Anthony Howell: Invention of Reality

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Anthony Howell’s first collection, Inside the Castle, came out in 1969. In 1973 he was invited to the International Writers Program in Iowa. In 1997 he was short-listed for a Paul Hamlyn award. His versions of the poems of Fawzi Karim were a PBS Recommendation for 2011. He was the founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and is editor of Grey Suit Editions.

Copies of his latest collection Invention of Reality are available here.


This collection, Anthony’s third from the High Window Press, demonstrates the stylistic range of his output. First, a sequence of dizains records the experience of a stay at Hawthornden Castle. After that, the reader embarks, as did the castle’s owner William Drummond, on a tour of Europe, returning to an England that prompts jaundiced satire. Finally there is an elegiac sequence dedicated to the author’s friend Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim – imaginary ‘versions’ of poems written from the afterlife.

N.B. Some of  Anthony’s versions of the poems of Fawzi Karim have featured in an earlier post from The High Window. You can find them by clicking on the poet’s name above. [Ed.]


Anthony Howell: Six Poems from Invention of Reality

Invention cover front


So what is civilisation? Being a ‘Listed Building’,
It can only be what it is: a homage to Jeremy Bentham.
Yet someday soon your working if panoptical jail
Will be transformed – a prison-themed hotel.
You can go there to serve time, as a paying inmate of course.

The black hole, the lockdown of your soul? Is this what you fancy now?
Want to bunk beneath the one who’s pissed
Through the mattress onto the bunk below?
Confess to whatever you decide you should be sentenced for.
We have a wing for each malfeasance. Choose from the drop down list.

Specify length of sentence. Hard labour, or something
Less energetic? What you’ve asked for’s what you get.
Once the papers are signed there’s no going back on the contract.
Life means life – if that is what you’ve said that you require.
The nick is such a growth industry we’re opening it up

To you, the hoi polloi, encouraging participation,
Fuelling your fantasies as perpetrators
Of category A offences. Of course you have to shell out
For your time, that is, for the time you serve.
Failure to cough up will be deemed a misdemeanour

Further extending your sentence – time for which
You will also be liable. We provide a brigade of snitches
Who will compliantly squeal on you and bring to light such crimes
As you considered ages ago. Ages and ages, but they’re in the know.
We’ve got the vacu-formed cells on our subterranean floor

Ready for you, Joe Public. Taken in by art and by literature,
Tolerant of difference: sex, race, creed, pronoun;
Laden with politics, living together, getting on together;
Living by laws, codes, issues like speech impediments
No longer targets for bullies, justice warriors’ pensions etc . . .

So what is barbarism? War . . . and incarceration.
Two booming traditions. Enterprises devoted to profitable
Anarchy. Looting. Pillage. Sweatshops behind bars.
The weapons racket. Love affair entrapment by Hephaistos.
Backtrack. This brothel has step free access.

Trudgery clocked as I enter the monastery of G Wing.
Hermitage for the vulnerable, haven from the talons of their prey
(Softened arms, dodgy jogging bottoms, stubbled hair).
And Harlequin’s clothing? When Leibniz invokes it
He’s pointing out that your outer garb is not the same as your underwear.


Some bastard spat his curse into my unresponsive mouth,
Since when I go unheeded in a land occupied by the enemy;
A land overrun by forces that threaten my friends.
I am living in a hostile land, land whose people wallow

In illusion. My government no longer represents me.
It celebrates a pretend citizenry that is prepared to swallow
Its fairy tales, its slanders, its all-too-opportune incidents.
Integrity demands I stand an opponent to this land

I have thought of as mine. Land where the news is a thing of the past,
Its folk in thrall to emotions puffed by reiteration.
The fakes have overwhelmed the museum. And perhaps
We are souls in the grip of machines, for hasn’t artificial

Intelligence already begun on its conquest? Turncoats to their own
Undertakings at the hustings, its puppets act in haste,
Obedient to their strings, and duly programmed to dictate
A blindly vicious policy. This cries out for exposure,

Marking me as a saboteur. Were I to denounce the Greeks
Who lurk within the belly of this presentation
I would be threatened with prosecution. I would be the enemy.
I would be Cassandra. A virgin with a depraved imagination.


They slip into us; take us, one at a time,
By the nape, fill us up to our throats.

Natty we look, and neat, as they show us off
Before going out for a night. And we work for them,

Terribly hard: pivoting, lifting our backs
Off the floor; our long, slim backs.

Wonders, we do, for a line, making them look taller
Than they are. If only it happened more often,

Even if we do give off a bit of a glow when it does.
Chosen though, we’re thrust into a deep dark place:

Put on at the last minute, taken off directly
At the close – and then it’s back, back into the place.

Why are they so mortified by our mere existence?
They’re the culprits, they are what’s rubbed off on us.


It’s fucking hard work being a beggar in Paris:
It takes more out of you than any conventional job
To scratch interminably and with increasing violence
At the old itch, to lie shivering in rags
On the pavement for twenty-four hours at a stretch,
To repeat the same sad spiel for centimes
In every blasted carriage, to sit as still as Buddha
In the cold pool of your piss, to develop
The irregular yet repetitive twitch outside
The Jardin du Luxembourg, to maintain your own
Menagerie, better than you at gaining people’s
Sympathy, to approach sufficient people
On the street for enough to buy a cigarette,
And to get well and truly anorexic – fucking hard
– You have to starve for that.


Is the street narrower than the car
Or is the car narrower than the gap
Between the cars parked in the street?
Is the street getting narrower

As she drives, and if it is, should
She reverse before the street
Turns into steps? Should she reverse
Between the cars parked in the street

Before the street gets narrower than
The gap? Is she getting narrower
Or is it the street? And as the gap
Gets narrower than the street is,

If the steps turn into street,
Should she reverse the street or the steps
Between turns into the street before
Head after head after head appears?

Should she reverse the gap narrower
Than the car gets? And, if it does get
Narrower than the cars parked head to head
As she goes in, is this street?


He backed into a plate-glass wall.
Of course he’d beg forgiveness of the Branch,
But at the same time, as the mighty sheet
Came down in a crystal avalanche,

No suppressing a gasp of delight
As the bombs drop away from their bay,
Taking out a listed building. Let the crowbars tip
The statues that have stood the test of centuries

Off obsequious pedestals. As the TNT
Reduces the temple of the ancestors
In one magnificent mushroom of annulment,
Why deny the thrill of getting caught red-handed

With her husband, sending their relationship
Into a tailspin? How could you not crack open
A deeply satisfied grin, as something
That had occupied a space was evidently gone.


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