Tuesday, January 29, 2013


            at home 
in the interpreted world
            - Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies I


The tree on the slope is contingent upon your voice.
I hear nothing so the tree won’t bend –
I need that tree to bend.

The horizon does not want poetry to keep going.
Intention? No star meant to be admired and yet…
Praise is impossible without doubt, ask a teenager.

The beautiful people hear a mirror’s echo;
What they know is special
Pleading. As if poetry needed their vanishing lines!

Always almost, never quite –
Laureates talking up a void rather than a storm.
Whatever, sorrow outlasts wonder.

For most of us it will be winter
Three seasons out of four. Ever had the feeling of feeling
Parmenides had it too; he knew
Nothing comes from nothing,
The universe is eternal, like first love.
It is hungry work, returning.


Because language is the history of being human
A cannibal is somebody who eats his words
As if they were fire.

Embers then ash are what comes of desire.
A food basket made from hope holds the lovers.
Like them, it ignites easily.
Saying is only one way of doing, it is
A narrow cloth for a long table.
However hungry, everyone must leave table
Without much thought for the stained cloth.


Anyway, songbirds are followed by birds of prey.
Both balance on top of the ballroom
At the end of the harbour pier.

The rowboat waits – that is what it was made to do
So it won’t get impatient, it won’t
Chafe the rope that will soon be thrown

Over. Hear the soulful violin, out of time;
Feel shoes moving in unison
Towards the edge of what was always known.

Why do we hold on
To the belief that infinite growth is possible
In a finite world? (Brian Turner)

At sunset my daughter gets a red cheek.
Her head separates earth from heaven, now from then
With a wall of fire. She will dance

On that wall, calling for the boy
Who tastes of juniper. His juice will keep her
Free from disease…
I smile through three decades
At this innocence. Always almost, never quite
A bullock hauls itself out of estuary mud
To shuffle through the Milky Way.

[published online in On Barcelona]

David Howard, photograph by Alan Thompson

                                                 Editor: Claire Beynon

'We imagine we are observed and are of concern to someone.' (Czeslaw Milosz, 'I Saw') 

Born in Christchurch, David Howard co-founded Takahe magazine (1989) and the Canterbury Poets Collective (1990). He spent his professional life as a pyrotechnics supervisor whose clients included the All Blacks, Janet Jackson and Metallica. In 2003 David retired to Purakaunui in order to write: 'The rural hinter is perfect for this; by getting clear of the social whirl you realise what matters is the dirt under your fingernails. 

In November 2011 Cold Hub Press published David's collected works as The Incomplete Poems. In September 2012 his collaboration with printmaker Peter Ransom, You Look So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me, appeared from Holloway Press, the same month Otago University announced his appointment as the Robert Burns Fellow 2013. 'Yes, I feel lucky.' David's poetry has been translated into Dutch, German, Italian, Slovene and Spanish.


HAPPY NEW YEAR, Tuesday Poets and loyal readers - and welcome back to the online lap of poetry gods and goddesses. 

You'll see I've taken a slightly different - collaborative - approach to things this week. I invited four members of our collective (names more-or-less pulled from the hat) to read David's poem ahead of time and then to respond to his words with a single question. As the questions came in, I forwarded them on to David who in turn tapped out his reply. The ensuing discussion became not only the body, but the arms, legs, head and heart of this post; each bracketed dialogue, a small-vast world in itself.  

David initially sent me for four poems to choose from. Almost Always, Never Quite was the world that pulled me back, insisting I return - and, again, return. A poem that set me wandering and wondering, I found myself considering the ways in which mathematics, music and metaphysics underpin, shape and inform poetry, whether unconsciously or by intention. I was curious to know, for instance, whether David's poem 'arrived' at fifty-one lines by coincidence or by design, for is there not as inherent and reliable a magic in poetry as there is in prime numbers? Do such matters matter? I believe so. 

In response to my question, 'What prompted this poem and gave rise to its title?', David replied -

'To begin with an aside... Always Almost: Never Quite is the blue-blooded title of the second volume of Outsider by Brian Sewell – a man whose snobbery is so expansive it could fill the Kingdom of Heaven without assistance from any (other) deity. If ‘The beautiful people’ are his, the immediate provocation for the poem was an invitation to the intimate and honest Going West Festival 2012, with its declared theme Almost Always, Never Quite. 

What a shift there is from a colon to a comma! The former is a mark for equals, the latter for what only follows. In the monotonoverse of larger literary festivals, which are peppered with touring almost-celebrities, what most presenters ‘know is special/Pleading.’ Yet the best know more; they know that ‘language is the history of being human'. And that, while the vanity of their colleagues may appear infinite, vanity is one among many finite things: chiefly our species and the planet that we insist on calling, in error, ours. 

