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The Incomplete Poems by David Howard review

The Incomplete Poems of David Howard.

Judy is a Punk, the title of the first poem in David Howard’s The Incomplete Poems, declares an allegiance of a kind to the music anthems of the late 1970s and early 80s by the Ramones, Lou Reed, XTC and others who are name-checked occasionally throughout this big book. It’s a pointer, too, to the nervous energy that animates the language, keeping the reader alert, and sometimes off-balance, as Howard dances and pogos his poetic phrases over the wide white pages.

Handsomely designed by Roger Hickin, The Incomplete Poems constitutes a revisionist take on Howard’s earlier big book, Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000, which is encompassed and followed on from in this latest book. Dates of composition for each poem have now been added, revealing that some of the poems in Shebang were written before 1980, thereby adding to the notion of the “incomplete” – as if Howard’s poetry is one continuous work-in-progress. There is also a nod to the reader, whose role it is to complete the circuit of the poem by engaging with it, activating its gravitational field. But there’s another theory of incompleteness implied, too – the poet’s almost mystical engagement with time and being: “I’m humming/to complete the moment that leaves me,” he writes in Talking Sideways.

Marking time passing, many of Howard’s poems reveal themselves as elegiac; that is, they commemorate the beginnings or endings of relationships, moments of rupture, moments of closure. They acknowledge the death of a parent, the arrival of a lover, the birth of a child. Then there’s the burden of familial tradition, of growing up in somewhat stifling suburb an Christchurch, where “Grandmother’s gaudy wallpaper’s arabesques suggest/an Edwardian audience/ at home with melodrama”.

Rituals of continuity are recalled in a poem about his father, to whom the book is dedicated: “Your carpenter’s tape extended/the length of my childhood. Read then/retracted it wore out the pocket of your jacket.”

However, the tamely domestic sphere conceals an aspirational inner life: whole sequences display an autodidactic appreciation of European high culture and its history, from subtle post-adolescent probings of questions of Christian theology, to a detailed sequence about the assassination of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, to latter-day philosophical scepticism about “centuries of varnish” that need to be scraped away with a knife to get at the light of truth, and “the limits of will” are represented by the obtuse wasp that “knocks on your windowpane”.

Retailing the dislocations and travails of the early settlers, Howard recalibrates the creaky stage machinery of the foundation myth of pioneer settlement in the sustained melodic swirl of The Word Went Round. Other poems provide sharp observations on the bicultural equation, or on nationalisms past and present: “Anzacs like Davin and Mulgan/share the burden of a stirring song/when the words are forgotten” and “McCahon Glover Baxter and Tuwhare/snore for the afternoon that is New Zealand/making it new”.

Howard has a good ear for clashing phrases and jagged rhythms, for the passive-aggressive mode of dour Kiwi understatement. At times, he’s a kind of fossicking archaeologist, one who excavates telling language from Victorian journals and Scottish folk ballads, as well as superannuated rock songs. At other times, he’s the laconic narrator forced to fall back on an embarrassment of unreliable words – “don’t squirm with words”, he mocks, in a poem addressed to a painter.

But if Howard’s oblique wordplay sometimes smacks of self-protective ironies and is too corrosively sardonic, his love poetry rings out with a note pure and true, from youthful optimism – “the moon isn’t a cry// … it’s a cavity worn by kisses/ … which echo in your breast” – to middleaged disillusionment: “Love isn’t so much an angel as the stump/where a wing used to be.”

THE INCOMPLETE POEMS, by David Howard (Cold Hub Press, $49.95).David Eggleton is a poet and writer, and editor of Landfall.