, such as avoiding eye contact with anyone; avoiding any extraneous connection.
Another feature these individuals share is their passivity: events happen to them, situations fall into place for them, resting as they are on fellow citizens’ goodwill and other, bureaucratic support. These men variously loiter, are collected, or are shown their new lodgings. Huddling around a coffee urn to keep warm, seeking company, unwashed, the ‘air heavy with bad breath’, they drink warm coffee (“Short fuse”, p 19). Nothing is sugar-coated here, and for these men it is small details as well that differentiate them from those of agency, where for the former, simple luxuries like toast are unthinkable as this would require electricity.
With no place of their own the homeless haunt popular hangouts, such as the library, the museum, or Countdown supermarkets, operating under the radar, yet always on edge and defensive. One such ‘stands unjostled,/ trim. Eyes/ unsettled, a chest/ like bully beef./ Harsh hands, fighter fists’ (“Short fuse”). They remain tough, and proud, all the while trying to ward off shame and defeat of, for example, having to scan the rubbish bin as a potential ‘doggie bag’ of dubious and temporary sustenance.
There is more creature-like activity in “Home 2: Lifting the lid”, with images of foragers, bees, buzzing, and a colony (p 38).
Yet Howell leaves room for some kind of redemption through recovery of both agency and self-esteem: an escape from families bundled into the car-as-home, or from the relentlessness of life on the streets, sleeping on pieces of cardboard where ‘the footpath becomes a bed/ the bed becomes a bag’ (“Footnotes from footpaths”, p 48). Though one character recognises he had been ‘dealt cards of a nothing hand … part of the pavement crowd [where] empty streets are a lonely grind (“Folding unfolding cardboard”, p 28) he stands tall: ‘my pluck is strong, I’ll park my fight’. Likewise, Howell outlines that community support and solidarity is vital, as can be prayer and spiritual belief. In “Courtyard prayer 1”, it is through empathy that life can improve, as a speaker intones: ‘Let not the distance between us/ impede your standing tall,/ your hunger is my hunger’ (p 8). Through collectivity comes a sharing of the burden and a reclaiming of personal dignity for all.
Howell writes from a stance of compassion and of equality. He writes of healing spaces, which are intricately tied to culture and the land: ‘Let the space of the marae atea/ give us both room to breathe,/we all need a refuge to heal’ (“Courtyard prayer 1”, p 8). He has dedicated this work to all people homeless and hungry, and profits go towards a programme combating local homelessness. This is a touching, thoughtful, and kind collection.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.