I left nothing inside on purpose by Stevie Howell
McClelland & Stewart - 2018 - 19.95
Review by Aaron Boothby
Love’s work is vibratory, echoing through bodies and touches, oceans and stones. To make it and all felt things legible we write and speak in signs, giving a way to point at what’s material but not quite there. Description becomes a kind of surveillance: soon we inhabit ideas of ourselves as if only referential. Every name’s made a story both transmitting and obscuring a body of living breath. Encountering one’s name, what one supposedly is, reflected back may bring one to declare against this practice. To say, as the poet and artist Aisha Sasha John does in her book of the same name, I have to live, to say, I am not the idea of Aisha.
Stevie Howell’s second book, I left nothing inside on purpose, shares this awareness found in Sasha John’s lines, “The dilemma / w/the poem is, I refuse to describe the tangible world in signs anymore,” (“Summerhill liquor store”). One can imagine adding: including myself. It’s not a small dilemma. Poems are generally asked to provide meaning by way of a tangible world transmuted into signs. How can one describe otherwise? Rilke sought ways in his Dinggedichte (thing poems), like “Blue Hydrangea,” where “one sees / a moving blue as it takes joy in green,” presence and relation taking the place of symbols. Howell often turns to the language available in clinical psychology, another method of accessing what’s at work below our ideas of ourselves. Living, feeling, and desiring happen “between yr body & the body I’m in” (“Attachment”), a space resonant with echoes. “First came the chasm,” an epigraph by Hesiod reminds. That chasm is where I left nothing inside on purpose labours.
Psychologists and poets make investigations into human intangibility, glimpse mutual shadows, speak of them in their own languages. In “Attachment,” as is frequent in Howell’s book, the fields merge. Standard attachment theory narrates relations like child and caregiver, adult romantic relationships, how one attaches to another who provides. Whitman’s “adhesive love,” envisaged in the Calamus poems, imagines such fastening in its own way, as does Sasha John: Strong basic love / Names a doctrine / An orientation / A location / Within a relation. Howell’s poem begins in a refrain of “betweens” then delves into them, unravelling out of gulfs an exploration of bodily touches made and remembered. One’s body contacting another body is a fraught pleasure; “Those who become more porous, more permeable, / are dangerous, at risk.” Coupling cracks defences, leaves lovers vulnerable to wounding. A speaker who knows “as a clinician / the bornness of love demands breaking” goes on to say “That I can close my eyes & make you / mine on loan is a miracle.” Something aches in that broken line: you / mine. Behind miracle is a haunting of diagnosis, the danger of becoming “wound’s home, a nest” (“I welcomed the wound &”).
To describe love’s wounds, tangible but invisible, is to enter what’s both singular and general, entirely caught up in symbols. Heart, physical muscle, is made a sign to hold what’s vaporous: love’s locale of confused knowing, as the brain is made a chamber for consciousness. We know these languages so well it is difficult to find a way out of them.
Attending to the wounds of living through an awareness of one’s orientation, or location / within a relation, forms part of psychological care. A poet’s work too is, first, to attend. “Attachment” is a touchstone for what kinds of attending I left nothing inside engages with, in part through Clive Wearing, who, as Howell notes, “…has a 7-30 second memory…perpetually feels he’s just gained consciousness.” What there’s been, Sasha John writes, Is non-stop being. “An amnestic husband…devoted to one / woman. It’s heliocentric,” Howell writes.
Wearing wakes into an orbital bliss without remembrance. What’s devotion in memory’s absence, in time’s? It’s heliocentric, just is, subject to laws answering to no reasons. Wearing’s life and presence in the poems disrupt common understandings of love and attachment. In the poem directly addressed to him, “Hollow all the way down,” “—love lives / in a different region from / the one carved out by the clock,” and the poem’s couplets reproduce this amnestic state, refuse narrative to slip from one attention to another. One moment “A black lab bolts like he broken through a fence to the real field,” in the next comes “A hand in a curtain / soil on fire / neurons de-linking,” while “a man clings to a woman / he can’t place.” A beloved is, here, just as things are, whether memorially or physically.
Love may live beyond time’s regions but loving bodies inhabit time. They shift and alter, transforming even as memory conjures forms now absent. Something crumbles, one adjusts, something’s severed, one heals, or doesn’t. In “Staying is nowhere” the speaker observes “—a shattered bowl, / its fractures healed w/gold,” fragile temporality of form held together by the most malleable metal. Shattering is common; it’s the care to heal that’s more rare. Love’s hardly the only cause of breaking and tangles with all the many others. How one’s body is designated in relation to others can fracture wholeness. To be named feminine has been to be assigned wounds: “The wound is / formlessness & form,” Howell writes in “I welcomed the wound &,” so one adapts to live with wound’s word resonating with home, with room.
A wound is a question beckoning to what came before description. Its implications come out of the poem and hang there, as rain does that evaporates before meeting earth.
Howell’s poems sometimes evoke participatory witnesses of these breakages. In “Did…did a malachite write this,” it’s “the 3rd person that reunites shards” but who, by observing fulfills a requirement for tragedy. “Malachite” playfully borrows from a viral tweet to begin in adoration: “So smooth you can carry it in yr pocket & no snag!” The stone’s a companion, safe to attach oneself to for a touch in keeping, but vulnerable too: “the word feminine, oxidized.” Not feminine, it’s worth noting, but the word feminine. Oxidized.
