Tuesday, February 06, 2007

“This is the division of virtues through their centers”

On Emma Howells' Slim Night of Recognition
Poems, Eastern Washington University Press, 2007

The critic Roland Barthes is famous, or infamous if you choose, for a number of declarations having to do with authors, with their works, and with how readers read. In “The Death of the Author,” he argues that “writing is the destruction of every voice … the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” Later in the same essay, Barthes says “it is language which speaks, not the author.” Barthes’ point has something to do with language itself, with how it at once gestures towards something and yet falsifies it: “apple” is not and will never be the fruit itself.

Yet it is quite possible to visit Westminster Abbey, take with you a page of the Prologue of Canterbury Tales, and read it while standing at Chaucer’s grave. You can do something similar at Wordsworth’s tomb in Grasmere or Emily Dickinson's in Amherst. And if you have written a book yourself, you know something of the odd but very definitely present relationship between your self and the object you may pick up off the table, hold in your hand, and open and read.

Such observations come to mind when holding Emma Howell’s new book, Slim Night of Recognition. Her picture graces the book’s back cover, and next to it is a brief biography that reads in part “She spent a year studying in Spain and six months in Brazil, where she died at the age of twenty. This book is her first collection.” These two sentences together serve to stun you for a moment with their implications: twenty is too young for anyone, especially any writer, to die; this book is her first collection, which means she was most unusually talented to have produced work that qualifies as more than mere juvenilia; this is her first collection and we shall have no others. Of such recognitions, the last must be the hardest, the slipperiest to grasp.

So what voice do we hear in Emma Howells’ poems? It is, first, a voice beguiled by consonants and vowels, by the rhythms a sentence can make and repeat. Even before clear narrative or definite summarizable content, this sense of language comes through. You can hear it particularly here in the r’s of dresser, supper, father, letter:

The hands that surrounded me made bird
shapes and catcalls
purring me closer.
I arranged dolls on the dresser
and asked for a pumpkin supper
and wrote my father a letter ...

What others look for when they first begin to read a new book of poems, I’m not sure. Maybe it varies from reader to reader and from book to book. I listen first for a voice I can hear and want to hear, and only then for what it does with words, form, content, import. The language in Slim Night of Recognition embodies such a voice – such a set of voices:

“luminescent drops arc above the wind’s dips and joints”,

“Lay yourself down like a half-moon, / let the vagabond night take you.”

“Our coast was invented by wanderers / and bringers of ice and magnets, / the rightful owners of our opposite poles.”

“We come in, opening / and closing our mouths like wings. / Swallows, we fly away, / lie down between breast bones / and the heart made night.”

And then there is this opening to the poem “Just This:”

All I know I have said into an emptiness
to test the depth of it.
And all I have been allowed to keep
has echoed back to me by some divine
miracle of physics…

Emma Howell’s book is just out from Eastern Washington University Press. I know where it sits on my desk. I feel no compelling hurry to know it fully; the promises of discovery sometimes displace gluttony or greed. This much may be affirmed: when I’ve opened it, it has more than generously repaid my attention, slowed the clock. Since it gives the only Emma Howell poems we shall have, I choose, for now, to read it slowly, often.