Review in Poetry magazine (USA), July 2000
Midcentury, Ben Howard's fourth book of verse, is a 900-line narrative fiction about the inner/outer life of an American lexicographer in Dublin during the last years of, the first years after, World War II. Written in cool, casual, metrically regular iambic pentameter, Howard's poems isn't, in fact, so much a narrative fiction as discursive lyric told by the head about the internecine warfare between the self and the soul sometimes mediated by the passionate heart:
'Now there's presence of mind,' my inner cynic
Started to say -- until my inner critic
Rebuked him harshly for his glib remark.
And then my heart, pumping itself for combat,
Offered the less-than-startling observation
That truth and courage drink from a common well.
Biography and autobiography slide together: putatively a self-analytical memoir by a whisky-loving Iowan escaped to a neutral part of the West fifty years ago, the poem revolves around perceptive pastoral descriptions and deep respect for those aspects of Irish history and romance, from the Land of Faerie to the Easter Rising, which invigorated the Irish Renaissance and shape its culture to this day. Howard boldly invokes children's rhymes, Shakespeare, even overtones of Milton, whose grand morality he sophisticatedly trims into credible, contemporary terms:
Watching the shifting light above the drumlins
And the stony fields of County Monaghan,
I felt a darkening within myself
And in that megalithic Northern landscape,
As though a voice were deepening by the mile.
And after that, Armagh, its apple orchards
Sifting the chaff of amber Northern light.
Eden it was not, but looking out
On the stands of apple trees, their well-pruned branches
Heavy with ripened fruit, I sensed the presence
Of innocence and imminent fulfillment.
Many of Howard's lines aim at persuading the reader that the poem was composed at mid-century by a middle-aged man who, with life as with words, takes a middle way. I myself would willingly dispense with the noun "narrative" in favor of the adverb "narratively" as J. Freake used it in 1651: "I have writ many things, rather narratively than affirmatively." That's how good poetry like this is written, exposition and meditation interwoven. Through the poem the poet does discover his humanity and shows it to the reader. When he loves, he tries to love for others; when he thinks, he thinks for himself. He who was sole creator of his childhood web of dreams is, indeed, master of the paradigm that
Has made its way through four ensuing decades,
Inhabiting the kitchen where I cook
Four things at once, or governing the pen
With which I sign all things contractual,
Or lending to those powers of persuasion
With which I would restore the moral order,
An air of authority.
The impertinent world allows no lasting success; so, one carries one's dreams of accomplishment and love and recollections of parents and loss through events across national landscape. From the beginning
There was no law nor order nor control
But only instinct, chance, and circumstance
Converging in an ever-changing pattern,
To which I still attach my signature
And lend the favour of an Irish blessing
But haven't the prerogative to alter
Or the temerity to call my own.
The small, ordered pattern of one's poetry is but a commentary on the universal, statistical randomness in which one has a part to play but is not, a las, a part-owner.
Review by Patrick Chapman, first published in WP Monthly
"It is said that every poet is an outsider, there to observe and report back from the fringes of reality. Even those in deepest suburbia, in apparently normal conditions, look at the world seemingly at right angles. Whether the displacement that allows such poetry is one of time or space, it seems a necessary part of the creative process. Ben Howard, in his substantial new volume, Midcentury, (Salmon, also my publisher -- interest declared) gives us a narrator distanced by both. The book begins with a forty-eight year old American lexicographer in Ireland, in the 1940s, seeking a kind of emotional healing following the breakup of his relationships back home, first with his wife and son, and then with his lover. He finds himself to be
Volunteer in that uncomely legion,
The regiment of fathers dispossessed
Of hearth and armchair, dignity and stature...
(thinking) of nothing - nothing except the night
I came as a stranger to my own front porch...'
In this, he is a thoroughly modern man, resembling a character from the world of fiction, rather than of poetry: Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day. He finds strangeness here and, a fish out of water, he is, at first, unused to the ways of Ireland. What is normal to the natives is unusual to him and his descriptions, for an Irish reader, provoke the same judgement process an audience might feel when watching a Hollywood film set here (remember Michael Collins?). Have they got it right? Is Howard's picture of 1940s Ireland an authentic one? It's similar to the question of how, say, a Muscovite would rate the film Gorky Park, or a New Yorker might quibble with the descriptions of his city by Irish poets, including myself. The answer to this question is that it is authentic for the writer, authentic for the character and, given that this reader at any rate was not around in the 1940s, it has the kind of authenticity of the stories parents or grandparents might tell. You weren't there, but it sounds right:
'...a ball of malt.
That last is Irish for a shot of whiskey,
A phrase I fancy only a little less
Than the thing itself, mainly because it captures
The truth about the permanence of things.'
Most books of poetry these days are collections of shorter pieces rather than one long poem (though Paul Durcan and Derek Mahon have recently brought out long poems and, some years ago, Patrick Cotter released a fine long narrative). One considers the individual pieces first and then how the collection works as a whole. Midcentury has been described as a verse novella; this is closer to the mark. It's essentially a long narrative poem that takes its time to tell the story: to get the shape of the thing requires close attention. That pays off, but there's nothing easy here. Reading it as though reading a novel is the wrong approach, too, because it doesn't share that form's conventions. In fact, it's rather like sitting in a pub with the seanchai, although a displaced American one. A sort of epic ballad without the bloodletting. At times, the language recalls the later Robert Lowell. The narrator is aware of his outsider status, here in a land that is already the outsider of Europe. There's a war on and in neutral Ireland, it's relegated to the status of an Emergency. It's a place
'neutral where the lunacies of Hitler
And the blusterings of Churchill are concerned -'
recalling Kavanagh's Epic, itself ironically short. Each of the sections of this book takes place in a different year in the latter half of the Forties, in a different place, moving from Dublin and the snug of the Palace Bar, to Dingle, to Kerry, to Dublin again, to Monaghan and back to Dublin in 1950, by which time the narrator has come to terms with his exile from America and his removal from family life. He also finds a resolution of his feelings for his parents, and a deeper understanding of the ways of his adopted home. But he is still an outsider, still aware that he is a square peg in a round hole. One of the conclusions reached is that there is
'no law nor order nor control
But only instinct, chance and circumstance...'
involved in his life, but he seems finally at ease with that. 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, for all that the story is
set when it is, emerges as a man of our own time, slightly at odds with the ways of the world but human and recognisably one of us.