Howell Lives On Through Poetry
In the spring of 2001, Emma Howell, then a sophomore at Oberlin College studying abroad in Brazil, died in a drowning accident at the age of 20. At Oberlin, she had majored in creative writing and studied languages intensively. As a poet, her work was what is usually called “promising,” but in actuality was already partly realized. She published her first poems while still in high school, and took full advantage of the opportunity to receive feedback from her creative writing professors. The tragedy of her early death, rather than silencing her talent, brings her work to the foreground nearly six years later with the December 2006 publication of a book of her poems, Slim Night of Recognition.
Howell’s father, Chris, a poet and editor himself, selected the poems for the manuscript with help from Howell’s mother Karen Checkoway, also an editor. Shortly after Emma’s death, both slowly began collecting poems from notebooks, computer files and e-mails sent to friends.
For six months after Howell’s death, Chris said, the poems “sat in my room, unopened.” When he finally began to read and assemble her work, it was “a kind of conversation…but [of course] it was not a conversation.”
The poems themselves, inextricable as they may be from the story of Howell’s death, are quite conversant, as one might say about a person who has learned a language well. Here, though, the word implies something else — the poems talk to, grapple with, question and whisper to themselves.
Howell wrote in “The Map”: “All I have to do is find the right skin, / my feather skin, and heft me up / into the world above this world /where a deep breath of tides is the only food. / But wait, wait, I am full of the land, / so loaded with the bones and the breaks of my / lovers and friends,…”
This forcible dividing of the self exists throughout the book, often followed by its unification, as in “Things to Do”: “Lay yourself down like a half-moon, / let the vagabond night take you. / Say round, palm-shaped prayers / for a life of all things already done.”
One could not try to immortalize Howell using her poems as mere vehicles — the breadth of awareness in Slim Night composes a voice that is challenging and present, not reducible to the single fact of her short life.
Nether Chris nor Checkoway want the book to be just a memorial gesture. It’s confusing, Chris noted, because as the editor, and of course as Howell’s father, it’s tempting for the public to focus on his process and feelings. But the book is, as Checkoway emphasized, “Emma’s baby.”
With the solidity of Howell’s own poetic voice, which needs no apologies or pushes, the question of how to raise that baby remains. How Howell would feel about the book, said Checkoway, crosses her mind often.
“She might be really pissed,” she confessed. After all, few parents gain the privilege of exploring their children’s inner lives — but again, few parents have such a sorrowful opportunity.
Because Howell’s poems were collected in many forms, as she rarely dated them, it was up to her father to decide which version was the finished one. Emma’s close friend, Rachael Sarto, said that she had seen some of the book’s poems as first drafts at Oberlin. These drafts — sometimes written on paper towels or the backs of receipts — made it clear that writing “was what she did,” noted Checkoway.
It is helpful to have Howell’s own text for a closer assessment of the voice that makes its way into the poems. Slim Night compiles work that is much less confident than one would expect of a 20-year-old — not because it does not know what it is doing, but because it allows doubt.
“When to stop? When to know which / word has entered its temple and locked me in?,” she wrote in “Just This.” The backdrop of the doubt, though, is a hidden spiritual logic, a knowledge that is broader than the poet as an individual. This logic emerges in lines like these: “All I have given I have given over under a false name / because they are the things that will follow me, they are / the way I know how many people I have been and how much / each of them has cost...”
This certain, faithful voice is what gives Howell’s work its agency and the book its ability to stand independently.
A book party and reading will take place at Mindfair Books on Saturday, April 28, at 3 p.m.