Matt Howard’s debut full-length collection (Gall, Rialto) is both remarkable and remarkably intense. It is pungent with death and almost claustrophobic at times in the intensity of its gaze at the intricate machinery of life. Howard is a conservationist but to call this a book of conservation poems, eco-poems or even nature poems would be to belittle an astonishingly steely-eyed examination of what it means, from a rational empirical viewpoint, to be a living creature.
Many of the poems force us to join the speaker in his hard stare at exposed, collected and arranged examples of ‘life’: tables displaying human internal-workings, anatomical dolls, deformed skeletons, preserved moles, kingfishers stored for study. Others look equally coldly – or at least dispassionately – into cultural memory and myth (‘The Green Children’ and ‘Clouties at Madron’), individual memory (‘Stash’ and ‘Maggot-Mouth’), and psychological symbolism (which is how I read the sonnet-like sequence ‘The House of Owls’, although others may find something different in its dense, powerful imagery).
But what makes this book the success that it is, for me, is that behind all the examination of life-parts, and what in some poems (e.g. ‘Tic’, ‘Thanatosis’, the ‘Blackwater Carr’ sequence) feels like a microscopic investigation of Darwin’s “entangled bank”, there is also an unfolding drama taking place, bookended by the first and last poems and alluded to throughout. This is the drama of a disintegrating relationship between a nebulous and distant woman (the you) and what I can only read as an ever-present borderline psychopath (the I).
The speaker is not content to look at, he wants to look into bodies, the way a biologist looks into the pinned-out remains of an animal. Poems like ‘Making Evelyn’s Tables’ and ‘The Drawer of Kingfishers’ conjure a macabrely voyeuristic atmosphere of a cold clinician enjoying his proximity to death. The reader’s uneasiness is amplified when the cabinets’ contents are either female remains (‘Acquired Deformities: Constriction of Female Thorax’) or representations of female bodies (‘To an Anatomical Venus’). Are we watching in these poems a scientist-figure musing on the intricate systems that maintain life or a necrophiliac harbouring his dark fantasies?
The “veins, nerves, arteries, set in a triptych” on the Evelyn’s Table, and the “architecture/of a face, its harmony and balance” which has been badly burned in war (‘Total Reconstruction of the Burned Face’), and Capa’s Loyalist soldier with his “heart burst into that white shirt” (‘’If Your Pictures Aren’t Good Enough, You’re Not Close Enough’’), are all fascinating images of the workings of life exposed but they are also examples of how Howard’s speaker tends to make artworks of the dead: triptych, architecture, pictures. This is more than just a collector (though John Fowles’ The Collector does come to mind), this feels like the grim aestheticising of a serial killer. And it is not just that the speaker is staring, it is his fixation with the staring eyes of death, the emptiness of the hole left where life once was and the intimacy of staring closely into this hole (the ‘Wonderful Boy’ who “They had to bury with his eyes beautifully open.”; the “Unreasonably young” dead girl in ‘Maggot-Mouth’ with her “still open eyes”).
The you, with whom we recoil slightly at the beginning on being presented ‘A Jar of Moles’, and whom we cannot entirely blame for “the tell-tale nervousness/about your lower left eyelid” (‘Tic’), has become the object of our concern by the final poem, when it is hard to tell whether the digging out of the elder is a metaphor for leaving or killing her (but the phrase “if I give/everything with the billhook and axe then wreck/the ball of my foot on the lug-end of a spade” is certainly more than a little sinister).
And do I hear admiration in the speaker’s voice when he describes how Vedius Pollio, a councillor to Augustus, used to throw his slaves into a tank of lampreys to be torn apart?
the flurry, arterial and venous, all dark matter –
how gravity is unfixed by rings of teeth.
(‘From Natural History’)
Of course, it is very likely (as the cosmological reference above suggests) that what we are reading are personifications of more universal truths; this is an allegory: the psycho here is Mankind in a godless universe and the you is the Earth itself. And ultimately, it is this coming together of the two ways of reading the book that provides its real and unusual power.
So, this is a collection which troubles the reader, and it does so deliberately. The sensation reaches a high-point about two-thirds of the way through when we reach two poems facing each other which present us with the only two clearly living bodies to come under the speaker’s scrutiny. On the right-hand page he witnesses a man hit by a vase of flowers in Italy, hears his last words in a language he can’t speak and then holds him as he dies. Opposite, the speaker and others look on without obvious emotion as a mother weeps while she is breastfeeding her baby in the National Gallery. Both of these poems, but particularly the image of the weeping woman, will present some readers with almost insurmountable problems. In a work which presents women as dead and skeletal or anatomical ‘erotica’ behind glass, or as an “off-camera” you, how can the single inclusion of an apparently real woman, in some distress, juxtaposed with the objets d’art in a gallery, be justified? It’s a good question. Both the poems fit the ‘psycho theory’ in that here our potential killer-speaker takes his cold gaze out of the Norfolk woods, the Victorian anatomy museums and his history books, and he heads off to London and Rome. He suddenly becomes part of our real, busy, modern world. But Howard is doing more than creating a Hannibal Lecter chill, I think. Both of these human characters do become objectified by these poems for the very reason that we, men and women, are all objects. Their inclusion fits with the thesis of the rest of the collection: Howard strips back our humanity and challenges readers to dispense with human emotion. Perhaps what we are being forced to confront is some raw amorality within ourselves. Can you bear to look at your real (psychopathic/natural) self, we are being asked. Most of us will find this uncomfortable, and some may question whether we should even attempt. However, we could also read these two poems as part of the overall allegory: the Earth feeding, and weeping for, its demanding child; Mankind dying in its own arms, unable to express or save itself.
There is no doubt that there is difficulty in some of the poems in this collection, but for me the pay-off is a fascinating and powerful work which has remained circling in my head for a week after my second reading. The feeling of claustrophobia is potentially constricting for the reader, and a few more ‘wider open’ poems that invite a conventional eco-reading such as the lovely ‘Redwood’ would be welcome (“If I buy the idea of my very birth-cry as a release of carbon,” is as excellent a first-line as any I have read for a long time) – but more such poems would possibly have detracted from the oppressive, rotting and gnarly atmosphere necessary to summon a psychopathic Man in a world he seems bent on studying and destroying.
Gall is published by The Rialto, and can be bought here.