I bought The History of Tree Roots, Phil Howerton’s new book of poetry, a couple of weeks ago and have been leafing through it ever since. Like most books of poetry, it’s better read a few pages at a time.
Howerton’s specialty is the brief observational lyric, and his subject is the rural Ozarks. A native of Dallas County who now teaches at Missouri State University-West Plains, Howerton has an intimate knowledge of the artifacts of rural life and teases meaning out of them with understated patience: the rock-lined well, the sprouting fencerow, and as in the title poem, the exposed roots of a tree, “holding in place what little remains / of a soil that once held me secure.”
As that pair of lines indicates, the dominant mood in this book is one of loss. Not nostalgia for what is lost, but simple recognition of the loss and meditation on what is now missing. Howerton’s poems are not sentimental in the conventional sense, but they convey strong feelings by their insistence on attending to what is disappearing from Ozark life and what has – and has not – appeared instead.
The physical objects that are the subjects of many of these poems represent values that we associate with earlier generations of Ozarkers: stoicism, simplicity, family loyalty, and skill in the art of ‘making do.’ The poem “Abandoned Barn” recounts these values in the sad light of the barn’s abandonment. “Store against tomorrow / reap within reason, / return to the soil / more than what was taken. / A sheet of tin / roofing rises and falls / in the wind.”
But the Ozark way of life is not portrayed as a thing of unalloyed virtue; that tight-lipped stoicism can conceal provinciality and loathing of the nonconformist. Several poems meditate on old photographs. What is plumbed in these photographs is often the one who is looking away, the one whose expression reveals hidden longing, or the one who is never in the picture to begin with.
The newspaper where I used to work used to publish occasional poems sent in by subscribers, and the common thread in those verses was always the celebration of Ozark scenes and characters, hound dogs and porch-sitters, broomsedge and bloodroot. Phil Howerton takes these cliché-prone subjects and retrieves them by refocusing, changing the angle of view, and noticing the less-noticed.
“Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens famously wrote, and Howerton’s poems follow that dictum by paying attention to the ordinary things and people around him. And from his noticing, we discover that even ordinary things have un-ordinary depth.
The book is available from amazon.com, among others.
– Phil Howerton