After the raging is a timely collection. Squarely situated in the Bradford of her upbringing but intimately connected to her Polish and Irish roots, Barbara Howerska demonstrates that belonging to ‘somewhere’ does not preclude an international outlook. Place and family are joined by memory and affection for ordinary lives as recurrent themes. Colour and taste, too, bring a sensuous dimension to poems that are boldly lit in magenta and aquamarine and flavoured with Polish vodka and pickles. Howerska is not afraid to engage with a broader perspective, as demonstrated by poems about Martin Luther King and the legacy of European fascism. There is the sense, too, that the worlds come together, making the personal political, with lovers ‘pushing against the old order’ and ‘women’s bodies fight[ing] the line’. This is a collection for lovers of poetry that is humane and vivid but firmly grounded in the everyday.
Barbara Howerska’s poems are devoid of the artifice of poetization, and where there is rhyme it rises naturally from the body of the plain language of ordinary people. She writes in the spirit of the early romantic poets and approaches Wordsworth’s goal of describing the lives of simple people in the language of the poor. She draws in the shadows of a dim and darker past, of war and Nazi domination, doing this by obtuse reference and allusion. This body of poems brings a new voice and a new style to narrative poetry, fusing past and present, the different cultures of Poland, Ireland and Britain and, bridging ignorance and suspicion, greets, ‘the long dead ghosts of a deeper brown’.
Barbara Howerska’s The Widow Witch overflows with colour and wild flowers. However, the colours are not always what they seem (‘what colour is the colour – scapegoat ?’) and if you dig deep enough in the flower meadow, you’ll unearth some nasty political growths we thought had been consigned to history (‘all the time, it’s been there, hidden’). Like Brecht, Howerska looks for the bad new things but does so with compassion and acute observation – sometimes the detached eye of an Edward Hopper but more often the amused affection of a Victoria Wood. There are much-loved performance pieces; poems that document troubled lives and everyday experience; a celebration of Rosa Parks that channels the spirit of Woody Guthrie; personal poems where emotions pivot on a sixpence like in some old ballad; and, in the title poem, the dreamlike re-telling of Slavic myth. This is a collection that shapeshifts like the spirits of the Polish forest.
Barbara Howerska’s collection is packed with punch, wit, and politics. She creates brilliantly observed character portraits in real situations: the nail bar, the street market, the train, refugees in war; and then flips us into rhythmic chants from mythic times and places. Her versatility of style, and the diversity of themes she tackles are amazing. A collection to be savoured, and do catch Howerska in performance where her tenderness and fierceness mix in a wonderful heady brew.