On Christopher Howell’s “Listen” – Line Breaks and Harmonies


     Is it an empty house, the body alone
     with its weary old clothes
     or its bullet holes and severed arteries,
     last laugh still shining in its teeth?                         

     The road of answers leaps its ditch
     and descends a dusty hollow
     where nightbirds coo, Pass by, and the Angel
     of Nothingness does his nails.

     Often sky dazzles
     over the great breathing earth.
     Often of its own accord the grain begins again
     to simmer. Deep in the dark

     I find my wife's hand and listen
     as the blue trees bow and bend and I want my soul
     to tell about itself almost

     And it says I, too, am a traveler.
     Wait for me. 

GazeI first saw this poem on Verse Daily, but it appeared earlier in Christopher Howell’s Gaze (Milkweed Editions, 2012). (I also post this poem without anyone’s permission, but I hope no one minds. If you do, let me know.)

The poem opens with the beginning of a question, which is followed by a comma. This comma acts as a pivot because here the poem creates a balance on either side. The comma also sets up a metaphor and establishes the tenor and vehicle. The first line also sets up some of the sounds that help accelerate the poem forward. Those sounds are the T, long E, and the long O. You’ll also hear the Z/S sound in “Is.” And the  long E sounds on either side of the comma yoke together the “empty house” and “body alone.” So what this line does, on one level, is to ask, “Is ‘the body alone’ ‘an empty house’?”

The poem begins by asking this, and then continues to extend the metaphor in the next three lines. I also hear this tug and pull between between the short T sounds and the long vowel sounds or just long sounds in general. The poem starts quick – “It is an” and then we get that long em sound that’s rounded out with the P sound in “empty,” and this followed by the T and long E sounds. You can hear this type of play here and there in the poem, and most effectively in line 8, “of Nothingness does his nails.” The effect there is that the line starts quick with all the short syllable in “of Nothingness”. This abruptness then allows the reader to hear the necessary slow down effect that would accompany someone who “does his nails.” Doing your nails is something you do slowly. It implies slowness. It’s like the Angel of Nothingness is just leaning against a wall, hanging out, watching, and doing his nails.

But to those opening lines. The first line, as explained, behave as a balancing act, and its long O rhymes with the long O at the end of line two. Lines three and four also rhyme with the long E sounds in “arteries” and “teeth.” You’ll hear subtle rhymes like that some more in lines 6-9 with the L sounds, and then there are the S and T sounds that rhyme at the ends of lines 13-15, and if you want to hear the “th” in “anything” as a type of S sound, then there’s an additional rhyme sound. And of course, there’s the long distance rhyme of the long E in “me” at the end of the poem, which recalls the long E sounds in line one. The long E sound also occurs in a few more places, as it walks in the cellar of the poem’s sounds like a ghost. You can hear those long E s in lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 14, and 16.

Lines 3-5 also establish or reestablish the L, S, T, and long O sounds that continually appear and accelerate the poem forward on an harmonic level.

By why are lines 2, 3, and 4 breaking where they are? I think it is because each line is an image thought. Line two shows the body “with its weary old clothes,” which is a single image or the conclusion to the image in line one. Line three has two images, but they seem connected as both indicate an abusive entering into the flesh. Plus, you can’t sever arteries without making a hole.  Or maybe the bullet holes severed the arteries. Anyway, the violence of penetration holds those images together as an image thought. Line four is tight in sounds: three L sounds, the two AH sounds in “last” and “laugh,” the three S sounds and a fourth if you hear “th” as a type of S sound, the short I sounds in “still,” “ing,” “in,” and “its”, the two N sounds, and the four T sounds. All those sounds certainly get stuck in the teeth, so they can be pronounced again later. The fourth line ends the question that began in line one. Still, I wonder about the “last laugh.” Since “laugh” indicates a plural verb, then I wonder if the “last laugh” applies to both the house and body. So while line one established a metaphorical relationship around the comma (which means body and house are the same or as one) the verb tense in “laugh” actually makes them act as one.

