Book Review

My first exposure to Stevie Howell was at some point in 2014 when she opened an event in Kingston, Ontario, with “Crunches,” reading with head bobbing from side to side and a voice that recreated the millennial uptalking the poem represents with question marks. Since then, in her 2014 debut ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ [Sharps], a chapbook, Summer (2016), and now a second collection, I left nothing inside on purpose, Howell has explored topics such as Canmore, Alberta; scrubbing urinals at Arby’s; and Tay, the AI bot that was deactivated for expressing racist sentiments. These books have also addressed alcoholism, psychological abuse, and a twin who dies in the womb. In a post-Alien vs. Predator poetry world, breaching imaginary boundaries between the profound and the lowbrow isn’t all that notable. What one finds in Howell’s books, however, is less the omnivorous irreverence of a Michael Robbins than an unpredictable hybridization of the sincerity and flippancy that crop up in awkward pauses and moments of self-doubt.  

Two of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the book are the poems’ minimal, one-capital-letter titles and the wide spacing between lines. “I welcomed the wound &” gives the impression that it could be taking its title from its opening, but instead the phrase appears only in echoes throughout the poem’s generously spaced-out lines: “I welcomed the wound. / It opened, expanded, I grew.” The following poem, “Attachment,” leaves even more space between its lines, also spreading itself into stanzas. Several pages later, “Hollow all the way down” staggers couplets amid still more blankness. Each of its four pages includes no more than ten lines, the gaps smoothing out syntactical leaps that stand apart from the enjambed couplets:

He can still play the piano but

can’t remember where we are

North English, by the sea, 1983,

might as well be Centralia, Pennsylvania

It doesn’t take much reading to identify other interesting patterns. After several ampersands and short forms like “b/c,” “w/,” and “w/o,” the opening stanza of “Attachment” concludes, “Between egg & / hen. Between yr body & the body I’m in.” Howell has stated in an interview with Open Book that many of the collection’s poems collapse “you,” “your,” “you’re,” and “year” into this shorthand to express the “absence of boundaries inside relationships” and “the effect of that over time.” But Howell’s range and easy pop-culture references suggest that there’s likely a Sonic Youth connection, too. And, after all, what in 1983 (when the Kill Yr Idols EP was released) was a somewhat irreverent invocation of beats, has since then, with the mainstreaming of grunge and the addition of the EP’s syntax to the 1995 reissue of Confusion Is Sex, settled into familiar CD-store-at-the-mall iconography. This is of course not to say the attitude and syntactical potential of the word can’t be rediscovered and repurposed in the present, especially given the complex craft of the Twitter utterance. Still, Howell seems keenly aware of the way freshness and cliché so often work together.

This double-edged quality is evident throughout the book, including with Howell’s inhabitation of the confessional poem. “Notes on not being able to have a baby” slides from aloof confidence (“A no-show for the appointment / the secretary’s attempt to shame me by voicemail was / foolish”) to the uncomfortably specific (“Sometimes, tho, I see // yr Norwegian nose on someone’s boy // yr constellation of moles I’ve mapped out”), and back again. “Summerhill liquor store” is set in Toronto’s train-station-turned-LCBO, here “A maze of different platforms” that “makes you panic—you might miss yr ride into oblivion.” Howell’s playful cool grinds to a halt with the words “I enter my (almost ex-) heaven                 buy nothing                             & cool off.” Much of the collection blends the deeply personal with the quotidian frustrations, triumphs, and amusements that are constantly amplified by our urban boutique economies and the streamlined interior lives we project online.

I left nothing in side on purpose also makes use of the found-text methods and social-media references that have become a common element of all but the most traditionalist verse. “Life is not about what you learn, really, but what you remember” is constructed from The Man with the 7 Second Memory, a 2005 documentary about someone with severe amnesia. Paradoxically, drawing from this unique source yields a kind of always-restarting, poetaster’s version of ennui: “No difference between day & night. No thoughts at all. No dreams. Day & night, that same blank. Precisely like death.” “Did… did a Malachite write this” takes as its prompt a viral tweet (“Did… did a rottweiler write this”), generating a mineral’s charmingly desperate self-promotion: “Keeps yr home hearth-like. Like the pet it waits … Malachite is also the travelling stone. Carry this lustrous, emerald-like mineral w/you on a plane in attractive velvet drawstring pouch.” Throughout the poem, missing words and sentence fragments work with the tweet’s ellipsis and omission of a question mark to blur distinctions between inarticulate and precise, earthily authentic and slyly performed.

This duality also manifests in a certain cautiousness when it comes to the collection’s navigation of our ongoing attempts to accommodate a range of vulnerabilities without suppressing the gauche or unruly aspects of any honestly expressed individuality. “Only poem about high school,” for instance, includes the passage:

I always said trauma is as big or small as you make it.

Turns out that’s controversial.

Turns out controversy is the purgatory-word for wrong

& scale is incontrovertible. The problem is

we can’t rely on blame & myth at the same time

—or can we?

Such strange, slightly but noticeably off moments mark I left nothing inside on purpose as part of a growing body of work that is somehow as weird and unclassifiable as it is tapped into the kaleidoscope of recognizable and emergent poetry trends. Perhaps that assessment sounds cynical. But, as Howell’s poems indicate, those moments when what we want to say diverges from what we’re supposed to, are perhaps only as awkward as those in which the two match a little too accurately for comfort.

About the Reviewer

Carl Watts is from Ontario. He holds a PhD in English from Queen's University, and he currently teaches at Royal Military College. His poems have appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry 2014, The Cincinnati Review, The Cortland Review, and Grain, as well as in a chapbook, REISSUE (Frog Hollow Press, 2016).