Tim Dee reviews Gall, the first full collection from poet and conservationist Matt Howard (published by The Rialto and out now).
The first I heard of Matt Howard’s work was one clammy midsummer afternoon in Norfolk. Mark Cocker was showing me the swampy wood near Norwich that he bought a few years ago. Hidden in the dank and tangled carr was a rescued garden chair. I think Mark said he allowed Matt a break once in a while, and a sit down, after his hours (days and weeks in truth) of voluntary (so Mark said) heavy-duty toil, rough-working the plot, hacking at things, raking stuff, dredging and slodging the fenny corner. I saw a Matt-made shape in the emerging place and it was good. There were dragonflies and hoverflies and Mark was excited.
The first time I saw the shape itself was on a much colder day. Mark and Matt and I (and another friend, John Fanshawe), had crept icily under some bare, shivering lime trees and one or two lightly clad firs in a town in the Vojvodina of northern Serbia. I could hear my breath freeze as it left me and fell as an ice patter to the hard ground, like a mouse’s winter tread. As the human population of the town went about their business in the cold chalky light, we looked up at the trees and into silence. Overhead were dozens of long-eared owls, a dozing day-room of birds, clad in baggy pyjamas stitched out of dead leaves, but with one or two occasionally showing an orange eye of such solar intensity that you felt rebuked for thinking other than that these birds were more alive than anything for miles around, and that all mice best be on their guard.
These Serbian irregulars inspire a sequence of poems in Matt Howard’s new collection, Gall (The Rialto, 2018). He previously had a pamphlet, The Organ Box, out in 2014 (Eyewear). This is his first full book and it is wonderfully achieved. It makes a remarkably pure and open and honest collection of poems that you feel had to be and which the poet has released with the lightest but surest of touches. I recommend it to all. I say this not just because I know the man a little and like him a lot: I say it because I’ve read plantations of new poetry in the last decade and I have rarely encountered such a self-fruited or ungrafted voice. The poetry sounds modest and totally genuine; the poet is as soft-spoken as Norfolk is. This is a poet who uses the word ‘darling’ in his opening and closing poems (one about a jar of preserved moles, the other about an elder) because it is the right term for him and he can make it right for his poems; a poet who worries over the violence of nature, the rot underlying all, a fisherman warming maggots on his tongue, death’s more than half-rhyme with life, but a poet who knows how the knowing of all this is good for us; a poet who has dug deep in fetid marshes and drunk draughts of marsh gas but who continues to goes back. Matt’s manual work at Blackwater Carr underwrites an even more impressive sequence towards the end of his book. The hard work, we see, is heart-work as well as hand-work.
This is Crome.
to cast a tool of ash and hooked iron
to take care in boots at the edge of standing water
to throw from the shoulder, then heave from the lumbar spine
to clear a dyke of leaf-fall and slub from the past three decades or further
to feel suck and pop of sedge-roots tearing from bog
to spit splash-back of festered water from one’s lips
to retch one’s balance of vows and curses where no one else is listening
to imagine a cut of clearer water
to haul deeper with long-draw tines
to blister then callus both hands in unfavourable conditions
to consider the phased wing-strokes of dragonflies
to listen to the short, descending arc of willow warbler song whilst working
to see sunlight on the nodes of a Norfolk hawker’s forewing
to act with the whole body and mean it
Mark Cocker’s new book, Our Place, a blisteringly good account of how bad things are for nature in Britain today, begins with a chapter called ‘My Place’ about Blackwater Carr. He talks about Matt’s labours there with crome and other tools and quotes his poems.
The whole of Gall is a book fit to join any conversation about what nature can mean to us, and to demonstrate that if it is to be meaningful (knowable, graspable, worth saving and worth learning to live better with), then we must, as Coleridge enjoined us and as Matt Howard does so beautifully throughout, keep alive the heart in the head.
In a poem about a white-clawed crayfish, Matt writes that he must discover ‘How it all articulates –’ and poem after poem in Gall takes the surprise of experiences in nature and looks and listens closely at them. Some poems are got out of books and museums. There are galleries of bottled and freakish things and a gothic air. More successful, to my mind, are the more fully inhabited outdoors encounters. The title poem about how you might write with the ink made from the bitter growth that remains when a parasitic wasp lays an egg on a tree is a wonder. And then there is the quieter intensity, the far roving night-time thinking of ‘A Glass of Warmed Milk Before Bed’:
Mid-February and minus five below,
so I raise this for those in labour down their earthworks,
the pink and blind, suckling in the warmth of the sett;
and for a cull on worry under strip-lighting
in the dairy sheds; for immunity of all herds;
this day done and the deeper movings of worms.
Tim Dee is on the road with Caught by the River this year at Kaleidoscope festival, Port Eliot and The Good Life Experience. He recently edited Ground Work, the CBTR March book of the month, and his book on gulls and people, Landfill, is coming from Little Toller in September.