The Ones Who Keep Quiet by David Howard.
Dunedin: OUP (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb, 96pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Historians will enjoy this collection of poems by David Howard, entitled The Ones Who Keep Quiet. The cover image of a stormy sea and a conglomeration of domestic objects half-submerged gives a clue to the main subject matter: the storminess of physical versus metaphysical life and the ongoing polemic encompassing all that is and has been. Howard treats us to robust historical details, and back and forth – past to present – raises more questions than answers.
“The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014” leads the reader into the collection via 12 pages of 58 verses which ripple like waves. The use of end-rhyme (abccba), the visual of scalloped margins, the poetic rhythm with its assonance and alliteration swish with imagery of the sea voyage he describes in the first half of the poem. See how he writes, in under three verses, with such potency:
‘…I gaze over the bow,/ bobbing in the cosmos./ On a four o’clock watch the loss/ of perspective gets to you: how/ the ship is in thrall// to foam that’s boiling over/ the bulwarks, its jib-boom dipping/ under a hopeless gale;/ two lower topsails, reefed foresail/ taking the strain, you are slipping/ into the lower// realm, cast out of your body./ Come heavy weather every man’s /flung from a bunk, swearing /by his god, with the waves bearing/down down down on those best laid plans,/ sky swallowed by sea’ (pp 10-11).
We have a vivid picture: we are present with the young William, at the mercy of the ocean. It is clever, intriguing, atmospheric and absorbing. In the above excerpt, do you feel you rock with the tide (and the l’s)?
The second half of this long poem is written in the present. William’s ghost ponders the present, at the exhibition ‘James Williamson’s Ghost’ at the TSB Wallace Arts Centre (Pah Homestead) as part of Auckland Heritage Festival 2015. The poet (as ghost) reflects on the teaching of religion, how it mixes with reality and also doesn’t mix: ‘…As children learn to twist and shout/ sound follows the body,/ it describes a space that’s godly/ if sweat blood and tears are devout/ attempts at prayer,// if they’re not then what matters?’ (p 19).
An interesting feature of the collection is that Howard has provided dates for each poem and we can appreciate how long, or not, their formation took. The amazing ‘James Williamson’ was penned in 67 days. Yet “Family Secrets” gestated in four and a half years. We see Mum in the kitchen; the sense of era, place and status is acute:
(Part 1, The sky is for migratory birds): ‘Her floral blouse fills the kitchen with perfume, eternal/ return – bench sink bench oven bench, she works in her own shadow/ the sun is in the centre. ‘Can’t see us getting there’.// In his judder-bar voice Dad pulls up Mum:// ‘It’s good enough for the likes of us’. Awake/ to the dream of a state house, the sound of an egg beater inside that dream;// on orange formica, the second-best tea set; three ducks above a coke fire/ steaming smalls. My sister plaits her hair -/ ‘Fuck let’s go to the shops so someone will talk to us’ (p 22). This is not grand history, it’s intimate and personal – and amusing. I love the effect of the sibilants in this poem, especially in part 3, entitled Bottled up: ‘The jars of pears my mother preserved, they preserve her/for me: hide and seek in the pantry, shadows growing…’ (p 23).
Howard, a co-founding editor of takahē magazine (1989), is a craftsman poet who has been the recipient of numerous awards. He writes with ongoing energy and has published several collections. The Ones Who Keep Quiet contains a rich and intriguing variety of poems. The addition of ‘Notes’ (p 93) is an important part of the book, enabling readers good accessibility into the works. I would have liked even more notes, to lead me further in some places. That said, this is a well-published and presented volume.
“Because Love is Something Left”, a work in several parts, is a beautiful conclusion to a fine collection. We ponder what it is to live and then become part of history, and how the dead continue to shape and speak to us: ‘With the horizon a smudge/ you can’t ask the past about the future;/ it is an unreliable narrator/ and the charts are conflicting’ (p 88). ‘Late summer forgets spring, who forgets/their heart?…’ (p 89). And finally: ‘and the body is empty, a basket/ forgotten after Sunday’s fair// quiet like the fall of grey hair/ when you shake your head to forget// love is something else’ (p 90).
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.