The poem goes beyond its occasion because, to be worth reading, a poem has to.'


Many thanks to David not only for agreeing to be this week's featured poet but also for investing so fully in this collaborative process. Thanks too, to Marylinn Kelly, Orchid Tierney, Renee Liang and Susan T. Landry for your attentive reading and for contributing so meaningfully to this discussion. (Susan - together with Boston writer and artist, Melissa Shook - recently launched an online journal on memoir you will be pleased to visit - Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie).


          For most of us it will be winter
          Three seasons out of four.

Marylinn Kelly: Are you saying that (for most us) time is 3/4 not about producing, growing, flowering, emerging but rather existing in a dormant state? Is that wasteful or desirable? 

DavidWhile my daily experience is that most of us are dormant most of the time (we often call it ‘being busy’), which I find wasteful rather than desirable, I also own the problem - logical and psychological - of becoming. It’s a contradictory matter; it often seems to me that ‘contradictory’ and ‘matter’ belong in the same sentence. As a child I intuitively subscribed to Parmenides’ notion of block time. Its most prominent adherent is Einstein, who was taken to task by Popper for a view that reduces change to the status of an illusion. While I am intellectually uncertain about essentialism I write from the imaginative position that what is, is; everything already exists, and for always.

                        Nothing comes from nothing,
            The universe is eternal, like first love.
            It is hungry work, returning.


Renee LiangHow often does other poets' work kick off your own work, and in what ways? 

David: Not often because I’m wary. Some poets are close friends. Hesiod, Cavafy, Pessoa and Pasolini are the ones I trust most. They have the good manners to stay out of the way when I am beginning a piece; once it is underway they occasionally pop in with advice. Rilke, who orients the opening lines of this poem, is a rare and rather superior visitor to my cinder block tower. I needed to argue through a few of the assertions in the opening of his Duino Elegies, especially: ‘For Beauty’s nothing/but the beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear’. That's because I view poetry as a way of knowing; it is primarily an attempt to understand rather than an aesthetic endeavour. Incidentally, this means that I treat contemporary notions of hierachy (The Best of the Best of…) and associated technical models as fluorescent red herrings. And a dialogue with the dead, which I welcome, does not presuppose reliance on authority.

            Saying is only one way of doing, it is
            A narrow cloth for a long table.
            However hungry, everyone must leave table
            Without much thought for the stained cloth.


Susan T. Landry: Your poem made me think of people who ask why is the sky blue or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It made me think of an ancient Chinese carving I saw in a museum as a child, the tiniest people and boats and trees carved from a slightly larger but in any language still tiny piece of ivory, and all I could think of even then even as a child, was why?

My question to you is this: is the optimism inherent in the question about blue sky and angels and why enough? Is it always almost, never quite?

David: Your question brings up the ghostly whisper of Montaigne: ‘A straight oar looks bent in water. What matters is not merely that we see things but how we see them.’ He was writing at a time when the intellectual optimism of the Renaissance was being bruised by religious conflict. We read at a time when the economic optimism of the American Dream has visited nightmares upon the have-nots. Always almost, never quite: optimism – whatever its occasion and its object – is not enough. Songbirds are followed by birds of prey. The rowboat waits and, one day, no one will notice how the straight becomes bent yet remains straight. But the optimism of ‘the question about blue sky and angels and why’ is necessary for poetry, which is a kind of analogical thinking. Why? Because it takes faith to leap. The privileged authorities (whether from the state or private sector) use words to circumscribe, to diminish, whereas poets use words to open, to expand. 


Orchid TierneyThere are two poetic gestures that really stand out for me in this poem. First is the use of citationality, the borrowing of other voices, or more specifically, the absorption of what-has-already-been-said-and-written, what is historical and passed into public space. Second, section two of poem contains two wonderful clauses:

            Because language is the history of being human
            A cannibal is somebody who eats his words
            As if they were fire.

"Because language is the history of being human" suggests to me that language is an after-effect of experience. In this way, one's gendered, sexual, socio-economic, and ethnic relations to the world not only shape our relations to the structures of language, but in fact, they generate them too. The second line of this stanza: "A cannibal is somebody who eats his words" indicates to me of the pervasive cultural recycling of pre-existent text which leads me back to my first observation of David's use of
citationality. That language is like "fire" would underscore the first line of this stanza: like fire, language is product of human ingenuity; it can nurture us from a distance but once spoken, it cannot be easily reabsorbed back into the human body. At least, to do so would pose a level of danger. But note, language here is spoken by the male subject; he consumes "his words." In this sense, David is referring to a specific gendered experience that produces a language in which its echoes share a male centre (*a* male centre, not *the* male centre).

