Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000 (2001)

Helen Rickerby, ed.: JAAM 16 (November 2001)

David Howard, Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000, images by Jason Greig (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2000) 167 pp. RRP $24.95.

David Howard: Shebang (2001)

David told me he designed the cover himself, so it seems permissible to interrogate it as a first way into the book. The basic image shows a man with outstretched arms coming through a door [Jason Greig’s ‘My soul from out that shadow’ (black & white, 1982)]. It’s framed by a bold red line, and further surrounded by a thicket of red lettering. The man’s face is not clearly visible. He has long hair and is wearing a dark jacket, but his head looks more like the muzzle of a lion – the same high cheekbones and angular, black-framed eyes. Interestingly, despite the drawing’s title, the figure is coming in from the light. He casts a long distorted shadow in front of him, and the angled pencil lines shading the room he’s entering all converge on the farthest corner. Our vantage point is low and to one side.

The blurb on the back informs us, along with laudatory quotes from various illustrious contemporaries (Eggleton, Smithyman, Norcliffe, Kassabova) that “David works outside the literary arena as Tour Supervisor (SFX) for international performers such as Metallica and Janet Jackson,” and this might give us another clue how to take this cover. It is, in fact, a rock star image – more Nick Cave than Janet Jackson, admittedly: backlit like Bowie in his “Heroes” video – but still an image of throwing oneself open for scrutiny, accepting this invitation to perform.

The analogy breaks down if we try to read David’s poems as song lyrics. They are far darker and more complex than that. But there’s nothing relaxed about them – never a moment when the writer isn’t alert, ears cocked, at attention. Even the “Snatches of Old Tunes” from his first volume show an intense, almost fanatical control of his effects (FX?):
The silver birch’s delicate
musculature is miraculous:
a soldier’s frame
under the leaves’ fatigues.

Note that inverted consonance in “musculature” and “miraculous” in the second line. There’s potentially too much echo there, if it weren’t for the clean, precise, end-stopped words which make up the rest of the stanza.

What are some other characteristics of this book, In the First Place (1991)? There’s an intense melancholy, a sense almost of the necessity for depression:
I’ve always lived in autumn;
received orders to fall
back to earth after building
castles in the air.

Quite so marked an insistence on disillusionment is something one associates with adolescence, I suppose – but then that’s probably when the lyric impulse is at its strongest, too. “The Last Word” takes an ironic pleasure (I presume) in parodying this excess – “Sludge undertakes [My daughter’s] footsteps / to prove every pleasure illusory”:
I whisper to her:
‘Your mother’s had a stroke. …’

In any case, there’s nothing comforting about this voice. The numerous love affairs all end in disappointment (“You were wonderful / as the novel / I could never be / the hero of”), lovers are fickle, children doomed. Of course, I should add that the young David Howard already displays a considerable talent for ventriloquism. The poem I quote from above, “Saltarello,” is adapted from the Italian of Guido Gozzano, and there are others “after” Vicente Aleixandre, Manuel Bandeira, Jorge de Lima, Stefan George, and Pedro Salinas – not to mention verses inspired by Fernando Pessoa, Erik Satie, Vincent van Gogh (one of a positive raft of painters) and a solitary local (albeit internationalist) poet: Michael Harlow.

I haven’t quite finished with that cover yet, though. Shebang – what sort of a title is that? In one sense it’s obvious enough: “the whole shebang” – the comprehensiveness we have every right to expect of a collected poems (as opposed to any selection, however astute: they’re almost guaranteed to leave out one or two favourites). Even before Ricky Martin’s tunelessly intense “She bangs,” however, we might still have been aware of other levels of meaning: “She” sounds a little like She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the heroine of Rider Haggard’s archetypal adventure story – even, perhaps, “Sheba”: nigra sed formosa, worthy consort for King Solomon. “Bang” is simpler – a reference to David’s profession as pyrotechnician (I recall going to see a film called Hanabi with him on one occasion simply because the title translates as “Fireworks”). The other, Ricky Martin, meaning seems clearest in the poem “White Boy Meets the Cheetah,” from Holding Company (1995):
… I lie
in the ditch of our wedding vows
beating my meat

That poem concludes: “the cheetah is coming for me / this love is for real / this love is mortal” which perhaps suggests another interpretation for that threatening big-cat face on the cover. Love does seem to be a mortal disease in David Howard’s poetic universe.

I guess, though, the section of the book we should examine with most attention is the last one, Touch & Go (“light blue touch paper and retire swiftly”). These are the poems we haven’t seen before, and here we begin to see another dimension to this poet of doomed souls set against picture-perfect landscapes, this seeker of the mot juste in the cannon’s mouth. Perhaps it shows up best in the poem “Talking Sideways”:
In the drizzle my boy
cartwheels. With each turn different
droplets reflect the constant
sun. Like him I’m humming
to complete the moment that leaves me …

This is a new voice, I feel – beauty that serves a purpose: love for the moment through the actions of another. It’s focused here on David’s son Luc.
Some times we cuddle in a shop front
sideways so others can
pass by the ones we want to look at
us. Our sentences run together

get messed up but
who cares?

Who cares indeed? The unguardedness of this cuddling in shop doorways seems a million miles from the “poetry as the figurehead on a hulk” of “The Last Word.” Even the poem “For Luc” at the end of In the First Place cast him as the small boy buried in the foundations of a building. “You want to be taken … / seriously? Then write inscriptions on gravestones” is the mature Howard’s response to that (in the dedication to this new section).
Cartwheels are the best
defence against death
reckons my boy: you move
too fast for that drama queen
whose fingers snap at road statistics. …

They’re the best defence, also, against “the boy’s mother,” whose “Holden hung an endless left to my echo” till “I got real / hopeful. So did my boy.”

This new space of love and companionship is the reverse, mind you, of sentimental schmaltz – it’s the place you might arrive at if you go through enough pain and disappointment:
This space has a foreign name
neither my boy nor I can pronounce
on a signpost that points at an empty field.

Are there any other directions on how to find it?

Here we are in so far as we appear
according to my boy, although
neither of us is sure
where that leaves us we just feel


That “left” sounds final, valedictory – but maybe, in the end, not such a bad thing. His poetic journey has left David Howard a long way from where he started: a place where trust can temper virtuosity, where effects don’t always deceive, and love may at last be “for real.”


JAAM 16 (2001): 171-75.

[1226 wds]

JAAM 16 (2001)

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