David Howard

The Last Word

At a Reading Desk by Frederic Leighton

in the beginning was the Word

I prefer the quiet of water striders
or the stream’s formless discourse
the way wind scans and scales it

I admire the dandelion’s change of heart
how it goes to ground
after spreading its seed


Today I need to
.            retreat from literature
.            but your spectre licks my lips
for an elegy.
.                        I imagine
poetry as the figurehead
.            upon a hulk: it fronts up
          to the estuary mud
where petrel dotterel whatever

nest. Once words were the first
          petals in the Mayflower’s calyx
.            and it carried me away
to a new world;
                      now the tide’s out
that flower’s dried. Butterflies suck
.            mineral salts from the estuary
.            and pastoral conventions mend fences
no child climbs for an apple.


The garden swing still
misses you: it goes
over old ground
at double time. Without
our daughter I doubt
.                        now if
I’d get through to you.
(But pupae of the gall midge
hatch eggs in their ovarioles;
larvae fritter the maternal
wall to this indifferent light.)

Shadow is your understudy –
an armband that gags
better than any wedding ring
a tender Yes…
.            The familiar face
in a fantastic picture,
a girl inherits the family
plot. She hoards
weeds for their seeds
and will never be
.            empty-handed.
Streamlined like the silverfish
I find under piles of papers
she is
    the last word: she…


About the writer:
David Howard is a New Zealand poet. His books include The Incomplete Poems (Cold Hub Press, 2011), which was 35 years in the making, and The Ones Who keep Quiet (OUP, 2017). He edited A Place To Go On From: the Collected Poems of Iain Lonie (OUP, 2015). He has held the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University (2013), the Otago Wallace Residency (2014), a UNESCO City of Literature Residency in Prague (2016), the Ursula Bethell Residency at Canterbury University (2016), The Writers’ House Residency, Pazin Croatia (2017), the Grimshaw Sargeson Residency, and a UNESCO City of Literature Residency in Ulyanovsk (2019).

Image: At a Reading Desk by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). Oil on canvas. 63.2 x 65.1 cm. 1877. Public domain.