Malachite forms from copper minerals in naturally carbonated water, becoming crystals structured as irregular coral forms, opaque globs, splayed fans, but once cut reveals its patterns, diaphaneity, appearing to hold light stilled. It’s common and wondrous, and the poem builds into an ecstatic ode right as assonances compel a shift in subject: “Foxfire vibing on rock. Osteons torqueing in limbs. Clouds inside of clouds inside of clouds. Hmm. Hymn. Him. Can love remember the question & the answer?” Him, the third person’s entrance. A question from the facing page echoes across: “Maybe we’d be happier / w/someone else. Then, who? who?” (“In the gutter, under the moon”). Things shift unseen into what becomes irrevocable.
Foxfire is bioluminescent fungi alive in decaying wood. Its mystery, finally resolved in 1823, was in being a flame that burned cold without (visibly) consuming its materials. Osteons are structural units of cortical bones, containing a canal for supplying blood. Some osteons drift from their regular structure, leaving traces of each alteration. It’s not understood why. I’m not sure. / But I am sure. / The lily is sure. / The rose bush., Sasha John writes.
Whatever somebody is, is becoming, is being, lives beyond regions of description, I no more or less than any you. Sunlight’s held glittering as it passes through crystalline minerals, through sea, held within stone, within water, gone luminous in greens.
I left everything behind on purpose pulses with echoes. In “Repetition,” Echo and Narcissus play out a classical pantomime in a cafe; only their harms are real. He can only repeat his desire to be satisfied, she can only echo those she attaches to, living in a “body no more than a canopic jar.” It’s a nightmare inversion of Antonin Artaud’s “body without organs”—a body as nothing more than container, a person no more than organs as symbols. Echo can hear, listen and tell, she calls out to Narcissus “…my aliveness” but can’t inhabit it. I saw / Everything. / And I listen to / Some, many, writes Sasha John. “Everyone wants / in on the secret, that’s what broke the world open,” says Echo, the listener, aware knowing the secret is not enough.
“Steven’s echo” is a tender, intensely intimate poem where the speaker tells of being both themselves and Steven, a brother who never arrived into world:
That I am my stillborn
not-to-be elder brother is
my ur-myth, my ur-belief
before Jesus, before multitudes
& the multiplicity, before
desire, denial &
Before we crush each other
into our sex.
It’s before that gives pause while reading, a before that’s precursor even to origins. This isn’t a coupling but a mutual existence where that “I am” includes being Stevie and Steven, self-echoing attachment without presence. In harsh afters come gender’s crushing fictions, come answers to “I am” with “no you’re not.” Howell’s “I” here puts “she” in quotations: an other, a self assigned by ones who say “if yr really a chick lift yr top up.” Between what we believe we are, know we are, and what somebody else decides we are comes the wound, home’s synonymous hymn.
Steven reappears in “Inflorescence,” after the speaker is tumbled by a wave in Kona, Hawaii and left unsure “if only my shadow emerged from under / lava stone.” In a small hospital room painted “w/palm trees, a canopy of / leaves” an MRI examines this possibility. Trauma-care encompasses seeking and addressing harms below a body’s outward signs. The technician, it seems, is Steven: “Steven’s in his traffic tower / conducting the magnets. You feel held … Steven wires up earphones, / Hawaiian music.” In this moment something miraculous is born of attachment, of belief, of love held for someone that is, but barely was, coming to be in a position of care.
At the conclusion of “Hollow all the way down” come these lines:
I know it in my heart,
I just know it. But you
can’t know anything in yr heart.
They’re faced by a poem, “In the heart,” on a single page repeating “of the heart of the heart of the heart” over fourteen lines, a sonnet turned inside out, until ending “…of the heart of another man. Land, I mean, Land.” Can psychology or poetry answer the question this poses? “…a diagnosis is not the period / but the sentence,“ Howell writes in “Notes on not being able to have a baby.” It’s poetic to locate knowing in the sign of the heart, which is not the same as the organ the heart. Questions do not require answers. What’s the tangible world, unsigned? How to describe it? “For honeybees, flowers glow ultraviolet” (“Non-attachment”) but this isn’t to say they’re never confused. Trained as we are to read signs of love, signs of identity, signs to tell us who, what, how, someone is, what everyone is all the time is being. I have to live.
Signs are easily misread. What shimmers between bodies may be in misreadings, where possibilities flutter. Howell’s refusal to “describe the tangible world in signs” opens in those echoing chasms a space where, beyond surveillance and unconditional love dovetailing in fixations of identity (as they do in “Trigger warning for a course in developmental psychology”), an adhesive, caring love, a strong basic love, appears, resonant with Rilke’s words in a letter to Lou Andreas Salome: “become what you are.” Here, relationships “between yr body & the body I’m in” move closer to one evoked in Howell’s poem “As a child,” while self and identity were more diffuse, all things less assigned by certainties:
I knew you as a teenager, all those yrs
& we never got bored b/c everything was beautiful & everyone was
honest. Enough information to attend to for
hundreds of lives. The whole of history, w/o the tyrant—