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Book review: Narrative poems reveal Ireland at midcentury

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

MIDCENTURY by Ben Howard, Salmon Publishing (Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland), 80 pp., £5.99.

The American poet Ben Howard has written his homage to Ireland with "Midcentury". Howard is the author of three other collections of poetry and one of the finest essay collections on Irish literature, "The Pressed Melodeon" (Story Line Press, 1996). He is a professor of English at Alfred University, and frequently travels to Ireland when he is not teaching.

Apparently Ben Howard has observed Ireland well, if "Midcentury" is any indication of his obsession. Howard is not a mere observer of Irish surfaces, though. He probes its soul through its history, and "Midcentury," besides being a collection of poetry, is an historical primer of the Irish world at its midcentury.

Howard is a dramatic poet, and the poems in this collection are dramatic narratives, mostly about an unnamed American man who happens to find himself in Ireland during and after World War II. If one wishes to find out what Ireland was like after this catastrophic event, read Howard’s book to discover the subtle transformation that Ireland underwent during and after the war.

"Midcentury" consists of six longish poems, the narrative of this unnamed American’s life in Ireland. It begins in Dublin with a poem entitled "The Word from Dublin, 1944." The narrative ends five poems later in 1950, also in Dublin, with a poem entitled "Across the Water."

The entire book is written in blank verse. In fact, Ben Howard is a poet equal to another great American blank verse writer — Robert Frost. Both of these writers create an iambic pentameter that is deceptively simple, that first appears rather optimistic, but upon more careful reading, presents a darker side to our lives. Ireland in 1944 is no different than Frost’s chilly New England landscapes 25 years earlier. Perhaps it all comes down to that Beckettian notion of the sin of being born, a concept as Irish as "Danny Boy," though far less sentimental, obviously.

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These unsentimental poems are chiseled from this austere blank verse. Ben Howard wields this measure like a great sculptor finding the shape in the veins of rock. His stones are words, though, and our Michelangelo, oddly enough, is an upstate New York poet by way of Iowa who has found his soul in the Georgian world of Dublin.

"Midcentury" reads more like a novel than a collection of poetry because of its characterizing and storyline. The narrator is a middle-aged American, he says, "in Dublin in the middle of a war."

This is a lonely man, far from home and family, newly divorced, but also even more newly separated from a turbulent love affair. Ireland draws him near with its hospitality but also because it is "itself no stranger to intestine wars." Hitler and Churchill are mentioned in passing, almost as if the war is too far from Ireland to comment beyond that.

Along the way, we learn that this 48-year-old is a lexicographer, one who knows his Irish history, but also one who drinks too much Irish whiskey. Soon after the war, he finds himself in Dingle. Then a year in Kerry follows, and in this section the narrator contemplates the idea of a mother tongue, particularly the Irish-speaking one in the Gaeltacht, which, in turn, produces a meditation on his own stern, unforgiving mother.

In 1947, he is back in Dublin, a city that agrees with Howard’s persona immensely. This section is entitled "Spitting Forgiven," and may be the best selection in the book. Here the iambic pentameter, rock-like on the page, almost seems to have feet that dance.

Ireland struggles economically after the war; things are rationed. Nature no longer seems to be the long reveries of the Irish landscapes in the countryside; it is now about wanting and longing and loss, the end result of the devastating war in Europe. The narrator contemplates Cromwell’s bloody, intolerant reign, and he reflects that he has a problem with a rigid moral order, too.

Elegant, elegiac, casual yet moving, Ben Howard’s poetry is both contemporary and classic. It spans eras and countries, fusing a fictional voice with a poet’s own real obsessions. Ben Howard, besides being a fine poet, is a classical guitarist. The structure of "Midcentury" is like a great symphony, the kind that, moment to moment, is intimate, and yet its overall reach is almost beyond human grasp. Ben Howard has an enormous talent for poetry, and at times, though human-sized and human-voiced, its final effect is prodigious.

Perhaps all of it can be summed up by Ben Howard himself when he writes in "Across the Water," the final poem, about being back in Dublin:

Whether or not the world is growing smaller,

It’s evident that time is moving faster,

At least for me, and that my century

has passed the midpoint of its long career,

Its innocence decreasing by the hour.

— Michael Stephens

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