Divided into three parts, or ‘lives’ (the afterlife, the other life, and the inner life), Gaze reads as one poet’s quest to recover a lost idea of home. Through color-soaked memories of childhood filled with characters we come to recognize (a grandfather, a mother, etc.), this collection is a palpable meditation on the lived life and mortality, a collection in which Howell is “holding our lives / in front of ourselves like/robins’ eggs” (“After Three Years”). Though neither entirely sentimental nor serious, the poems in this collection feel familiar and necessary; a homecoming we had not realized was long overdue.
Gaze begins and ends with these poems about coming home. “Home Stretch,” the first poem in the collection, introduces readers to the journey the speaker will take in this collection (“I’m coming home, but it’s a long way”) and physically locates the speaker inside a house (“my sparrow bone memory house / shaking its flags of welcome”). In the final poem, “Listen,” the speaker has at last arrived at his destination: “It is an empty house, the body alone.” But even after arriving home, the speaker does not give up the notion of being on a journey, and concludes with: “I, too, am a traveler. / Wait for me” (“Listen”).
Travel, quest, or the journey: this is what holds the collection together. The speaker seems constantly to be on the move, in search of home or an unrecoverable past, as in “Bon Voyage” where the speaker wonders what lies ahead and below, “coiled in the dark/beneath us?” Even when the speaker has nowhere in particular to go, as in “The Inner Life,” there is still an urgency to be on the move.
Perhaps the sense of journey has its root in mortality. Gaze is full of elegies for the dead and the speaker is aware of his own looming death, a death that is represented as a house that is not yet his house:
A huge old house, its grey stone lintels
Glistening with wet. In its courtyard ten thousand carriages
Burned with the moon’s chalk-white milk.
(“The House Was Not Our House”)
The motif of death occurs as frequently in the poems as the idea of homecoming, so that by the time the speaker concludes in the penultimate poem, “I woke again and again in the strangely empty house” (“I Wake Again”), the reader intuitively connects the house with the afterlife, a connection that Howell successfully forges in the progression of the collection.
The grandfather, the mother, the speaker himself also help unify the collection. The reader recognizes these characters as the same from narrative to narrative, just as the word blue appears at least 17 times, not to mention the countless references to rain, tears, ice, water, and the sky. Blue is perhaps a metaphor for the speaker’s sadness, his inability to find that idealized version of home. Indeed, as a collection, Gaze wonders:
come home at last
(“Four Prodigals in the Afterlife”)