REVIEWED BY ANDREW BURTON
Matt Howard (The Rialto Press: 2018)
As a teenager, inspired by a wonderful French teacher who encouraged us to read Jean Giono’s ‘Pan’ trilogy of ‘return to nature’ books, I became obsessed with the natural world, its rhythms and seasons, and with how close observation of our environment could reveal marvels within. I dug clay from a local riverbank and fired rudimentary slab pots in a makeshift kiln. I foraged for wild food. And, at some point, I discovered how to make my own ink. I’ve no idea how I stumbled across this information in those far-off pre-Internet days but it turns out that if you finely crush oak apples (the common name for the wasp gall which is found on oak trees) then mix the resulting powder with ferrous sulphate and a bit of gum arabic, you end up with your very own ink!
When I started reading Matt Howard’s luminous debut poetry collection Gall, I was instantly drawn to the poem ‘Gall Ink’ as I’d never come across a poem before which took this as its subject matter. This single poem illustrates Matt’s poetic voice; it is direct and accessible but constantly shifting, like a woodland walk through dappled shade which alters your sense of perspective at every turn. ‘Gall Ink’ starts:
‘The first arse-end backing up to an oak bud
to lay its egg with a squeeze, was a drop in a well,
an epochal and aeonic punt...’
The poem goes on to describe the formation and growth of the gall before, suddenly, its inky potential erupts:
‘...Noting mixable astringent qualities
someone arrives at iron, water, gum arabic
then I must get this down so starts scratching it all out
on the inside of a goat’s or calf’s skin,
an inky flow of wasp-flared oak tissues...’
This collection’s poetic voice is so assured, playful and inventive that it seems remarkable it is the poet’s first collection. The poems range from the strangely disconcerting (e.g. ‘A Jar of Moles’) to the luminous (e.g. ‘The Drawer of Kingfishers’ with its unforgettable description of the eponymous bird as a ‘...water-bracer; hilt of a king’s stiletto...’).
In some ways, the poems are in conversation with those of Ted Hughes, especially the ones focusing on fish (e.g. ‘Three Weeks into a Heat Wave’ with its ‘...quicksilver pulse of roach or rudd...’) but they also sit alongside the work of some of our most celebrated nature writers, including Kathleen Jamie and Alice Oswald. Highly recommended.
Matt Howard will be talking to Suffolk Book League at an event on Wednesday 5th July 2023.
You can buy tickets here: https://www.suffolkbookleague.org/events-1/matt-howard