On Simon Howard’s ‘Serenity’
‘Serenity’, a seven-poem sequence, was published in late 2010 in the first issue of the magazine Department, which Howard would go on to co-edit with its founder Richard Barrett in future issues and as it developed into a full-blown (small) press. This, as much of Howard’s poetry – the roughly contemporaneous ‘gudrun ensslin sonnets’, for example – works in elusive setting and development; its poems hover around the edges of its stated or unstated thematic, areas glimpsed through its landscape of twigs and snow, destitute birds, homeless suicides, the battered and used up icons of the French Revolution (“danton in the daffodils”) littering a desolate landscape like the acid-drenched baths, sunflowers and fragments of broken glass we see arranged by Anselm Kiefer and assistants around the surroundings of an old factory in the film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, which came out earlier that year.
In this phase of his writing, Howard was experimenting with lineation and staggered, or broken punctuation; as, musically, an unexpected compression or elongation of the space where a pause or a space should or should not be: an inverted comma deferred to the next line, beginning that line with what should have closed the preceding line; a two letter word violently split in two, again over the line break (“o / n”); a keyboard stutter, as if the finger had become temporarily trapped on an ampersand (“& &&dye the winds”), skirting melodrama as a hissing snake, quasi or actual mythological figures invoked as forces of a word shortened for the internet or texting age (the poem ‘Angr’, with its “fate/sssssss / coiled”). Like the music of the modernist composers he so admired, this work works with and within ruins, icons in bits, words stretched and smashed, yearning perverted and turned to a portrayed diurnal nihilism (“from the shop she went on a way casually / destroying allhumanity”), an internal and external violence spectacularized and then quietly numbed by “song[s] of innocent / syringe”, on the same level as shopping or TV (“all went out / shimmy under / tv plunge / sacrosanct institutional ice”), in the dream supermarket in the dream; a nature poetry with no consoling faith in any ecstatic landscape union or unison, a collective life predicated on nostalgia and the blind-eyeing of exploitation: like the electronic dialectics of Luigi Nono’s late works, voices distorted beyond recognition, the whisper or sudden rush of flute as wind, the clang of piano in watery basin, Venetian lagoon; like the ironized romantic kitsch inhabited in the truly utopian lumbering or singing songs & dances of Mahler’s song cycles and symphonies; like the concretized material thrum & hush & rub of instruments treated as human bodies of sounds in the work of Helmut Lachenmann.
Simon would have been flattered by these comparisons, and would doubtless not have felt he had lived up to them. An amateur is not some leisure-time hobbyist of the kind decried in Theodor Adorno’s essay on free time, but, etymologically, a lover of those arts in which they take such an enthusiastic interest: Simon loved such music even as he himself was not composer or musician, but, as many have remarked, a perfect audience member and, for a small community, a link between the worlds of New Music and New Poetry.
Between worlds. To return to the poems as I re-read them, then, the messenger as Angel of History or as bird or as Starry Messenger in a place of impossibility where the soldiers don’t go (“soldiers dance / where the stars don’t”), where the children don’t die or their death is not fetishized-accepted, and the wound is not hushed up or lived as badge, voicing the voices of those dead or dispossessed or disappeared in their silence, almost in utter silence and then sudden explosion like Nono’s ‘¿Donde estás hermano?’: “it’s like someone you never knew / calling you from out of / prison trance + shivers.”