What stanza one does, then, is to tell us why the title is “Listen.” We need to listen to the sounds and for an answer to the question. So, let’s continue listening.

Evel Knievel Snake River CanyonLine five is a good example of a line break behaving in the manner of its content. When you get to the end of line five, you are forced to leap over the ditch in your imagination. The line turn is the leap. I kinda feel like Evel Knievel over Snake River Canyon on this line turn, except this leap is successful. You can also hear the L sound that echoes to line four and that may be acting as a connecting sound between stanzas one, two, and three, especially since the L sound rhymes at the end of lines 6, 7, 8, and 9. In line five, the L sound has the feel of a discus or hammer thrower to me. It’s spinning in centripetal force from line to line and adding to the final acceleration of the poem. The S sounds in lines four and five provide a connective sound between the stanzas and lines, too, but it’s effect is bigger as its sound is almost in every line, and it is in every line except the last if you hear “th” as a type of S sound. The S sound is more like a drawstring that pulls the poem together tight.

Line six is the continuation of the actions of “answers” in line five. After it leaps, it must descend, and so it does in image and sound, a “low” sound. The early sounds in the line are higher in pitch than the “low” sound in “hollow,” so it really is a descent. And the low sound essentially continues in the next two lines, except for the two high-pithced long I sounds, and those low sounds feel of despair until the upbeat of “Angel.” Wait. Maybe there isn’t anything to despair after all. An angel is hope. It’s a good thing. Right? Nope. Oh, there’s a brief glimmer of hope on the line turn after “Angel,” but then it’s abruptly taken away with “Nothingness.” The “Angel of Nothingness.” Oh, despair can only be made more despairing when hope presents itself but fails or is taken away. (I wonder how much the capital “A” in “Angel” added to the hope. The capital “A” makes it a proper noun, a specific angel, and not just a generic angel. More hope can come with specificity. Plus, the capital “A” points to the sky like a mountain. Maybe we will rise from “a dusty hollow.”) So line five leaps, line six descends, line seven describes the hollow and offers hope at then end, and then line eight takes away that hope with a patient angel doing his nails, which I’ve discussed above.

In line nine, we hear the last of the L sound for four lines, but as we hear it, we also hear it and the Z sounds in “dazzles” rhyme with the L and Z sounds in line eight’s “nails.” The movement is connected by sound, but the images in the lines eight and nine are contrarian in their meanings. Line eight is patient and chill, and line nine is dazzling. Is that why the line ends there? to juxtapose at-easness with something that dazzles? And in the dazzle, the rhymes stop for a while, too. Also, the dominance of long vowels that were in the first two stanzas fades a bit. In this stanza, the consonants take dominance. It’s more of that tug and pull I mentioned above.

Line ten, like like six, continues the action of the previous line as we see where the dazzling occurs. Notice how slow this line moves, too. I imagine the earth breathes slow, too. Line eleven starts a new action – the grain beginning . . . something. The line has six trochees and ends on a stressed syllable. It’s the longest line in the poem with 13 syllables. It has five N sounds and ends with three G sounds. There are also two “in” sounds – “Often” and “begins” – But it looks like there are four with the repetition of “in” in “grain” and “again.” The “in” was set up in the previous line, so it has its echoes there, but it also recalls the two “in” sounds in line four. And it sets up the two “in” sounds in lines 12 and at the end of line 13. But back to line 10. Why is it so long? Rather, since it is the longest line, it draws attention to itself. It must be significant if it needs so many syllables to say something. I think it is because the tone of the poem is turning. In addition, I think this is where the metaphor we thought we had in line one becomes real. It turns out, in fact, that line one wasn’t performing as a metaphor. It was being literal. In other words, is it an empty house if there’s only one alone person in it? But we need that metaphor, so we can feel the aloneness and despair that accompanies an empty house. perhaps, the metaphor is literal and figurative. Perhaps, he is an empty house with only one alone person – himself –, and perhaps the house and himself weren’t empty when his wife lived with him, in him, and in the house. So line 11 is a volta, a turning. Something is rising instead of falling. Something is growing instead of dying. Line 12 answers affirms that something is growing. The grain simmers “Deep in the dark”, or the logic of the line tells us that. That is the image we get. But “Deep in the dark” will act in two different ways, and it achieves this because of a line break. The line break, now acting like the comma in line one, also creates another metaphor between seed in the dark and the wife’s hand “Deep in the dark.”

