The Ogre's Wife





Frequenting a corner of an eye,

Like a thing one didn't really see,

Its dodges reconcile me

To the way you get undressed,

Affording less than a glimpse!

As for the one apparent

To our friend, eliciting

Her outburst as it darted

Close to the surface,

I guessed that stain on a backdrop

Of river and trees, that flight

I very nearly caught (but where

Was one supposed to look?)

Was lost for good.  And then,

There went the streak of it

- Sooner gone than seen.

Was it, was it - what?

Sapphire?  Emblem of all

Snatches: sought like the dream

One forgets even as one wakes from it.





A DECENT GIRL     Ian Gregson in the TLS December 17  2010



55pp. Anvil. Paperback, £7.95 (US $15.95).





The Ogre's Wife is preoccupied with forms of imprisonment, some literal, as in its poems about sex offenders and other prison inmates, others subjective and focused on compulsiveness or self-destructive passivity. One of its longer poems, “Ode to a Routine”, culminates by questioning whether imprisonment is the norm: its speaker describes entering the prison where he works, and passing through a series of locks which he checks in turn, until he is “deep / Inside a place which others can't get out of.” But then it reverses that point by describing his commuting as itself part of a “daily sentence”, and the rest of the poem has already characterized that routine as a form of repetitive drudgery which transforms the speaker into an anonymous “one” rather than an individual pronoun – “one's bus arrives”, but the “ones” on board must get off before the “ones” waiting can get on. Anthony Howell’s willingness to dwell on a scene as mundane as that bus stop, and to treat it in flat repetitive language, is characteristic, and is one source of his distinctiveness.


The default mode of contemporary poetry has been to pare language down to a highly charged minimum: in allowing into his writing some of the superfluities of actual speech, Howell mimics the rhythms of the ordinary to an extent rarely matched by other poets, so that the patient length of his gaze sees the bus stop with a vivid double take. The sestina “Wittgenstein” allows him seven repetitions of “coming”, “nervous”, “thoughts”, “heated”, “intimately”, and “speak”, so implying that a sexual relationship can get caught in a loop which is difficult to escape. It also indicates another meaning of the word “sentence” and the problem of being enclosed in a Wittgensteinian language game. The linguistic flat-footed-ness that results points to the difficulty of talking appropriately about sexual encounters - while also talking about them.


Howell uses a related ploy to describe compulsiveness, except that he allows him­self, in these contexts, to introduce more exotic language, and he tends to use more imagery. “How Sad Everything Is” parodies a philosophical register and caricatures an anorexic woman as a machine fuelled “by Coca-Cola Lite” - it also replaces flatness with an exclamatory mode (“Jennifer Lopez, I love Jennifer Lopez!”). “The Strawberry”, too, has its philosophical moments, which aim to show how anorexia makes food an object for existential interpretation, so that its vision looks microscopically at the fruit on a plate where its bulk is magnified, and it looks “blotchy, / Rouged here, pallid there, its stubble sure / To cause internal discomfort”.


It is in the long title poem that Howell most impressively extends these preoccupations and techniques. “The Ogre's Wife” is a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife of a serial killer, she tells the story, step by step, of how she visited the man in prison and how her religious sensibility was drawn to the glamour of “sin incarnate”, so that she married him and bore his children, and now aids him in his entrapment of young women. Howell's deliberate flat-footedness is especially telling in the context of such horror, and is used to draw on what self-knowledge the monologuist does have (“I was a decent girl, after all, albeit rather passive”) and hint at areas where she is ignorant about her motives - as when her own violent jealousy of the victims is revealed as she witnesses them having sex with her husband and then regards them as deserving of their fate. Howell's flatness is daring enough, but he is even more so here when he adds a baroque, quasi-Miltonic register to the mundane speech he uses elsewhere:


“Ah, but in the double bed, where, bloodied, we'd enmesh,

I was Death's entire salvation, by God's Grace appointed

Gleaner of this abject portion else left behind in the thresh

Of spirits winnowed at the Trumpet, when the world's anointed

Rise on the Day of Judgement. ..”


Through this astonishing mingling of languages, Howell manages to evoke the grotesque compulsions of a woman who has trapped herself in the mechanisms of a complex folie à deux.


Luke Kennard in Poetry London Summer 2010:


The theme of imprisonment runs through The Ogre’s Wife like the hard metal stick in a rubber cosh. Anthony Howell is an underrated, veteran poet who spent five years last decade teaching creative writing in prisons, and some of the poems here feel directly inspired by that stretch. Take the raw humour of ‘Counselling’;

My advice is this: if you must assault a person,

Offer them a hand up afterwards. Others don’t.

And if you will add rape to the assault.

Never indulge on a regular basis.

The poem concludes that, well, at least you’re not genocidal: ‘A decent person does it by surprise’.  ‘Bacon’ (prison slang, as the endnote informs us, for sex offender!) begins in eerie, murderous fantasy and concludes in ‘the grate of gates, / Verrucas, and the sour stench of age’. Elsewhere the prisons are civilian, self-made. ‘Childhood’ uses the conceit brilliantly to capture the strange blankness of early youth:

Other children ... They were other lands.

Between release and re-arrest for tea,

God knows what we got up to.