I'm wondering how David sees his use of citationality as elaborating, expanding, investigating his male-centre relation to the structures of language. 

David: Citationality is a technique for interrogating the self, yet it requires empathy for others and respect for silence (which I regard as generative and therefore feminine). Again, to echo is to enter into relation with the greater-than. When I speak you hear more than me.


Claire: I'd encourage multiple readings of Always Almost, Never Quite. My experience has been that with each reading, the poem's landscape inhabited me more, and I, it. My curiosity was repeatedly piqued as to the relationship between Parmenides (c. 515/540BCE) and his muse - and I found myself wondering about the conversations David might (and surely does?) strike up with Rilke when no one else is around.

I asked David if the three-part form of Always Almost, Never Quite was prompted by Parmenides' poetic and philosophical exposition, On Nature (his response: 'Yes, my poem's echoing structure is intentional. .  .'). In his largely-lost 3000-line poem, Parmenides asserts that 'to be means to be completely, once and for all. What exists can in no way not exist'. I admire - and even envy a little - the language he uses when describing the structure of the cosmos as a fundamental binary principle that governs the manifestations of all the particulars: 'the aether fire of flame', which is gentle, mild, soft, thin and clear, and self-identical, and the other is 'ignorant night', body thick and heavy.

What an exquisite image he paints! 

'The air has been separated off from the earth, vapourized by its more violent condensation, and the sun and the circle of the Milky Way are exhalations of fire. The moon is a mixture of both earth and fire. The aether lies around above all else, and beneath it is ranged that fiery part which we call heaven, beneath which are the regions around the earth. . . '

There's a soft/loud echo of this in David’s two closing lines - 

            A bullock hauls itself out of estuary mud
            To shuffle through the Milky Way.  


David takes up his position as Burns Fellow on 1 February. David, we wish you exhalations of fire. 

To read more about David - his pyrotechnics and poetry, collaborative projects and solo publications, awards, service and residencies - please click on the following links:

Under Government and Restraint (David in crackling conversation with TP poet, Tim Jones)
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
Trout Press
Cold Hub Press
New Zealand Book Council

Claire Beynon is this week's Tuesday Poem editor. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she immigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand in November 1994. Claire is a visual artist, art-science collaborator and writer of poetry and short stories. She blogs (somewhat sporadically these days) at All Finite Things Reveal Infinitude and Waters I Have Known. Her web address is www.clairebeynon.co. nz

After you've enjoyed Always Almost, Never Quite please take time to read the other poems posted this week by members of the Tuesday Poem community. You will find them listed in the sidebar.


Emma said...

Thanks for such a great post Claire. Love the poem and all the other discussion too. Also thanks David!

Michelle Elvy said...

What a wonderful start to the 2013 series here at Tuesday Poem. The opening line by Rilke, the contingencies of that opening line of the poem, and all things unknown and left to interpretation here... It requires many readings to be sure. I love how it moves from the abstractions of the middle stanza to the images of the third (that rowboat especially). And I also find the discussion/interview so enriching. Especially like Susan's question and the answer given.

Thanks for this -- wonderful to see and read. Will be sure to come back when I have more time. For now, will be sure to share where I can!

Cattyrox said...

Definitely a poem which will reward future readings - thanks Claire and David. Much food for thought in both the poem and the discussion.

susan t. landry said...

One good thing about poetry is
(do i say that like there's not two good things about poetry...? what i mean: an especially good thing is...)
that when you make the decision to pay close attention to a beautifully crafted poem, it is like walking--or running along the top of--a well-built stone wall.
You leap from just the right plane on one rock to just the right landing a stride away, without even worrying about falling...or where, exactly, you're going.
That's what it felt like to take a stroll through David's lovely poem. Thank you, Claire, for asking me.

Claire Beynon said...

Thank you Emma, Michelle, Catherine and Susan for your comments here. It is no secret that I'm a keen admirer not only of David's poetry but also of the ways in which his unique way of seeing illuminates the mundane world, lifting it somehow and imbuing it with philosophical and mystical wonder. A fine way to further ignite our appreciation of words and the world!

Mary McCallum said...

Love the conversation here - the poem to kick it off - the questions and answers. So - much - to - think - about... I'm going to need more time before making any kind of response. Thanks to all participants and especially CLaire and David.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Thank you, Claire, for allowing me to be part of this igniting. Thank you, David, for the willingness to be questioned and a response that prompts questions to go on and on.