#658 Plain words in a plain wrapper

A Mysterious Humming Noise: New Poems
by Howard White

Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2019
$18.00 / 9781772141412

Reviewed by Linda Rogers

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Let’s start with the cover. None of your “art-whatever” declarations of sacred intent, pretty pictures promising verbal home decoration: this is a kitchen cover promising kitchen music, including a toe tapper, a fiddle, and someone who sings like an electrocuted kitten: maybe the person who put the fork in the toaster.

The mysterious humming noise might come from a home appliance or a human with his fork stuck in mortality, the involuntary shuffle of history, life in the dangerous home lane, less a home run than a walk to the finish.

Howie White, publisher, storyteller, artful joker, actually casts himself as everyman stuck on a log boom, amusing himself with the anecdotal tides, the he said/she said washing over a life of weather observation. This is deceptive because under his plainsong is infrastructure, the highest chakra translated to read well in ordinary places like the dollar store glasses that almost work for brain surgery: the front porch, the alleged kitchen, or the big rock covered with barnacles. It is wisdom that withstands the tides of change, modern and postmodern fads, and fashions in literary discourse.

Howard White

Like the most distinguished of his publishing cohort, White polishes “aw shucks” and “heehaw” to the slick perfection of parable. We are not fooled in the presence of fools. Their “gnomic perceptions” have a divine social function; they have sloughed off the jargon of academe:

Now I am back where I was
With the worm’s eye view looking up
At all the fancy talkers
Who don’t know where they are going
Me trying to avoid getting stepped on.

Part of the griot’s art is performance, and White’s is oral poetry on the page, but without the precise rhythm and rhyme that helped the original singers and poets keep their place in the stories. It could be that his geophysical location on Canada’s west coast keeps him anchored in a life and social narrative that is steady and unchanging; hanging on, he says, like malaria, or like the barnacle he chooses as his personal metaphor, while the voices of ghosts swirl in the dark.

Poets are translators and translation is a mutable art, some of it true and some of it received artifice. White, the editor, renders the whisper game in literal simplicity. In his poem about dementia, language loss is described as a poet’s desideratum:

This is just like she was ten years ago
And we were all being reminded how much easier
It has been to get along with her since she lost her mind
And instead of rejoicing at this miraculous resurrection
We are all hoping she loses it again soon.

Howard White. Photo by Ariel Brewster

Less is more, he keeps telling us as he sheds every artifice but wit. Similarly, it is hard not to think of the mellowing curmudgeon Dee Livesay and her rival P.K. Page, the literary jeweller, possibly rhyming in Heaven after a lifetime of bickering over the nuisance ground of poetics.

Burdened with thousands of pages of tortured prose rendered to readability, White, the language policeman, describes a heaven that tells it like it is: “what the cabbages were thinking/ How much overreaching to allow the rose.”

Mirth is the leavening agent that lifts us to such a heaven, holds the barnacle above the water line and, incidentally, is one of the privileges, the other being music, left to the vascular-challenged.

Is that the mysterious humming noise, the rubber-soled footsteps of the grim reaper? Is life itself the fork when we are left with the dangerous option of retrieving or becoming toast? White’s friend Al Purdy was obsessed with sex and death — coition the little death, the fork as it were. Should we go forkless? White picks up the line of inquiry:

“Intercourse” was another cover-up word that caused me grief.
I could never square its interesting use with its OED definition
Which seemed to indicate nothing more than polite conversation,
A mistake I got straightened out about the hard way
When I suggested my grandmother and I might have some
— Vivid confirmation of my language teacher’s claim
Sloppy diction can be harmful to your health.

Somewhere between Earth and Heaven, campaigning in poetry and ruling in prose — in the words of the former Governor of New York — are moments of grace, compromises between music and truth. Some might argue that White is a comedian wearing a magician’s cape or a philosopher in logging boots, but these are the times of blurred distinction when stand-up presents as performance poetry and the prose poem defies categorization. There is a straight line between then, when poets were human newspapers running to village to village with the latest information, and now, when tinder is sex and twitter is death. We are all struggling to communicate before the toaster blows up, with the:

Voice reduced to a breathy husk
None of us in the family could decipher
Able only to communicate with his Filipino care aide
Using a system of eye blinks and ESP
The translation lost in her mangled English

These are plain words in a plain wrapper that come in the mail like a sex toy wrapped in recycled paper. This is real poetry; one version of the gospel, and it is received with joy and gratitude because it is life stained with regret, as in “News From Space:”

As the entire planet blurs into a smoky vagueness
Like an old man’s clouding memory
Of a life once crisply faceted with possibility.

Smoke is the whisper game, the wind and breath of god and goddess. Howie White blows some our way, and the blessed mystery is transformation.

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Linda Rogers and Rick Van Krugel. Photo by Darshan Stevens

Linda Rogers’ recent book is Yo! Wiksas? Hi! How are you? (Exile Editions: 2019) with artist Chief Rande Cook, and she is about to move on Repairing the Hive, third book in the Empress trilogy, and the collaborative Arioso Game with Ben Murray, shortlisted for the BC Great Novel Search. She is also working with fellow writers and artists on Mother, the Verb.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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