And that’s what it feels like looking back, almost fondly, on boredom. Oh, to be bored by the blank expanse of time! ‘Ode to a Routine’, the long poem which makes up the second section of the book is a malediction on the daily commute, starting with waking up, the morning ritual with its dull pains and small compensations, coffee, toast...

What’s ahead but the heaviness of what lies

Ahead!  The whole day, the whole fucking

Day of it...

With the panoply of rush-hour workers, ‘Teachers, nurses, plumbers, tea-boys, chefs...’, we are herded by our own routines, ‘Duplicates of those at the other end / Of the city hurrying across the lights’. What makes the poem resonate is Howcll’s honesty. The constant minuscule lusts and irritations that dull our powers of observation are here meticulously observed:


No need to change though. That at least’s a relief.

No stampeded steps or gradient passages,

Or girl ahead, who reaches round to tug

Her top down at the back, to read your mind.

This isn’t to say the whole thing’s gloomy. The Ogre’s Wife’s first section is all nature, wine, sex, and ideas. The freedom, I suppose, before re-arrest by routine, duty or the state. ‘A Kingfisher’ begins:

Frequenting a corner of an eye,

Like a thing one didn’t really see,

Its dodges reconcile me

To the way you get undressed

Affording less than a glimpse!

I have a lot of time for that exclamation mark, simultaneously evoking a Clare-like exultation and a somewhat less Clare-like sexual impatience. Howell has a lovely, natural sense of metre too (‘Our first blue sky is laced with spring-tipped twigs’), which feels as hard-won as it is fluent. And ‘Wittgenstein’ is an accomplished sestina which makes you kick yourself for not noticing how ideally suited Wittgenstein’s ideas are to the form before.

Although Robert Nye has called him ‘the best of Ashbery’s disciples’, I can’t say I detected much of an influence in the work itself. Howell’s poetry is earthy and straightforward and, critically, sounds like Howell: a British poet writing poetry round about now. Ashbery’s poetry sounds like a sack full of politicians, eighteenth-century romantics, journalists, robots and clowns thrown off a bridge with a Dictaphone. Maybe ‘Parable’, with its collective-first-person abstractions in the style of Ashbery’s Three Poems, starts in that mode:

No one had given it much thought before,

Supposedly it went on, as everything must, somewhere,

Occupying its place in the mazy tarantella

Of existence...

But the ‘it’ in question is a deliberately vague human act reclassified as a crime (and the poem could be set in the present or the future); once it’s been labelled illegal people take a certain transgressive pleasure in committing it. This is the titular ‘Parable’, the poem becoming a critique of the justice system:

That is why we are queuing here to be sentenced,

Or wreaking on you all an excess of illegality

In this growth area generating horror and employment.

On the surface that may look like a postmodern deconstruction, but it’s actually something much more morally committed. The long title poem ‘The Ogre’s Wife’ is at once a departure and of a piece with the rest of the collection. Rendered in perfect terza rima, Howell riffs on a theme from Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, an apologia for a mass-murdering rapist from the perspective of his wife - who, unable to stop him killing, witnesses many of his murders from the front of the car:


                                                ...The view

Gave me a way to assess her worth. Did she tarry at

The stake, or did she embrace it greedily? And did she

Seek my glance in the glass? Oh, I was worse than Iscariot,

In her estimation, I guessed; but if she succumbed too easily

Then I’d report to our Lord that she was not for Paradise.

This is occasionally couched in contemporary terms (‘Psychiatrists may learnedly insist’). It feels one part grisly period drama to two parts stricken meditation on the contemporary and the personal: that our talent, as human beings, is to justify to ourselves almost anything.



Rachael Allen in AMBIT 202 Autumn 2010:


Anthony Howell in The Ogre's Wife has an eye for disaffected modernity: his name-dropping and cultural references - 'I love Jennifer Lopez'; The bus arrives, / The one for Seven Sisters ... At the crowded fare-stage opposite Nationwide' - work as a haltingly familiar surveillance of the modern world.

Surveillance here is the operative word. Howell is a discreet but omnipresent worker, twisting forms so as to remain unseen - a camera above a city street, a glance into an un-curtained window - to give us the best view. 'Wittgenstein' is a sestina so brilliantly crafted that the form creeps up on you only in the last stanza, while the real meaning in 'How Sad Everything Is' hides behind exclamatory tones, mocking how 'Coca-Cola Lite' can appear so easily next to a supplement feature that shows 'off atrocities ... in Cambodia'.

In lying behind and disrupting his form, Howell avoids the position of Ancient Mariner-esque ramblings; if anything, he plays with the label of the ignored preacher: the title of the poem itself encapsulates a saturation of imagistic tragedy made meaningless by a media where Jennifer Lopez's arse holds as much worth as 'children in Africa' - a line spoken with such embarrassing familiarity and intended carelessness that you blush to even recognise it.

Howell is strongest when he has a form to work with: his sonnet, 'Ode to a Routine', is comfortable, drumming home disappointed modern living through strict seven-line stanzas, and in his title poem, as with his sestina, you don't see the form until you're a long way through.

Howell's watchful eye isn't limited to modern living. In 'Strawberry', his second poem, he draws the collection together through an exploration of the limits and importance of sight. The imagery is absurd at times, but we come to understand that a girl making a strawberry grow, just through watching it, is a comment from Howell that keen observation, something he has in bounds, is vital in a shifting world.



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