Review in Booklist, March 2005
Howard is another American poet captivated by Ireland to--one can't help thinking--the good of his craft. He writes just about the most natural, musical iambic line around these days, primarily in a propulsive, precise, and vocal blank verse but also in sonnets, quatrains, and unrhymed forms. It's as seductive of the inner ear as Irish storytelling is of the outer, gently drawing attention to large, subtle meanings. And is any meaning larger than that which courses through his work: that language creates the world as much as the world creates language? The opening poem excavates the millennium of Dublin's history from its purely descriptive name: dubh linn--dark pool. Many encounters with the garden lead, through language, inward to memory and desire that in turn mold outward development--the pruning of the plants and their living impulse to grow. In the collection closer, "The Holy Alls," a poet-like Howard, also a musician--middle-aged at mid-century (1950) re-creates himself through words and music (that other language), others' as well as his own.--Ray Olso
Review in Shenandoah, published by Washington and Lee University, Virginia
Ben Howard's fifth volume of poems may be considered pilgrim poetry. To call it quest poetry would be inaccurate, for "quest" implies a definite end in mind; Howard's poem, "Sentence," which addresses the poet's deceased father and asks, "Where are you now?", to the long concluding poem, "The Holy Alls," which describes "that bold dance, / Which once was called the making of a soul / And now is called the finding of a self," these poems explore the meanings of being a rootless, homeless wanderer admist the confusion and chaos of the dawning new century. What gives these poems particular power is the honesty with which they explore the poet's lacks and absences, the gaps that he seeks to understand in his own life through these poetic explorations.
The volume takes its title from the ancient Irish name for Dublin, dubh linn, the dark (or black) pool where the waters of the Liffey and the Poddle converged. Howard is fascinated by Ireland, and many of these poems explore what might be called his adopted land. Much of his fascination comes from Ireland's rich history of language, and its complex, stratified landscape. Hence, a number of these poems are place-name poems - including the title poem, which describes Dublin as "City of the Names." Naming - "employing names / To do the work of knowing and unknowing, / The shaping and reshaping of the story" - is one of the lingering obsessions of these poems, for the name constitutes a sense of secure being and knowing, "an odd congruity of word and thing." Yet Howard recognises that there is something within even the self that always resists, or exceeds, the name; he longs "To write a letter to that nameless one / Who in myself appears from time to time." The rhythm of these poems is always one of approaching and receding, gaining understanding then falling back into uncertainty. It is at times unclear if Howard resists certainty out of a fear of losing the freedom of seeking, or if he feels that certainty is an illusion to be avoided.
The Ireland poems of the collection feature an outsider, highly self-conscious of his non-native status. "The Holy Alls," the 422-line poem that concludes the volume (and is an extension of sorts of Howard's marvellous poem-novella, Midcentury (Salmon, 1997), opens with this question of belonging: "How did it happen that an Iowan / Without credentials or portfolio / Re-domiciled himself in County Clare / ... / Looking the part of someone's long-lost son"? He imagines himself "As a Methodist's impression of a pilgrim, / A thick-heeled parody of penitence / In search of something not unlike atonement." This desire for atonement pervades these poems, and part of Howard's project seeks to discover why the poet feels this latent guilt, this incompleteness, what he names "anxiety, / unrest, unease." The "unrest" emerges from the restless, unsettled, wandering life of the poems, and motivates many of the ancestor and place-name poems. But as he realises, Howard "can't call back the years nor legislate / by any act of naming, my return / to that remembered, half-imagined state / when name and home and family were one." This realisation comes at the end of a four-poem sonnet sequence in the middle of the collection, which focuses on the place-names of his youth, in Iowa. These poems attempt to recall that time of unity, when names and things were so easily conjoined, but the unity exists now only in memory, despite the poet's attempts to find reunion in Ireland, in the past or in his ancestors.
Another cluster of poems explores the alternative spirituality of Zen Buddhism. The third of the four sections opens with "Come and See," imagining Shakyamuni Buddha sitting in contemplation, "Famously serene and not at all / Concerned with what a doctrineless observer / Is thinking." Another poem in this section, "Remembering Peace," responds to That Nhat Hanh's dictum, "to love is to listen." These eastern spiritualities function as both an alternative wisdom to the Methodist Christianity that informs the ancestor and place-name poems, and also as an ideal of peace and contemplative repose that the poet constantly seks, but rarely finds.
Finally, the poems conclude with, not a finding of home, but an assertion of nation - a curious gesture in a collection that focuses so much on Ireland, where nationhood has been a vexed issue for centuries. In "The Holy Alls," the speaker shares stories with an Irish woman who has lived for many years in America, just as he now lives in Ireland. He concludes by imagining that each one can now lay claim to his or her identity and place:
It seemed that as I summoned up those stories
Out of a chamber better left unlit,
I was uncovering a boundary
And sketching in the early morning air
A native self, a national enclosure.
I am of Ireland, she might have said,
For all her heated, crackling disapproval,
Her flattened brogue, her dozen years in Boston.
And I, I might have truthfully replied,
For all my travels and my trafficking
In Irish ways, am of America.
The claiming of identity and nation is provisional: it occurs only in recollection and imagination. But these poems are all interior poems, tightly-crafted modernist lyrics that emerge from and return to the "I," and so this final imagining of home has the ontological status of the highest truth attained in the poems. There is both gain and loss at the end: gain in the acknowledgement of the poet's American past and the ineluctable sense of roots and ancestry it confers; loss in the necessary exclusion of the poems' other possible homes - the Irish countryside or the spiritual bliss of the mystic. One of the voices behind these marvellous, poignant poems might well be aware of the Eliot of the Four Quartets: "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." ("Little Gidding"). Ben Howard has crafted a volume rich in memory, place and meditation - sustaining reading for the new century.
PRAISE FOR MIDCENTURY, Ben Howard's earlier collection published by Salmon in 1997.
Midcentury is a rewarding read, its iambic pentameter like the beating of a heart, its language by turns conversational and erudite and its resolution moving, if not exactly comforting. The narrator... emerges as a man of our own time, slightly at odds with the ways of the world but human and recognizably one of us.
Elegant, elegiac, casual yet moving, Ben Howard's poetry is both contemporary and classic. It spans eras and countries, fusing a fictional voice with a poet's own real obsessions. Ben Howard, besides being a fine poet, is a classical guitarist. The structure of Midcentury is like a great symphony, the kind that, moment to moment, is intimate, and yet its overall reach is almost beyond human grasp.