An extended epigraph to Stevie Howell’s second collection cites a “note in the window of a Mercedes,” from which the book takes its title: “Do not smash glass. I left nothing inside on purpose.” While the owner of the Mercedes hopes to protect his automobile, Howell seems to use the phrase as a comment on the confessional lyric, suggesting a vulnerability on the part of the speaker. “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken” reads another epigraph; Howell’s collection is an extended exercise in the inversion of public and private spaces, of interiors and exteriors.
I left nothing inside on purpose’s lyric stance is often contradictory and paradoxical. “Birding in Wolfville,” for instance, begins with marvellous anti-pastoral imagery: “Cormorants perch on PVC pipes / above the in-ground pool of the municipal / sewage lagoon.” The speaker here is less cynical than realistic, often admitting to a fundamental alienation, even in love, with the poem attempting to bridge distances: “I’m a prisoner / in this body. I’m alone in here. If you love me – write to me.”
In “Summerhill liquor store,” we read: “The dilemma / w/the poem is, I refuse to describe the tangible world in signs anymore. Since Google killed the lyric, all we have is inside (states, not traits).” What role remains for lyric poetry in a world in which social media has rendered all of us confessional, perhaps to a fault? What place does poetry have in a public sphere overwhelmed with opinion and cliché?
Howell writes, “On the internet people always say things like / will is one letter away from wall or / women is one letter more than omen — / do you know what to do w/that information?” One option would be to make this information into a poem. I left nothing inside on purpose suggests that, far from a redundant art form, poetry’s potential to create and reveal surprises in language remains more necessary than ever.