Rich Murphy
Sailing Lines: Review of Spinnakers, by W. Scott Howard

It may be that W. Scott Howard creates poetry with a distinct project in mind; his books are focused and compact. In 2014, Howard and artist Ginger Knowlton collaborated to bring together lines of poetry and visual art in their chapbook, Ropes, published by Delete Press. Ropes gathers works from Howard and Knowlton that previously appeared in Diagram, Ekleksographia, word for / word, and in a letterpress broadside with image from Ėditions Moirė. That collection may remind the reader of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. However, in his second collection, Spinnakers, the poet works alone to present what I am tempted to call a tour de force, though the collection is 28 pages long.

Spinnakers was published by The Lune (Poets on Earth / LuNaMoPoLis) in 2016 as The Lune no. 18. The reminders in it that language is code and code is language—from the sketch on the cover, to the front material, to the back cover—are sails for catching the breath of the poet in these lines. With that, the publisher needs to be saluted as navigator. With blurbs (from Steve McCaffery and Jeanne Heuving) gathered within the front pages, breaths of recognition may be perhaps assisting Odysseus, though we will be disabused of that hero later in the book. The introduction (by Ryan Wade Ruehlen) offers the tools that Joseph Campbell speaks of for initiates embarking into the unknown (and we are going into the unknown). The importance of the sonictexts and Thomas Merton’s epigraph brings completion to the voyage and destination of “soloists.” The curving rhythms of the pages—the compressed English, the Morse code translations, the chosen words and their erasures on alternate pages along with each line beginning and ending with an anagram—for me are the oakum caulking that holds together the steamed timbers of the book while keeping most of the sea out.

Each poem is a two-page assemblage of protest and prayer. What makes each of these prose poems appear an enigma and its words as objects is the compression that the poet uses to compose. These poems avoid punctuation, unnecessary articles, and make use of linguistic inventions, irony, puns, etc. to great effect, so that the words do look like objects. One’s eyes travel across a word or phrase as though walking on thin surfaces where nimble movement is needed so as not to fall through. Should one fall through the “fuselage fractures used past taut / cattle-car stimulus[,]” one finds that it ain’t any “simulcast” of convention or cliché poem or line, but a “meh” solitude. You own it now, kid. And fall into the empty hold of the word one can’t help but do, and the fall is the sublime for this dancer. However, patience and practice bring the reader to anger, frustration, remorse—not simply the poet’s, though that may be the most sorrowful—for any vocalist of the world’s cultures.

There is not Ithaca though, no open-armed Penelope to call home. Nitrogen fixes all here. No, what one finds is a compass pointing to a “dystopian thither”—a “hollow hallowed monoculture sowing yr doh awe loll howl[.]” No Ulysses for Rome. No Leopold and Molly making do. The unknown lays ahead without metaphor or irony and poets ordered to hold their breath.

This book has even more ways to bring home that language is code, as is the Morse that communicates translations of the prose poems and their erasures. These transcoding can also be heard transmitted anew via Howard’s Sound Cloud page. It is here that placing the Merton epigraph at the end of the book is so powerful. Where do we start a voyage outside ourselves if we are unable “to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” It is this closing opening that provokes this reader to start again, to recognize my world and what it has become.

If the postmodern reader should find this journey a chilly one with the wind howling at the sheets, I have on good authority that there is a personal note: the International Morse is a gesture of love & remembrance for Howard’s father, who was a Navy pilot during WW2. For the poet, Spinnakers takes him back to his place and early years of origin (New England / the Atlantic), to his formative decades along the Pacific coast, to his current middle-years in the middle of the US, and beyond. The book is an invocation to sailing lines upon our troubled waters—no small craft.