Line 13 connects to line 12, as described, by the hinging line break, but it also connects with the D sounds. “Deep,” “dark,” “find,” and “hand” are now connected. Line 13 also begins with four long I sounds in a row. It’s an elation. It’s the high-pitch of joy sound. “I find my wife’s.” The high joy and hastened pace in those first four words and syllables, lower and slow in the next four syllables. The pace drops off after the “d” in “hand.” It’s like there’s a slight caesura there. One might be tempted to put a line break after “hand.” It feels right, but then the change in emotion might be lost or not as strong. By not putting a line break after “hand,” the poem goes from elation to concentration in one line motion. It goes from happy to serious. The transition in emotion is seamless when on one line.

Line 14, like the second line in each of the previous stanzas, continues the action of the previous line. However, it doesn’t continue the action of what was in the preceding line (such as “the body alone,” “answers,” or “dazzles”), but it does continue the action of the scenery and mood of the previous line. Line 14 is also the longest line on the page, but not in syllables.  Lines 13 and 14 are also dominated by long vowels sounds – the long Is, the OO in “blue,” the long E in “tree,” the OW in “bow,” and the long O in “soul.” Long vowels tend to emote, and there’s a lot of emotion going on here. There’s also some tug and pull with the B, D, S, and T sounds, just like there was in the transition from joy to concentration in line 13.  I kind of want to hear the beginning of line 13 and the end of line 14 as the speaker being selfish or overly concerned with the himself. Line 13, as said above, begins with all those long I sounds, so how can you not hear the “I” of the poet especially when coupled with “I” and “my.” And then the end of line 14 also has “I” and “my.” But line 15 tells us that it’s not that he wants his soul, he wants his soul to tell him something about itself. He wants to listen. So this stanza is about listening. It’s about the title.

Line 16 is the shortest line on the page, but it has three syllables just like the last line. Those two lines speak to each other just as his soul speaks to him. Line 16 ends on a type of gasp or last wish that is kind of like “just tell me . . . anything.” But oddly, he doesn’t want to hear anything, he wants to hear “almost / anything.” There are some things he doesn’t want to hear. The worst of them would probably be to hear nothing, or the sound of an empty house, because then he would surely be alone.

Line 17 starts with “And” to recall the “hand” in line 13. Line 13 has one or two long vowels, depending on how your pronounce, but it’s dominated by  the T, S, and L sounds that we’ve heard so often before. Then after the line turn, in line 18, we return to the long vowels with the long A and long E. So not only to we have the tug and pull between long and short sounds in this line, there is also some tugging between line 18 and the three syllable “anything” in line 16.

GazeThis poem now as I hear it and think about it is about the tug and pull between life and the afterlife, between aloneness and the company of love, and it’s between listening to sounds and hearing nothing. It’s about patience. Patience like the Angle of Nothingness has in lines 7 and 8, and the patience of waiting for the soul and the afterlife to be with the loved one again.

Once again, I first saw this poem on Verse Daily, but it appeared earlier in Christopher Howell’s Gaze (Milkweed Editions, 2012). (I also post this poem without anyone’s permission, but I hope no one minds. If you do, let me know.)

For more about lineation and line breaks in general, please read “Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line,” a fun, conversational, an in-depth look at line breaks. //

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