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A Poet's Legacy

Oberlin sophomore Emma Howell was only 20 when she died unexpectedly in June of 2001. A gifted poet who’d had her first works published by age 15, she majored in creative writing at Oberlin and studied Afro-Brazilian culture and dance. At Oberlin, her poetic voice flourished.

Friend and classmate Rachael Sarto ’03 describes Emma as “emotional and complicated. She had respect for her ancestors, and gratefulness for being alive. She took those things on and lived them, while reclaiming a relationship with her own Jewish heritage and a deepening of her place in the world.”

Emma’s parents were determined to bring their daughter’s work to fruition; they combed through her old notebooks, journals, and e-mail messages, eventually selecting 38 poems for her posthumous book, Slim Night of Recognition (Eastern Washington University Press, 2007). Emma’s father, writer Christopher Howell, wrote the forward to the book while her mother, Karen Checkoway, designed the cover.

The April launch of Slim Night was celebrated by family and friends gathered for a reading at MindFair Books in Oberlin. “It was moving to hear students read her work,” says Sarto. “It had an emotional weight with those of us who knew her, but when the students read her words, they were just poems – good poems.”

Royalties from Slim Night, which is already in its second printing, contribute to the annual Emma Howell Memorial Poetry Prize at Oberlin, which was established shortly after Emma’s death. Funds continue to be raised for an endowment in Emma’s name.

“You don’t always know if people will keep writing, but Emma, I’m sure, would have kept at it,” says book consultant Martha Collins, Oberlin’s newly retired Delaney Professor of Creative Writing. “Her surprisingly mature vision is always deep and often dark.”

“When the book arrived, it was like giving birth all over again,” says Checkoway. “But this is hers, what Emma has to give to the world, just as we had Emma to give to the world.”

Michael Kroner ‘07 contributed to this story.

My center of gravity
is the gut and gape of me
is the swallow’s pendulous
flight: empty, full, sips and gusts.

Sometimes I’m too full with words
to balance the wires and birds.

My mouth opens to catch air;
my body flags and fills with stars,
too heavy now, then too bright
to do anything but fly.

The south wind pulls my song out,
my arms spread to steady the sound;
I float down lightly, evening
humming – the world rises: coming.
-Emma Howell  


Emma Howell

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